The flight-sim recreation above is based on this episode of AIR DISASTERS
. More info at Wikipedia
It's more than images. It's more than words on a page. It happened. It's horrible. And it can teach us about storytelling.
"July 19, 1989"
The WHERE and the WHEN. Establish without delay.
"United Airlines Flight 232, a DC-10, en route from Denver to Philly, stopping in Chicago"
THE PLAN: fly safely from Denver to Philly. This sets the audience's expectations. We understand what will happen if everything goes to plan. But if all goes to plan, and the end result is the expected result, what we have is not a story but a non-story.
OUR HEROES. The captain. The co-pilot. The flight engineer. All veterans of the flight cockpit. The lives of these passengers could not be in better hands.
THE STAKES. Almost 300 passengers. But here's the kicker: it's Children's Day at United Airlines. Today, kids fly for a penny. So there's an unusually high proportion of children on board: 52. A lot of these kids are traveling alone. Please keep that in mind while you watch the flight-sim recreation.
CATASTROPHE. In script terms, we hit the INCITING INCIDENT and we hit it HARD. That plan we all agreed on? Forget about it. Flying to Philly would've been nice, but you know what's better? NOT DYING. In a heartbeat the needle tracking the fortune of our crew and passengers plunges from positive to deeply negative.
COPING. Our heroes reel from the unforeseen event: a tail engine failure has knocked out the hydraulics — all hydraulics, including the backup systems. Not supposed to happen but — That. Just. Happened.
IMMEDIATE THREAT. Now impossible to steer, the plane twists to the right, shedding altitude. The crew must get the wings level and do it NOW. If they don't, the plane will turn turtle. This is the first of several TICKING CLOCKS our heroes must race to beat. The captain shuts off the wrecked tail engine. They quickly consult the manuals. Nothing. Nobody planned for this impossibility.
SOLUTION. If they can't steer with flaps and hydraulics, maybe they can steer with the healthy engines. It's called differential thrust: throttle up on the dipping right-wing engine and throttle down on the left-wing engine. It's crazy. It's dangerous. And it works. The pilots nudge the plane level. The immediate threat is over. Now they can deal with the ultimate problem: how to land this plane and save lives.
NEW STORY QUESTION: Will everybody die? The crew earned our trust, respect, and empathy by responding smartly and selflessly to the sudden, overwhelming threat. Most importantly, these heroes have given the passengers (and us) hope. We believe they have a chance to save the day. Now we really care. Hope and love are the twin elixirs that hold back the eternal black nothing. Will this story end in light or darkness?
IMMEDIATE THREAT. The plane starts to pitch down. Without any stick control the only way to lift the nose is apply more engine thrust.
SOLUTION. So that's what the pilots do. It solves the dive problem but creates a new one: how can the plane land if the only thing keeping the nose up is speed? When building story, most of the time you'll want to deploy a solution that works but creates a new, worse problem, like here.
NEW PLAN. The crew know they must land, and soon, before they run out of altitude. They call in their emergency and head for the nearest airport: Sioux City, Iowa. The flight attendants prepare the cabin for a crash landing.
IMMEDIATE THREAT. The plane starts to climb. It will stall if this continues. The two good wing engines are keeping the plane aloft. If they stop it's game over. The captain knows what to do: he eases the throttle. The plane slows. The nose dips. And dips. Now they're diving again. He throttles up carefully. The plane straightens. Another crisis over, at the cost of too much altitude. If this happens again they won't make it to the airport 55 miles away.
EXECUTING THE NEW PLAN. The radio tower instructs them to turn left on a new vector. They can't do that. The plane only wants to go right, which they continuously counter with differential thrust. But they must turn left to have any chance of reaching the runway.
SOLUTION. Using the two good engines, the pilots relent and allow the aircraft to twist to the right. They figure a full circle going right is less risky than fighting the plane to force it left. As they turn and lose speed the nose pitches down again, complicating the maneuver and spending more precious altitude. Sioux City is still 40 miles away.
ACT THREE (midpoint)
NEW DEVELOPMENT. A flight attendant informs the captain about a DC-10 flight instructor on board who wants to help. The instructor joins the crew and takes on the delicate job of working the engine controls.
EXECUTING THE PLAN. Sioux City crawls into sight. This is it. Ten minutes and 9,000 feet of altitude until they attempt to land. They can't cut engine power or the plane will nose dive. But the plane can't land safely at this ridiculous speed. All the captain can do is connect the plane with the ground and hope for the best. As they approach death, the men joke among themselves. It's not the joking you and I indulge in daily. It's the camaraderie of men who together face the unthinkable and give their all only to learn their all is not enough.
There is no panic here. Everything that could be done has been done. There will be no new development, no new plan. There will be only an ending. In script terms we have reached the end of Act 3: the moment of greatest despair.
The captain decides to tell the passengers the truth about what's happening:
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Al Haynes speaking. As you are probably aware right now, we are having some control difficulties with the plane. We're attempting an emergency landing in Sioux City. We'll be landing in approximately eight minutes. We've got about as much control over the plane as we can get. But I need you to understand that this is going to be a crash landing. Please review your emergency procedures. This is going to be worse than anything you have been through before. You need to be ready. We will do everything within our power to get everybody to the ground. But we need your cooperation."
EXECUTING THE PLAN. Speed remains everyone's biggest concern. To bleed some of it, the pilots decide to manually lower the landing gear. Without the hydraulics there's no way to tell if the gear will lock into place. From here on it's entirely up to gravity. If the gear doesn't lock then the plane will inevitably disintegrate on landing. It works. The gear deploys successfully and creates enough drag to slow the plane marginally. They're still going 70 knots faster than any safe landing speed. The plane is 16 miles from the terminal. Passengers have just a few more minutes to come to terms with the probable end of their lives.
Remember now the 52 children. Remember those among the 52 children travelling alone. If you do — if you truly do — this is the moment when, as a writer, you roll your chair back from your desk and you sit there quietly and you think long and hard about life and literature, art and artifice, about entertainment and experience, and joy and pain. This is a true story. No writer will ever capture on that page and no director will ever capture on that screen one tiny sliver of truth about how 52 children faced death on that day in that sky. Frankly, that's a relief. A truth like that would irreparably break the best of us.
Back in the cockpit, the crew strap themselves in. There's one more circling maneuver to make to align the plane with the runway. Then it's full throttle again to keep the nose up and the plane in the air. Despite the plane's frightening airspeed, it's dropping 1,600 feet per minute.
TWO MINUTES UNTIL TOUCHDOWN. In their final moments, the crew manage a chuckle when the tower clears them for any runway — as if choice of runway was something up for consideration!
They're coming in too fast but they can't delay. They'll get one chance to land. Even if they do manage to land, how will they stop? Yes, they'll attempt to brake and apply reverse thrust, but without steering and without hydraulics how effective will that be? No pilot has ever landed a DC-10 at this speed or without flight controls.
THIRTY SECONDS FROM TOUCHDOWN. As the runway rushes up at them, Captain Haynes yells, "Brace, brace, brace!" The nose dips again and the plane collects more unwanted speed.
TOUCHDOWN. The plane shears and crumples with the force of a hundred high-speed train wrecks. Choking black smoke and white-hot flames erupt from the shattering, cartwheeling fuselage. After the ground has swallowed the tumbling wreckage's massive energy, more than a third of the occupants are dead. But almost two-thirds are alive. Somehow this wonderful crew of flight professionals shielded 185 men, women, and children from certain death.
THE END. What final note do we pluck? Triumph or tragedy? Hope or despair? Here, the best of life and the best of fiction come together. The answer: a bit of both. In tragedy lies comfort and connection. In hope we find power and purpose. Done right, movies give us all that and more.
This 13-minute flight-sim recreation delivers, with its cartoonish computer graphics and its plain subtitles, all the elements of great storytelling. Okay, maybe not ALL, but certainly everything necessary for a compelling story. High stakes. Ticking clocks. Overwhelming misfortune fringed with a glimmer of hope. Relationships forged in the heat of conflict. Constant escalating problems beyond those our heroes trained for and the clever solutions the heroes concoct. A hopeful ending that comes at a heavy price. There's more to it, yes, but give me a movie with these things and I'll walk away satisfied.