Q. How did you learn about this story?
A. I first heard about this accident as a new hire pilot with TWA. Part of the training curriculum for pilots and flight attendants includes a review of prior accidents. While the class focused on the actual events, I was also interested in learning more about the people who were involved.
Q. What were the steps that led you to consider writing a book about this accident?
A. The first person I tried to locate was the captain of the flight. I was able to locate him fairly quickly through the internet. When I learned that this flight was his last as a professional pilot, I saw that there was a real human side to this story. Lives were affected in very profound ways. The deeper I dug the more intriguing the story became.
Q. You mentioned the internet; how important was the internet in the researching of the book?
A. This book would not have been possible before the advent of the Internet. Even in the days and weeks immediately after the accident it would have been nearly impossible to track down all of the participants.
Q. Can you give any examples of how you used the internet to track down people whom you later interviewed?
A. In one newspaper account of the accident there was a mention of several marine helicopters from the USS Guadalcanal that were involved in the search and rescue of survivors. I contacted the navy and requested the logs from the Guadalcanal for the week of the accident. In the logs there was a notation about four helicopters from HMM-261 that departed the ship in search of survivors of a DC-9 ditching. I typed in HMM-261 into a search engine and found a web site dedicated to the former members of this squadron. The man who ran the web site was John Barber, who was a crew chief aboard one of the rescue helicopters.
Another example involved the two surviving cabin attendants. I had no idea how I might locate them. At the time of the accident they were residents of the southern Caribbean. Through e-mail I contacted the chamber of commerce in Curacao. The next day I had the e-mail addresses and phone numbers of both Wilfred and Tobias as well as the contact information for Margareth’s brother Robert Abraham. I have dozens of similar examples.
Q. How is this book different from similar books about airline accidents?
A. The fact is that most airline accidents occur over a very brief amount of time. Books that cover these accidents are usually heavily weighted with background material. The drama of ALM 980 occurs over an extended period of time. The survivors were in the water for an hour and a half before the first rescue helicopter arrived on the scene. The rescue itself took nearly three hours. Additionally, there were survivors. Unfortunately, most airline accidents of any magnitude have few survivors. The time between the event and my contact was also a factor because people were more willing to talk about what happened. This allowed me to not only show the real drama of the accident and rescue, but also show the repercussions to those involved.
Q. How long did it take you to write the book?
A. It was a year and a half of research followed by three years of writing and rewriting. The majority of the book was written during a two year period after I was furloughed from a major airline.
Q. What qualifications do you have to write the book?
A. I have been flying professionally for more than twenty-five years. I have over 15,000 hours of flight time and hold three type ratings. Additionally, I have over 2,000 hours in the MD-80 which is the newer version of the plane involved in the ditching.
Q. Why is this accident, which happened so long ago, relevant today?
A. This accident occurred during a time in which the airline industry was struggling financially due to a number of factors similar to those facing airlines today. Economics played an indirect role in the ditching. While aircraft ditchings of commercial aircraft are extremely rare, they do occur. The most recent ditiching is UsAir Flight 1549 in January of 2009.
Stories where the reader or viewer can identify with the characters in peril will always be popular. Anyone who has ever flown on a commercial airliner can put themselves in the shoes of the passengers on this flight and contemplate what it must have been like. The favorable response to the movie United 93 shows that stories of ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances can attract large audiences.