Book Review: Freefall by William Hoffer and Marilyn Mona Hoffer (1989)

I brought this book along on my vacation as some light reading for the flight to Florida. The full title of this book is Freefall: From 41,000 Feet to Zero – a True Story. To make a long book short, on July 23, 1983, a 767 bound from Ottawa to Edmonton ran out of fuel in mid-flight. Somewhere east of Winnipeg, the engines just shut off at 41,000 feet. Fuel starvation, it’s called. But hey, without any explosive fuel, the passengers only had to contend with dropping from eight miles in the sky at 400+ miles an hour–no fireball needed!

Yes, I brought it and yes, I read it on the plane–a 757, thank you, not a deathtrap 767 like in the book. Some people read horror books about clown-looking serpent demons who come out of storm drains, but they’re pikers. You want real terror, put something at stake. Like your life aboard one of those damn contraptions while your read about a hideous plane disaster

You want to know why flying a plane is scary? Because a cascading system of simple failures can lead to disaster. Suppose you’ve got a fuel sensor, redundant of course with two channels, but instead of getting 5v to one channel, it’s getting .9v and the whole sensor blanks out instead of switching to the working channel, and then a mechanic discovers a work-around but the mechanic at the next airport disables the work-around, and the visor-wearing Quebecker fuel guy hand calculates the fuel in the tank by multiplying by the specific gravity of pounds (1.44) instead of kilograms (.8), and suddenly you’ve got 61 passengers and 8 crew watching personal in-flight movies of their lives on the backs of their eyelids.

I’ll admit, the book helped take the edge off of the flight. Its pacing is slow and non-suspenseless. It’s as though the authors took a Reader’s Digest Drama in Real Life and stretched it into two hundred plus pages. The authors manage to work in the biography of all of the crew, many of the passengers, some people in an unrelated nearby plane, and the complete history of the town of Gimli, Manitoba. The fluff, while adding depth to the book, really detracts from the suspense.

Without appropriate apprehensiveness from reading this book, I had to turn to Heather’s uncle in Florida, a former engineer for Pratt and Whitney, for tales of terror. Remember Des Moines? He does, and he can tell you in great detail what happens when a stress-fatigue crack sends a turbine blade through the control cables on the wing.