I confess a morbid fascination with plane crashes. I’ve watched enough of them on YouTube to know I will never go to an airshow, fly on a Russian airline, or find myself in the grandstands at the Reno air races. The funny thing is I’ve never been afraid of flying and have grown to actually enjoy severe turbulence as a perverse airborne amusement park ride.
I take that back: I was afraid of flying from 1995 to 2000 when I flew between Hyannis here on Cape Cod and New York’s La Guardia airport on a little regional airline, Colgan Air, and its fleet of Beechcraft 1900s. I nicknamed the planes “The Flying Cigar Tubes of Death” – not because they were infamous, but because they were cramped little things that one sort of crouched down and crawled into. I always made it a point to sit in one of the exit row seats over the wings, not wanting to wrestle some old lady for the right to be first off should the pilot have to put it down in Long Island Sound or the woods around Hyannis. There were some wild rides on those planes, true white knuckle oh-my-god flights with people screaming and praying out loud as we rocked our way blind through the fog in a March noreaster, convinced we were moments away from meeting our Maker.
The worst thing about that commuter airline was the fact that there were two takeoffs and landings on each leg. The flight always stopped at Nantucket, an airport allegedly built on the foggiest part of the island by the Navy so student pilots could practice in the worst conditions.
This past weekend I indulged my secret vice for plane crashes by reading Cape Cod author Robert Sabbag’s Down Around Midnight, his account of surviving the crash of Air New England Flight 248 one foggy June night in 1979 while returning from LaGuardia. He was in his early 30s, riding the fame of his book Snowblind, a best-selling non-fiction account of the world of cocaine smuggling. With $5,000 tucked into his sock, Sabbag was minding his own business as the DeHavilland DHC 6 Otter made its approach over Yarmouthport into Hyannis around 11 pm in a thick fog. Up front, at the controls, the pilot, George Parmenter, was at the end of a 14 hour day. Tired, of questionable health at the age of 61, the vice-president of Air New England made his last mistake and put the plane into the thick woods of a Boy Scout camp near Willow Street and Route 6. Right on page one of the 200-page book, Sabbag gets to the point:
“The plane hit the trees at 123 knots. It lost its wings as it crashed. They were sheared off, taking the fuel tanks with them, as the rest of it slammed through the forest. In an explosion of tearing sheet metal, it ripped a path through the timber, cutting through thick stands of oak and pine for a distance of three hundred feet. Whatever memories time erases, it will never erase the memory of it.”
It took Sabbag thirty years before he could tell the story, pushed into confronting the event by the discovery of an old day planner he found in a box of personal financial records, the pages soaked in fuel, leaves and pieces of twigs from the woods still in between the cover slashed by some violent force. He goes through the story as any good reporter would, interviewing the other passengers in the cabin (those that would talk to him), but he also doesn’t hide his own biases and theories as to who and what were to blame for the Cape’s worst commercial air disaster.
Underneath the lurid details of an aviation catastrophe lies one of the better stories about life on Cape Cod, a perceptive and accurate look at the regular people who live here year round, the nurses and the firemen and EMTs who found him, back broken in the woods, and carried him out to a long recovery.