The biosphere and me

By N.A.J. Taylor on 1st September 2015 — 2 mins read

On June 3, 1967, all four of my grandparents boarded a plane at Manston airport in Kent, in the southeast of England, in a concerted effort to become acquainted. My parents, Jan and Roy, then 21 and 25 years of age, had been married only several months. And so, it was in this spirit of new beginnings that both sets of parents—and my grandparents—were to holiday together in Spain. As was becoming fashionable at the time, Isabel and Joseph, along with Royston and Nancy, had decided to fly into Perpignan, France, rather than travel the first leg of their journey by bus or by boat. The plane they boarded was marked: “G-APYK”.

What happened on that flight, the report of the Ministere des Transports later concluded, is that “the accident occurred following a collision with the mountainside”.2 On board the Douglas DC-4 were 88 passengers and crew—all perished together in a single collision with the Pyrenees. The plane was a mere four minutes from its destination when it impacted with Mont Canigou, some 4,000 feet above sea level. The Commission’s chain of causation curiously downplayed the finding that G-APYK’s pilots displayed signs of “intoxication by carbon monoxide coming from a defective heating system”. The subsequent flight investigation found that the crash “resulted directly from a series of errors on the part of the crew”.

Having studied the report in search of reasons, I infer three primary causes. First, the “language difficulties and in particular the non-existence of any standard phraseology” is evident in the transcribed black box recording between the co-pilot and the traffic controller. The investigating commission asserts that this resulted in grave “misunderstandings” in what was being communicated (and comprehended) by both parties. Second, and coupled with the first, the pilot and co-pilot made “a series of errors”, including:

[…] failure to use all the means of radio navigation available in the aircraft, error in dead reckoning, descent starting from a point which had been inadequately identified, failure to observe the safe altitudes fixed on the company’s flight plan and, perhaps, mistakes in identification by visual reference to the ground.

The report also points to a failure on the part of the ground controller to cross-check the plane’s bearing—due in part because he was led to believe by the pilots that they had the runway in sight—such that, “[i]t is legitimate to think that if the bearing had been checked by the controller, the latter would have found the [error]”. And lastly, and contributing to both aforementioned reasons, the pilot and co-pilot displayed signs of “severe intoxication by carbon monoxide […] coming from a defective heating system”.

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N.A.J. Taylor, ‘The biosphere and me’, Journal of Narrative Politics, Vol.1 No.2, Fall 2015, pp.153-66. [PDF]