Safety In Numbers

Entry by: safemouse

5th August 2016
Every year hundreds of passengers die in plane accidents aboard commercial airliners. It’s a troubling reminder of what could happen on your next flight. But a century of commercial flights has seen the perils of air travel reduced significantly and passengers know there is safety in numbers. If you travel on one of the world’s top 78 airlines your chances of being killed in an accident are just 1 in 4.7 million. Even on one of the worst carriers the chances of an accident are vanishingly small. You’re safe, no matter where you are or who you fly with. Probably.

A late mid-summer’s evening. Atlantis Airways flight 874 from London Heathrow to Chicago, Illinois is seven hours into its ten hour journey. For captain Leonard Ross and first officer Michelle Penrose it’s been a routine flight. All systems are working and skies are clear. Passengers are also settled. Some are sleeping, others reading or watching movies in their head rests. Thirty five year old beauty therapist Debbie Shilton is among them.
“It’s always in the back of your mind when you fly that something might go wrong but it was such a beautiful day and the flight had been so smooth that I was very relaxed,” Debbie recalls.
But what is about to happen will shake the airline industry and give the National Transportation Safety Board their most bizarre and mystifying case ever; a case that will only be solved after months of painstaking work. How could a 300 million dollar machine noted for its reliability and state of the art technology crash in perfect weather, without any distress call from its pilot, once terrorism was ruled out?

It is incumbent upon flight 874 to make contact with air traffic control when they emerge from their dead zone over the Atlantic ocean and reach a coastal way point. But as the plane crosses that imaginary line there is no such communication. Air traffic controller Abdul Mahrez then tries to make contact and there is no response. But flight 874 is still apparently visible on radar and proceeding on its course toward Illinois.

Other planes in the vicinity attempt to make contact with flight 874 to no avail. There are a plethora of reasons why it may not be communicating; including a problem with its radio. But post 9/11 there is no room for complacency and within minutes of failing to respond an F16 fighter jet is scrambled to intercept the fast moving passenger plane. The immediate objective isn't to shoot the airliner down, but try determine what is wrong. One possibility is that the plane has experienced a decompression incident. If this is the case, the pilots may have had hypoxia and been incapacitated. Alternatively, the plane may have been hijacked.

But when the F16 tracks down flight 874 and flies alongside the pilot doesn't see telltale signs of decompression, such as clouded windows, or civilians in the cockpit that would suggest a hijacking. At first he cannot believe what he sees and in the fading light he thinks it's a trick. He reports he can see someone in the cockpit but is unable to see them clearly. Meantime, ATC have their own incident to explain. For a few seconds they hear a brief communication from the plane that sounds like someone barking incomprehensible instructions before the airwaves fall silent again.

As the plane reaches the mainland it's dead on course for Chicago. If it crashes in a built up area the carnage could be devastating. Experts at the Federal Aviation Authority are notified of the escalating crisis. Mark Snode is a human behaviour expert who has studied professionals in high pressure situations. He’s brought in to shed light on these perplexing events.

“I had an early start the next day and I remember I'd just brushed my teeth and turned out the light. As soon as my head hit the pillow the phone rang. Someone said this is the FAA, we’ve got a situation on our hands,” he explains.

When Mark Snode hears what’s happened he comes up with a theory. If the captain is under stress or incapacitated his words may be indecipherable. He may have had a stroke or been injured in a struggle.

The President is informed and it’s now up to him to decide what to do. The plane appears to be flying safely and there's no reason to believe it’s been hijacked.The last thing the President wants to do is authorise the shooting down of a plane experiencing a minor problem, like a loss of communications systems, when the lives of hundreds of innocent passengers and several crew are at stake. He orders the F16 to continue to shadow it but take no action. Emergency services in the plane’s flight path are placed on high alert. For the sake of the passengers on board and countless others on the ground, the President must now hope his gamble pays off.

As the plane approaches Illinois it executes its descent perfectly, flying in a series of steps towards the airport as if nothing untoward has occurred. In 2013 Chicago O’Hare airport is the busiest in the world in terms of passengers and take off and landings, but now all flights have been diverted as a precautionary measure and firetrucks are on standby. If the plane is damaged it may have to make a crash landing. It's not known what the fate of its passengers is but suddenly, when the plane is just 30 nautical miles from Chicago Airport and flying at a few thousand feet, it banks suddenly to the left and descends dramatically. It flies downwards at an acute angle, only pulling up when it's just hundreds of feet from the ground.

“For the passengers on board, it must have been a nightmare come true. In such moments bags are thrown from lockers, oxygen masks descend and people are screaming, praying and even wetting themselves,” explains NTSB investigator Greg Flynn.

Air traffic control now know the plane cannot be flying on autopilot. Perhaps there's been a desperate struggle on board. Were hijackers trying to crash the plane? Had they done so, they would have flown into an industrial area containing large buildings. The plane has leveled off and appears to be circling a meat factory that operates at night. If it crashes many lives could be lost.
“I wondered why the plane kept circling the factory and thought it may have lost its hydraulics,” says Joe Lamcello, the pilot of the F16.
If the plane has lost hydraulics the pilots may still be able to steer the plane by varying engine thrust. But just when it seems the plane has stabilized it dives straight towards the ground and crashes.

For Greg Starkey at the NTSB the scattered jigsaw pieces of wreckage are the first step in a long journey as he tries to put together what happened to Flight 874. By examining the plane wreckage, flight data and cockpit voice recordings, ATC transcripts, weather reports and all data at his disposal he hopes to reconstruct the events of that fateful day. An examination of the engines shows they were working perfectly at the time of impact. As were communication instruments and the flight data recorder indicates no mechanical failure. Finally, Greg listens to the cockpit voice recorder. What is heard changes the entire course of the investigation; but it's only months later that the final piece of evidence comes to light. We can now reveal what happened.


At 7.47 EST, as flight 784 approaches the American coast First Officer Michelle Penrose decides to use the bathroom. The Captain says he will go straight after. They are unaware that a dog traveling with his owner as hand luggage has escaped from his container. The diminutive canine slips between the legs of Michelle without her noticing when she opens the door. The dog is now trapped in the cockpit and lets out a whine two minutes later which sounds like the cockpit door opening and closing. Engrossed in his flight manual the captain doesn’t look up for a moment. Then he puts the manual down and leaves the cockpit. He has made a terrible mistake. Both humans are now locked outside the cockpit and the lives of 238 passengers and 7 crew may now depend on the flying skills of a miniature schnauzer.
But as Greg Flynn knows all too well, a dog has never flown a plane before.
“From the moment there was no human in that cockpit I’m pretty sure the plane was doomed,” he says.
The plane flies toward the airport on autopilot but somehow the dog disengages it and the plane plummets. It’s a horrifying ordeal for passengers but it’s also a moment when strangers hold hands, people write hurried messages to their loved ones on sick bags and confront their mortality with remarkable tranquility.
Miraculously, no one on the ground is killed but the passengers are not so fortunate. As emergency services battle the flames it’s clear there is little hope of survivors. Only Debbie Shilton survives the impact and she is in a coma for a year.

Some disasters have silver linings. Survivors live their life with a new sense of gratitude, passengers form irrevocable bonds and heroes discover what they are made of. But the crash of flight 874 brings utter chaos.

Six months later Greg Flynn reads a newspaper report about a fire fighter who reported seeing a dog flee the crash site with sausages in his mouth. He puts it to the back of his mind but as he has no other leads he finally he decides to ring the F16 pilot, who confesses the truth. The CVR had revealed what sounded like a dog barking but at first that theory was dismissed in favour of another.
“I was convinced at the time that it might be a form of trans-global amnesia. It’s a very rare phenomena. The captain could have temporarily forgot who he was and his brain filled in the gaps. All that would have made sense to him was his conviction that he was a dog of some kind,” recalls Mark Snode.
“As soon as we had the testimony of the fighter pilot we conducted a forensic analysis of the cockpit and found traces of dog hair. We were then able to put together a likely scenario,” Greg Flynn adds.

The NTSB now know what brought down flight 874 but with thousands of planes still flying the implications are very grave. Could there be other planes at danger from being flown by dogs? Technicians conduct test flights with dogs at the control in airplane simulators and the results are chilling. No dog is able to successfully fly a plane. Some experts think the events that led to the crash are a highly unlikely event but pets have been on the loose on planes before. On the 20th December 2015 a tortoiseshell cat escaped from its container aboard a Delta Airlines flight, unnerving a flight attendant. Fortunately, there were no casualties.


The crash of Atlantis flight 891 is a tragedy but thanks to the results of the study that emerged from it a raft of safety measures are brought in by the aviation industry which make traveling on a plane safer than ever before. Checks on dog carriers are now made more stringent, sausage factories on flight paths are outlawed and planes are made easier for dogs to fly, a fail-safe, so that in the worse case scenario a plane has a better chance of landing safely.
Finally, there is some suggestion that the pet dog aboard flight 871 may have been dressed up by his owner for the occasion. In the mind of the F16 pilot there is no doubt.
“To this day I’m quite certain that I saw a dog wearing flying goggles and he saluted at me. I don’t think there’s anybody who can tell me any different.”
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