About fifteen years ago I was sitting in a flyblown tent at an airstrip somewhere in the Middle East, waiting for an RAF C-130 to collect me for the hop to a real airport to catch the flight that would take me home. There was a table piled high with old paperbacks and magazines, dog-eared and floppy. I picked up one of the books and it turned out to be about air accident investigation; I started to read it. About four hours later, by which time I was in a comfortable seat on a commercial plane, I wished I hadn’t. The sheer helplessness of passengers and crew in a flimsy tube of fast-moving metal when something goes badly wrong is terrifying. Invariably the last words of pilots about to crash, recorded on the cockpit voice recorder – part of the ‘black box’ used to understand aviation accidents – are ‘Oh shit’, or words to that effect.
Stuart Newberger’s The Forgotten Flight focuses on slightly different circumstances. When a modern plane suffers catastrophic mechanical failure or pilot error, there is usually time for the crew to respond. When a bomb goes off on a plane, there almost never is. In an aircraft travelling at around 500 miles