During a recent flight from San Francisco to New York, the aircraft encountered rough air while making its descent into John F. Kennedy (JFK) Airport. The flight attendant began to speak on the intercom and informed all passengers to return to their seats and fasten their seat belts. He also added “don’t worry, the pilots are trained for this”. I thought to myself that it is good because if they are not, then we have a big problem on this plane. Thinking back on it today, I have come to realize that passengers place an enormous amount of trust in the hands of pilots across the globe every day. When we board an aircraft, we are confident that the people in the cockpit are sufficiently trained to do the job required of them. Air travel in the United States is the safest it has ever been with incidents becoming rarer by the day. But the reality is that there is always a certain level of risk associated with flying. On January 30, 1974, ninety-one passengers boarded Pan American (“Pan Am”) Flight 806 at Auckland International Airport in New Zealand for the short flight to Pago Pago International Airport, American Samoa. The aircraft was staffed with ten-person flight crew who were seasoned employees in the aviation industry. As the aircraft made its final approach to Pago Pago, it crashed short of the runway. Though the passengers survived the crash landing, eighty-seven of them perished as fire and smoke engulfed the plane. The disaster remains one of the worst accidents in commercial aviation history. This is the story of that crash and its relevance to air travel today.
Prior to reading the book I knew nothing of Flight 806. Of course, the name Pan Am is legendary in air travel. Though now defunct, it was once an airline that held a world-wide reputation for class and efficiency. My brother has two bags with its logo that he travels with today. But as author William Norris shows, the company was not above skirting rules and regulations. And when backed into a corner, profit and reputation took priority over the lives of those who died at the hands of pilots employed by the airline. After providing background information on the flight crew, the story moves forward as we learn about notable passengers on the flight. Through fate, they are destined to board Flight 806 which was routine, but the final approach turned into a nightmare and by the time emergency crews arrived on the scene, dozens of passengers met a grisly fate as they remained trapped on the aircraft. In the aftermath of the crash, litigation commenced, and the details of what transpired serve as the basis for this book that exposes the truth about a crash that should have been avoidable. The author makes a statement quite early in the story that sets the tone of the book:
“Judge Matthew William Byrne Jr. ordered the records of Petersen, Phillips, and Gaines to be kept from the jury and put under seal, and he consigned them to room 64G. Which is where I found them.”
As someone who works in the legal field, my eyebrows became raised. Documents are placed under seal typically is exceptional circumstances. It became clear to me that the information contained in those records was highly damaging to the reputation of Pan Am and the pilots on Flight 806. I had no idea what was to come as the book progressed. Years ago, during a conversation with a former attorney regarding the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. (1960-1999), he said to me “in the air the margin for error is very slim”. I have never forgotten those words and they certainly apply here. Lawyers for all sides inevitably become involved and I thought to myself what could Pan Am’s defense be? Barring any malfunction with the aircraft, the next conclusion typically reached is pilot error. However, Pan Am was not going to let that happen if possible and the lengths it went to during the trial are nothing short of astounding. Readers may find themselves seething with anger as the legal drama plays out. Sadly, the people who ended up suffering are those who were on the plane or lost their loved ones in the crash.
A disturbing fact that becomes known is that dozens of passengers remained on the aircraft even though they were alive on impact. You may be thinking “planes have multiple exits in case of emergency”. That is correct but why did the emergency doors not open on this flight? That is just one of several questions that lawyers for the victims tried to find answers to. The first course of action would have been to examine the wreckage, however that proved to be an issue in the case of Flight 806. Readers will be aghast at the attitude towards evidence by Pan Am and the names Robert Benedict and United States Aviation Insurance Group will be seared into their minds by the book’s conclusion. Benedict is a pivotal character in the book but far from the only one. To the victims, the case was simple: what was Pan Am going to pay to compensate them for their injuries and losses? If the airline had its way, that number would have been zero. In its defense, it spared no amount of money as expert after expert takes the stand promoting outlandish theories that even laypeople would balk at. To be fair, the airline knew it would have to pay and did attempt to do through Benedict. Shockingly, those who professed to be “for the victims” exercise questionable discretion that readers may find mystifying and distasteful.
Due to the nature of the incident, aircraft safety became a critical issue during the trial. The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) is the governmental agency responsible for ensuring that you and I reach our destinations safely each time we fly. However, the FAA and its regulations are part of a larger picture. Airlines are also responsible for maintaining strict maintenance schedules and enforcing safety procedures. But as we learn from the book, Pan Am’s internal system of operation was in dire need of overhaul. A chilling example of its malfunctioning safety program is summed up in this quote by the author regarding evidence disclosed during the trial:
“It was simple, it was direct, and it proved to be the most important single piece of evidence in the whole trial: when Pan American sent Flight 806 into Pago Pago loaded with excess fuel, to crash and burn and to take the lives of ninety-seven people, the company was flaunting its own regulations.”
These words sent a chill down my spine and highlighted the danger that accompanied air travel less than fifty years ago. Throughout the trial, a dark cloud hovered over the proceedings. And the question remained, was the flight crew negligent in its actions? The legal maneuvers executed by the lawyers are exhausting and readers may stare in disbelief while they read the accounts of the arguments put forth by attorneys for Pan Am and the United States itself. Testimony from former pilots, radar operators, engineers and those aboard the flight adds complexity to the story but, the jury had the final word. And its verdict had a profound impact on the airline industry and Pan Am.
Today we often take for granted the improvements in safety and the advancements in technology that have made flying the safest it has ever been. However, complacency has no place in air travel and mistakes do cost lives. The passengers and crew of Flight 806 know this all too well. Norris’s account of the impact of Flight 806 is beautifully written and well-researched. I can only imagine the range of emotions he must have felt as dark truths were uncovered during his research. Those truths explain why Judge Byrne ordered the records sealed from the public. The lives of Flight 806’s eighty-seven passengers and nine crewmembers who perished are gone forever. But this book may prove to be an invaluable tool in preventing similar disasters in the years to come. This is the story of Pan Am Flight 806 and the tragic repercussions of willful misconduct.