Why Planes Crash: Brace for Impact

Brace for Impact was the first episode of Why Planes Crash, the series I created for MSNBC. The series premiered in 2009 and continues to run on The Weather Channel.

U.S. Airways Flight 1549

On January 15, 2009, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency landing in NYC’s Hudson River. I was sitting at my desk at 30 Rock when reports started pouring in and cell phones started buzzing like mad. I’d long been obsessed with all things aviation. So it was obvious: I had to be there. Springing out of my seat like a Jack-in-the-box, I sprinted over to the Hudson River on that gray, freezing cold (20º Fahrenheit) afternoon. Then I stood outside for hours, watching the story unfold in real time. I was right there as shivering passengers, just out of the water, walked to safety wrapped in their first responder blankets.

MSNBC decided right away to do a “crash” (quick-turnaround “Insta-doc”) about Flight 1549 and it was obvious which producer would be tapped for the task. I suggested we flesh the story out to other planes that had made emergency landings in the water. (The technical aviation term for this is “ditching.”) To my surprise I found several little-known accidents and then went about tracking down survivors.

One was the pilot of a DC-9 who had ditched in the Caribbean decades earlier. He had an incredible name.

Balsey DeWitt

Balsey DeWitt in 2009

This gentleman was flying ALM flight 980, a Douglas DC-9, from JFK to St. Maarten on May 2, 1970. As he approached his destination, the weather deteriorated. He made three missed approaches and ran out of fuel. Finally, with no other options, he ditched the jet in the Caribbean. 40 survived; 23 did not. Now all I had to do was find him.

You’d think it would be easy to track down a guy with a name like Balsey DeWitt…but you’d be wrong. It was a long shot to think a man of that age would be on Facebook, but it was worth a try. And what do you know,  there he was! I wrote him a note asking if he was in fact the pilot who had ditched in the Caribbean decades earlier. He responded something to the effect of “That’s my grandfather you’re talking about.” He got me in touch with Grandpa later that day and it turned out Balsey DeWitt (senior) had never told his story publicly. Until now.

Ethiopian Airlines Hijacking

Why Planes Crash: Brace for Impact also covered the tragedy of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961. This was a Boeing 767 that was hijacked en route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi on November 23, 1996. Three Ethiopian hijackers were seeking asylum in Australia. The pilots tried to tell them the plane was going to run out of fuel at some point but they refused to listen. Sure enough, the plane ended up in the waters right off the Comoros Islands, near Madagascar. In pieces.

Salim Amin’s father Mohamed Amin, a famous African journalist, was one of the victims. Salim was told his dad died trying to save his fellow passengers. I got in touch with Salim, who now runs his father’s media agency, renamed Africa A24 Media. As fate would have it, Salim had an upcoming business engagement in Washington, D.C. Easy, I told him, we’ll do the interview in Washington. We met up at the local NBC affiliate and he told me his heartbreaking story on camera.

The only silver lining of this story is that all three hijackers died when the plane slammed into the water.

Pan Am Flight 943

Another little-known accident I found was that of Pan Am Flight 943, which ditched in the open Pacific on October 16, 1956. Everyone survived — including a 3-year-old girl named Joanne Marzioli. She and her mother were returning to the Bay area from the Philippines. I tracked Joanne down. She’s now a marriage counselor in Pleasant Hill, California. She gave us an interview that was compelling and super emotional.

As if all that isn’t enough for one hour, Lester Holt and I went down to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida where I arranged for him to get into a flight simulator and attempt to ditch a jet in the water. You’ll have to watch to see how he fared.

You’ll be surprised to learn how many ditchings there have been, even though the “Miracle on the Hudson” is likely the only one you’ve heard of.

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