'Invaluable Insights' from the Black Box

'Invaluable Insights' from the Black Box
Published: Dec 01, 2018
It was a favourite of J.G. Ballard’s, which means two things: it has a full dose of originality and odd but true substance — and it is not for everyone. It's a collection — first published in 1998 — of the (mostly) final conversations of pilots in trouble. Ghoulish, indeed, writes reviewer David Frankel, but "there is much more going on here than merely pandering to our curiosity or feeding our fascination for horror." • Paintings by Anton Hirschfeld.

Hirschfeld, Anton. 'Untitled (Eric Satie rhythms),' (inset), 2013. pastel acrylic on paper, 50 x 65 cm.


The Black Box
Edited by Malcolm MacPherson
William Morrow Paperbacks
Published 1998, 208 pp.

If you have a fear of flying, you should probably look away.

Malcolm MacPherson book, The Black Box, is uniquely disturbing. It documents real incidents using transcripts of recordings made by the cockpit voice recorders (CVR) — part of the famous ‘black box’, carried in the tail of every airliner — which records the plane’s instrument settings and the dialogue between the crew during a flight’s last moments.

This collection, first published in 1984 and updated in the mid-nineties, is unique as far as I can tell. It came to my attention thirty years after it was first published. It was one of J.G. Ballard’s favourite books, recommended in a list he contributed to The Pleasure of Reading, by Antonia Fraser (1992). Since one of Ballard’s other choices was the Los Angeles phone book, though The Black Box sounded interesting, I prepared myself for disappointment.

As Raymond Carver would have it, ‘Get in, get out.’ As a journalist, MacPherson shares the short-story writer’s ability to include only what is necessary.

Coming to the book via Ballard, I was seeing it — inevitably — partly through his eyes. Straight away, I saw not just transcripts but short stories with a beginning, middle and end — each with the same structure, but offering a variation on the theme. I suspect this is how MacPherson saw them too: dramas that — like the best short stories — revealed more in the spaces between the lines than a simple news report ever could.

The Black Box is certainly Ballardian in its interest — even delight — in one of the most horrific aspects of modern life. MacPherson himself could be a character created by Ballard. In his career as a journalist he travelled widely, covering war and disaster. He also had his own brush with man-made tragedy when, at the age of eleven, he survived the car crash that killed his parents. It is easy to make a connection between the content of this collection and the author’s own life.

We are constantly told by the aviation industry that commercial flight is the safest way to travel and, in the introduction, MacPherson goes to great lengths to remind us of this fact. But, for most of us, aeroplanes and airports remain places of heightened emotion and anxiety. We are both afraid and fascinated by the idea of an air accident. Perhaps more than any other aspect of modern life, they remind us how quickly the protective skin of modern technology can be stripped away. It is this fear that makes these pieces so compelling.

Hirschfeld, Anton. 'Untitled,' 2018. ballpoint pen and pastel on paper, 65 x 50 cm.

Rather than these stories being invented, they are assembled by MacPherson — who for most of his adult life was a researcher and journalist. Description and narrative commentary are kept to a minimum. What we read is an impressionistic melange of voices, sounds, alarm horns and electronic warnings. We are all familiar with disasters and tragic accidents seen via the news, but these transcripts draw us in in a way that goes beyond their journalistic origins, placing us in the midst of the action.

CO-PILOT TO AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: We have terrain alarm, we have terrain alarm!
COCKPIT: [Sound of wind shear warning] Too low terrain.
ATC LIMA: Roger, according to monitor… it indicates flight level one zero zero, over the sea, heading a northwest course of three zero zero.
CO-PILOT TO ATC: We have terrain alarm and we are supposed to be at ten thousand feet?
PILOT: Shit, we have everything.
COCKPIT: [Sound of wind shear warning]
ATC LIMA: According to the monitor you have one zero five.
CO-PILOT TO ATC: We have… all computers crazy here.

Each of the stories is topped and tailed with an introductory passage and a brief epilogue, but the bulk of the action takes place in a transcript reminiscent of a radio script. At the centre of each piece is a dramatic battle between the flight crew and a failing machine. There is almost no description. Many contemporary short-story writers will establish and develop characters purely through dialogue and action rather than using description. In these ‘scripts’ the dialogue builds the characters in our mind’s eye. It is impossible to read it — especially in the moments when the crew are exchanging banter, or wavering under pressure — without getting a sense of their personalities. Perversely, the lack of descriptive characterisation makes the stories, in some ways, more compelling.

As in many fiction-based short stories, we are given a glimpse of the world it describes at a pivotal moment of change. Concision is everything. Each story is titled simply with a place and date. We invariably enter the action in media res, and leave the story at, or shortly after the moment of impact. As Raymond Carver would have it, ‘Get in, get out.’ As a journalist, MacPherson shares the short-story writer’s ability to include only what is necessary. In the book’s introduction he comments, ‘Whether the Captain of the airplane is kind to animals, is married with children, et cetera, does not seem relevant to me.’

Hirschfeld, Anton. 'Untitled,' 2017. acrylic and pastel on paper, 65 x 50 cm.

Although the description of place and situation is stripped right back, thanks to cinema and TV documentaries, the environment is so familiar that little is needed. That said, MacPherson does give us noises, sights and smells, alongside the matter-of-fact delivery of information: weather, cruising heights, airspeed, crew and passenger numbers, which is delivered with an almost hypnotic quality.

The Airbus stalled at 1,800 feet. The aircraft hit the ground tail-first 300 feet to the right of the runway and burst into flames. The weather that evening was clear with light winds and nine miles of visibility.

Like the setting, the language is familiar to us from mass media. Much of it, in both the commentary and the dialogue of the crew, is the unemotional, flat prose of professionals going about their business. Technical jargon and the mundane repetition of flight instructions predominate. Though the language of a highly specialised area of the modern world, it has a poetry of its own…

NEW YORK APPROACH: Avianca zero five two heavy , you are one five miles from the outer marker. Maintain two thousand until established on the localiser. Cleared ILS.
ENGINEER: Two thousand.
CO-PILOT: The ILS in number one, one hundred ten point nine is set for two thousand.
ENGINEER: Localiser alive.
CAPTAIN: Give me flaps fourteen
CO-PILOT: Thirteen miles from the outer marker. Flaps fourteen.

The transcripts’ unvarnished quality and their matter-of-fact attention to detail leave the reader hunting for what’s important — not in terms of technical information, but important emotionally: the humanity of the protagonists. The reader  finds this humanity in the breaks in the procedural language of the job in hand: as well as routine technical chatter and jargon, the protagonists talk about mutual friends, or discuss cocktail recipes. They talk over each other, mishear, misunderstand. Thanks to cinema and TV, the incidents presented to us have become so familiar that they have become clichéd. But what is different here is the completeness of the script. Perhaps surprisingly, it is the mundane detail of the world we are visiting that makes it so vivid, and so compulsive.

He guides us to feel sympathy or animosity towards certain ‘characters’, especially where we sense he was particularly moved or startled by someone’s behaviour . . .

Of course, when events take a turn for the worse and procedure breaks down under the pressure of the moment, the individuality of the people involved asserts itself in sudden moments that jolt the reader out of their detachment, such as the co-pilot whose voice is heard to say, ‘Amy, I love you,’ seconds before the tape ends. Or in the desperate denial shown by the pilot of a doomed flight, as he wrestles with the controls of a plane struck with complete instrument failure: ‘We are not stalling. It’s fictitious, it’s fictitious.’

In ‘listening’ to these conversations, we are observers, hearing the events unfold. Knowing as we do that each story ends badly for the protagonist, we can’t help but be engaged. It is this sense of inevitability that makes the stories both tragic and compelling.

Most of the stories end in disaster, but not all. There is hope here too: heroism, steely resolve, absolute professionalism, and — often against all odds — there are crashes where everyone gets to walk away. Surprisingly, alongside the heroism and tragedy there are also moments of black comedy, such as when the antagonistic pilot and co-pilot crash the plane because they are physically fighting each other for control of the plane. Or the amazement of a flight crew as they look out of the cockpit window after a successful emergency landing to see that an engine is missing.

MacPherson said that when he began to read the transcripts, he “was able to picture the drama of what the transcripts contained.” Though the source material is completely factual, each piece is constructed as a short story. They are crafted and edited, not just for length but also for dramatic effect. To create narrative drive, MacPherson is very deliberate in what is shown and what is omitted. He also guides us to feel sympathy or animosity towards certain ‘characters’, especially where we sense he was particularly moved or startled by someone’s behaviour: the ‘lazy’ captain whose inaction causes a crash contrasts with the heroic efforts of an American Airlines stewardess whose calmness under pressure saves many lives.

Hirschfeld, Anton. 'Untitled (Eric Satie rhythms),' 2013. pastel acrylic on paper, 50 x 65 cm.

The tragic inevitability that unfolds in each chain of events or in the deficiencies of the ‘lead characters’ are the equal of any carefully structured dramatic fiction. Many of the events recorded here have elements of a conventional thriller: heroes battling against the odds, a sense of impending doom and, ultimately, and, perhaps most importantly in terms of story structure, an ending that delivers either tragedy or triumph. In the spare ‘summing up’ we are also given a moral to the story in the form of ‘lessons learned’.

The end of each transcript is marked with the phrase ‘End of Tape’. Sometimes this comes with a sigh of relief, but in all too many of the stories it is followed by an epilogue detailing the aftermath and casualties with the detachment of a legal statement. Even more sobering are the pieces that end simply with the words, "All souls on board were lost."

In his review of The Black Box, J.G. Ballard comments on the ‘invaluable insight’ these transcripts provide. Yet, there is a ghoulish aspect to these stories, and guilt, because there is also a dark pleasure in reading them. It would be easy to write these true life short stories off as disaster porn. There is an animal arousal in reading them. Destruction is mesmerizing. Like media coverage of any disaster, they are seductive — compulsive, even. We are drawn in by our curiosity and titillated by a sense of ‘it could have been me’, safe in the knowledge that it wasn’t us and probably never will be. After all, how many of us have actually been involved in an air disaster?

But there is much more going on here than merely pandering to our curiosity or feeding our fascination for horror. Despite its garish cover screaming at us — in the warning colours of orange and black — there is no sensationalism in this book. These stories provide a valuable insight, to use Ballard’s phrase, in the way they allow us to see the character of people under enormous pressure, often facing an inevitable death. Everyone behaves differently, from the pilots who lose their ‘situational awareness’ and fall apart, to the stoical response of the co-pilot of a doomed airliner who quietly states, ‘We're dead.’ These are genuinely touching accounts of human fallibility, the precariousness of life, courage and cowardice, brilliance and stupidity. The stories in The Black Box are a genuinely startling and vivid reflection of modern life.

End of Tape . . .


Hirschfeld, Anton. 'Untitled (water view of Hudson Bay),' 2014. acrylic and pastel on paper, 65 x 50 cm.



DAVID FRANKEL is a writer and artist. His short stories and poems have been published in anthologies and magazines. He also writes nonfiction exploring memory and landscape and is currently using these themes as the starting point for a larger autobiographical project combining prose, nonfiction and drawing. He lives in Kent.

ANTON HIRSCHFELDborn in 1992, is a painter represented by the Christian Berst Gallery in Paris, specialists in Art Brut, at which his first solo show, Soul Weaving, opens today (the exhibition catalog features a preface by author Nancy Huston). Anton lives and works in Paris.



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