At Cruising Altitude
Build comfort and put wings on it.
—Douglas Aircraft engineer
McDonnell Douglas built the DC-10,
a comfortable aircraft,
but one with safety problems
almost from the first.
When Turkish Airlines Flight 981
just out of Paris, lost a cargo door
collapsed the floor, severed
the hydraulics, left
the wide-bodied jet, 346 on board,
helpless as a shot bird.
The impact of the crash shattered
the mossy quiet of Ermenonville Forest,
cut a half-mile swath
through its ferns and pines,
left body parts and plane debris
hanging from branches.
It might have been foreseen:
two years before,
Captain Bryce McCormack
on route to LaGuardia
lost his DC-10’s cargo door
over Windsor, Ontario.
The resulting floor collapse
dropped two crew to the cargo hold
crushed the control wires
to the hydraulics
and the No. 2 engine and left
Captain McCormick unable to steer,
except by alternating the power
of his remaining Pratt & Whitney
turbo thrust engines
as if he were feathering a canoe—
until he reached and skidded off
a Detroit runway in a controlled
crash everyone survived.
While returning to Detroit,
Captain McCormick, a thoughtful man,
came on the intercom to say
American Airlines personnel
would be available on the ground
to assist passengers with
alternative flight arrangements.
I remembered that announcement
on a Boeing 707, comfortable
in business class, seats smelling
like leather, orange juice at hand,
flying to Chicago to help defend
The New York Times in a libel
case about a review of two books
critical of McDonnell Douglas.
I had just began to work, when
the captain came on the intercom
to say we had experienced
a loss of power in our No. 2 engine
and as a precaution
he had shut down the No. 2 engine
and as a further precaution
we would be landing shortly
He told us not to worry,
the 707 could fly with two engines
and we still had three.
As the plane descended quietly
I trusted that God was too serious
for the irony a crash would be,
thought it likely we would land safely
between the fire trucks lining the runway
for our arrival.
When an airline captain retires
fire engines swing onto the tarmac
for his last incoming flight.
They send up plumes of water
from their hoses, douse the plane,
while passengers watch water streaming
down their windows, as if to celebrate
what the fire engines never had to do,
as if to celebrate that in all his flights, so close
to the sun, the airplane never has caught fire.