Dissecting an air crash

from flights to the continent

Jai Arjun Singh / New Delhi June 30, 2007
Your regular TV columnist is on a wedding break, so I’m filling in. I wouldn’t have been able to do this a couple of months ago because I hardly watched any television back then — but life has changed now that one no longer has to deal with troublesome cable operators who take weeks to fix a loose wire. (All hail Tata Sky!)
These days I’m increasingly fascinated by channels such as National Geographic and The History Channel, especially by their dramatised simulations of real-life events.
This wasn’t always the case: a couple of years ago, I was a bit put off by the Discovery Channel’s Virtual History series — specifically, by their attempts to “exactly recreate” what happened on key dates in human history: for example, July 20, 1944, the day of a failed assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler.
Discovery’s technique involved making plaster casts of the faces of the historical figures involved, using computer-generated effects to create digital copies of these, recording and processing the facial movements and dialogue of living actors and then transposing these to the “CGI faces” so that you had the “real” Fuhrer, Stalin, Roosevelt etcetera moving and speaking in coloured footage presented in a slightly grainy documentary style to make it seem more authentic.
All very meticulously done, but I thought there was something dishonest about this dogmatic insistence on presenting Absolute Truth; after all, even with the best researchers, historians and CGI in the world, there’s still no foolproof way of knowing exactly what the people concerned were thinking and doing at every moment. Wouldn’t a well-scripted dramatisation (with good actors playing the roles) be more effective?
Now, a show called Air Crash Investigations, which airs on National Geographic, provides an example of how this sort of thing can be done really well.
This very engrossing programme, originally telecast in the US as Mayday, examines various air disasters, ranging from major ones with hundreds of fatalities to relatively minor incidents where luck — or a composed pilot — saved the day.
Typically, the first half of the show recreates what happened (or probably happened) onboard and the final outcome; the second half details the post-crash investigations, attempts at cover-up if any, the conclusions reached, and how some of these helped in correcting flaws in aviation technology or communication, and preventing further accidents of a similar nature.
One might think these two halves would be incompatible — the first plays like an exciting feature film of a doomed flight, unfolding in real time, while the second is a piece of prosaic procedural work — but, in fact, they come together extremely well.
Together, they provide many valuable insights into the working of the aviation industry, the huge responsibilities on the shoulders of ground personnel such as aircraft designers and air-traffic controllers, the split-second decisions required by pilots and first officers, and how important it is for passengers to stay calm.
The producers were probably treading dangerous ground here (imagine the reactions of air crash victims’ families if they felt a show was gratuitous) but the simulation of the disaster is done with just the right mix of drama and restraint.
It features actors playing the passengers and the staff, but this is interspersed with interviews with the real-life survivors of the incident, which brings dignity and authenticity to the project.
Air Crash Investigations is a fine example of dramatisation being put to good use, gripping enough to hold the viewer’s attention, but providing valuable information at the same time.