My adapting of short fiction to drama led to commissions to write original plays. Here was a new challenge.
“An Unacceptable Standard of Cockpit Practice” was one of these. It was to be part of the Disaster series.
I thought, naively, that writing about the 1978 Pacific Western Airlines Flight 314 that crashed at Cranbrook International Airport would be easy. It will take six weeks, I said to myself, “I’ll read the newspaper clippings. Instead, the research took nearly a year and, by the time I was finished, the files filled a legal file box.
Flight 314 from Edmonton landed at Castlegar via Calgary and then went to Cranbrook. There’d been a snowstorm and a snow plow was on the runway when the plane tried to land. Simple open and shut case a couple of reports I read said. It’s the snow plow operator’s fault. Local people had family members die and emotions were high. There were cries from the public to castrate and hang the snow plow operator. The snow plow operator went into hiding.
I quickly discovered that a number of newspaper reports were wrong regarding details. I needed, I realized, the coroner’s report. Gruesome reading and pictures. The report gave me a plan of the plane and where everyone was sitting. I got a passenger and flight crew list. The investigation cleared the snow plow operator. He was right where he should have been. So, what happened?
There was the government report, the RCMP reports. There were eye witness accounts. Gradually, I memorized the seating in the plane and who sat where. I saw where the tail section had broken off, with the main body of the plane sliding forward through the snow, consuming passengers in fire. I read the reports of the survivors, of them undoing their seat belts and stepping out of the plane, unharmed, into the snow, then waiting for someone to come and help them.
There were seven survivors. There were 42 who didn’t survive. All those people had family and friends. As I read about both the survivors and those who died (including all the coroner’s reports), I realized more than ever how critical it was to get every detail right. For example, in an early draft, when the plane touched down, then rose into the air, then spun into the ground, I had written a scene with people screaming. In fact, there was no screaming. People were so shocked and frightened, there was silence.
Slowly, I recreated what happened but I also had to create a drama, not a report. Characters had to speak, interact. I needed to keep people listening. That meant developing character but within the confines of the event.
It is, I believe, the obligation of the author to get the details right even in a dramatization, even in a piece of fiction. To not do so is laziness and demonstrates a lack of respect. Getting the research right shows the writer knows what he is talking about, shows that he respects the material with which he is working. In many entertainment/action movies, TV shows, that is not true. The shows are sloppily made, the six shooter shoots a hundred bullets, cars blow up for no reason, the characters take blows that would crush skulls, shatter face bones and they immediately hop up and continue with the action. It is all such far-fetched fantasy that there is nothing to respect. There’s nothing wrong with that. We all know what it is that we are watching. If you are eating junk fast food hamburgers, you don’t expect Kobe beef.
How important was it, in this non-fiction drama to get every detail right? When the play was recorded, the producer had us all sit around and listen to it. It was a big cast, a lot of technicians, etc. No one noticed that there was a stranger in the room. When we finished listening to the drama, the producer introduced the stranger. She was one of the survivors. He asked her if we’d got everything right.
The seconds between his question and her answer were intense. “Yes,” she said, “you got it right.” Relief flooded my body.
What happened to Flight 314? The plane was early. The pilot didn’t call in giving his location when he went over a beacon. Calgary air control had the time of arrival wrong. When the pilot saw the snow plow, the plane had touched down, the reverse thrusters were on. The pilot turned off the thrusters that act as a brake. The pilot climbed, expecting to do a go-round and land. One thruster turned off, the other didn’t.
By the time the script was finished, the production completed, I felt that I knew everyone on the plane. I thought about all of them for a long time afterward.