Black Box: All-New Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts of In-Flight Accidents

Black Box: All-New Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts of In-Flight Accidents

by Malcolm Macpherson

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Readers join desperate pilots in the cockpit as they fight gravity and time in a plane that's falling out of the sky.

Anyone who watches the news knows about the "black box." Officially called the cockpit voice recorder, the black box (which is actually Day-glo orange) records the final moments of any in-flight accident. Often it provides the only


Readers join desperate pilots in the cockpit as they fight gravity and time in a plane that's falling out of the sky.

Anyone who watches the news knows about the "black box." Officially called the cockpit voice recorder, the black box (which is actually Day-glo orange) records the final moments of any in-flight accident. Often it provides the only explanation of a crash — inevitably, it provides a heart-breaking, second-by-second account of intense fear tempered by unyielding professionalism.

This 1984 Quill title has been completely updated to include twenty-eight new incidents occurring between 1978 and 1996. Some are famous, like the 1996 Valujet crash in the Everglades and the ill-fated launch of the space shuttle Challenger; other disasters range from commuter prop aircraft to jumbo airliners and a pair of Air Force planes. Few have ever been revealed in their entirety, each, without exception, is absolutely gripping.

In this new edition, editor Malcolm MacPherson has, wherever possible, added weather notes and descriptions of events in the cockpit and cabin, heightening our vivid sense of being there during the final moments. Provided by the National Transportation Safety Board and vetted by an experienced airline captain, these are unforgettable case studies in ultimate emergency — authentic, immediate, filled with drama, terror, human frailty and error, and unquenchable courage.

Editorial Reviews

Ronald Jones
The book, a series of cockpit voice recorder transcriptions of in-flight accidents, begins where the waiting ends... it is the sober host of raw but spellbinding moments when human beings realize their last few seconds have arrived.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.52(d)

Read an Excerpt

August 2, 1985

Delta Air Lines Flight 191

A Delta Air Lines Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, Flight 191, was on final approach into Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, from Fort Lauderdale- Hollywood, Florida, when it encountered heavy thunderstorms. While approaching Runway 17L, the crew could see flashes of lightning in a cumulonimbus cloud. The TriStar, with a crew of 11 and 152 passengers, stayed on the approach despite the rain and wind. At 6,300 feet from the end of the runway, the TriStar entered a low-level microburst, which created massive wind shear. At that time, the crew lacked definitive, real-time training to learn to avoid and escape low-level wind shear. Caught by surprise, the crew could only sit helplessly. As with other crashes, the double tragedy of Delta 191 was the ignorance of the crew. They simply did not understand the nature of wind shear.

We start the CVR at the moment when the Tower asks another Delta jet-Flight 963-to change direction. That crew demurs, because it sights the thunderstorms ahead. The cockpit crew of Delta 191 hears the exchange.

DALIAS-FORT WORTH TOWER: Delta Nine six three, I got an area twelve miles wide [that] all the aircraft are going through. All the aircraft are going through there. [It's a] good ride. I'll have [you] turn back in before you get to the weather [thunderstorms].

Now the captain and copilot of Delta 191 can be heard on the cockpit tape.

COPILOT:It would be nice if we could deviate to the south of two five zero.

CAPTAIN:Somebody [Delta Flight 963] just ahead of us tried and they wouldn't let them do it. They're working a twelve-mile corridor. The airplanes that have been goingthrough there have been all right.

TOWER:Delta One nine one, descend and maintain one zero thousand [10,000 feet], altimeter two niner niner one.

FLIGHT ENGINEER: Think that might have been for us, guys.

CAPTAIN:[To Tower] Sorry, was that for Delta One nine one?

TOWER:One nine one, descend and maintain one zero thousand, the altimeter two niner niner one, and suggest now a heading of two five zero. . . . We have a good area there to go through.

CAPTAIN:Well, I'm looking at a [microburst] cell at about heading, ah, two five five, and it's a pretty good-size cell, and I'd rather not go through it. I'd rather go around it, one way or another.

TOWER:I can't take you south. I got a line of departures to the south. I've had about sixty aircraft go through this area out here, ten . . . twelve miles wide. They're getting a good ride. No problems.

CAPTAIN:Well, I see a cell now about heading two four zero.

TOWER: Okay. . . when I can I'll turn you. It'll be about the zero one zero radial.

COPILOT:[To captain]He [the Tower] must be going to turn us before we get to that area [of thunderstorms and cells].

CAPTAIN:Put the girls down [tell the flight attendants to be seated].

CABIN:[Sound of chime]

About three minutes later, the crew questions the experience of the controller in the tower.

CAPTAIN:Getting kind of hot in the oven with this controller. See? That's what the lack of experience does. You're in good shape. I'm glad we didn't have to go through that mess. I thought sure [the controller] was going to send us through it.

FLIGHT ENGINEER: Looks like it's raining over Fort Worth.


TOWER:Attention, all aircraft listening . . . There's a little rain shower just north of the airport and they're starting to make ILS approaches.Delta 191 descends through 7,000 to 5,000 feet. After completing more pre-landing checks, the pilot sees the storm out the window.

TOWER:Delta One nine one, turn left heading one nine zero, and I'll turn you right back on [downwind] in just a second.

CREW:All that screwing around for nothing.

COPILOT:We're going to get our airplane washed [with rain].


COPILOT:We're going to get our airplane washed.For the next three minutes, Delta 191 lines up for approach and landing.

TOWER:And we're getting some variable winds out there due to a shower on short out there, north end of DFW [Dallas-Fort Worth].CREW [unidentified, either captain or copilot]: Stuff [thunderstorm] is moving in.

CAPTAIN:One six zero is the speed.

CAPTAIN:Tower, Delta One nine one, out here in the rain. Feels good.

FLIGHT ENGINEER: Landing gear [down].

TOWER:Delta One ninety-one heavy, One seven left, cleared to land, winds zero nine zero at five gusting to one five.

COPILOT:All right. Landing gear?

CAPTAIN:Down, three green [confirmation that gear is down].

FLIGHT ENGINEER: Flaps, slats.

COPILOT:Straight through eighteen [1,800 feet].

CABIN:[Sound of altitude-alert horn]

COPILOT:There's lightning coming out of that one [cloud].


COPILOT:There's lightning coming out of that [cloud].


COPILOT:Right ahead of us. We're too late.

TOWER:[To a Delta flight on the taxi way ]Delta Ten sixty-one, cross One seven right without delay, ground point six five after you cross.

DELTA 1061: Say again, Ten sixty-one.

TOWER:Ten sixty-one, cross One seven right, ground point six five.

CAPTAIN:How about the DME [Distance-Measuring Equipment]?

COPILOT:Well, you haven't had it for the last five minutes.

TOWER:[To other taxiing airplanes] Delta Nine sixty-three and American Six nineteen, cross One seven right, ground point six five, after you cross.

Up to this point in the flight, neither the passengers nor the crew have a hint of what is to come,~ as far as the passengers are concerned, their flight is nearly over. The crew is probably feeling some anxiety about the weather, but because other flights have landed safely only minutes in front of them, they do not appear to be overly worried.

FLIGHT ENGINEER: A thousand [feet].

COPILOT:One thousand feet.

CAPTAIN:Watch your speed.

TOWER:[To a taxiing aircraft] American One six six, contact Departure.

Now the Delta TriStar enters the microburst and the windshear.

CAPTAIN:You're gonna lose it all up, push it way up~

COPILOT:[Pull] way up.

CAPTAIN:Way up. Way up.

CABIN:[Sound of engine, high rpm]

CAPTAIN:That's it. Hang on to the son of a bitch.

COPILOT:What's the Vee ref?

TOWER:[To a taxiing aircraft] American Five eighty-six, taxi into position and hold One seven right.

AMERICAN 586: Position and hold.

CABIN:[Ground-proximity warning, mechanical: "Whoop, whoop! Pull up!"]

CAPTAIN:TOGA [go around, abort landing approach]!

CABIN:["Whoop, whoop! Pull up!" Sound of go-around initiation; beeps]

CAPTAIN:Push it way up!


Delta 191 hit the ground 6,300 feet short of the runway. It then slid along the ground and struck a car on a highway, collided with two water tanks, broke up, and burst into flames. Eight of the 11 crew died. Twenty-six of the 152 passengers survived the crash.

Meet the Author

Malcolm MacPherson is a seasoned novelist and journalist who lives with his family in Greensboro, North Carolina.

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