We live in an age of sensationalism. There are only so many pairs of eyes that can be directed in any one direction at any time, and our fractured media landscape means that there are more and more outlets looking for readerships, listenerships and viewerships that are, by and large, remaining comparatively static in terms of their size. Small wonder that, when the British broadcaster commisioned the Canadian production company Cineflix to produce a six part documentary size looking at aviation disasters, they should decide to name it “Air Crash Investigation.” For more than a decade now, however, ACI has been confounding its critics by producing series after series of a programme that delicately balances human interest with forensic investigation without having yet gone anything like stale.
For all the implied hysteria of the name of the show – which is mirrored in the other guises under which it is known, such as Mayday and Air Disaster – ACI straddles the divide between drama and documentary suberbly. The format of the show is fairly simple. It starts with a reconstruction of an air crash, offering one or two hints (and, as often as not, one or two red herrings) as to what did or didn’t happen on board a stricken aircraft, piecing together events from the recollections of survivors, other witnesses and cockpit voice recordings, before following the investigators around as they face what often seem at the outset to be insurmountable obstacles in order to piece together the chain of events – and it is almost always a chain of events – which led to the incident which occurred.
So far, so modern, and it’s not difficult to expect the lowest of standards of a series of this nature. After all, if sensationalism is the primary aim of those producing the series, it hardly seems likely that the highest production standards will be employed once the cameras start to roll, does it? Well, in the case of this particular programme this doesn’t seem to be the situation at all. The acting is, broadly speaking, excellent, and those casting it are to be congratulated on their choice of actors, who frequently seem to bear uncanny likenesses to the poor unfortunates involved in the actual incidents that the progamme features. And in addition to this, ACI doesn’t shy away from explaining often complex principles of civil aviation and engineering, an understanding of which are almost essential if the viewer is to properly understand what has happened, in an extremely accessible manner.
Sometimes, the subject matter is harrowing, but for those amongst us that have a fear of flying of some description or other, there is also something comforting about ACI. On the one hand, we are reminded from watching the show that major incidents aboard planes are extremely rare – the mundanity of the airport terminal and even the air traffic control tower provide a near-constant grey background to the show – and, as mentioned above, that there is only very seldom one single cause to any air crash. If the viewer takes anything from watching more than a handful of episodes of ACI, it must be that air accidents most frequently occur at the end of a series of seemingly unconnected events that anybody not in possession of a crystal ball would find just about impossible to predict. In short, the biggest threats to the safety of an aircraft would seem to be, in no particular order: the weather, pilot error, stress brought about by the increased amount of air traffic that there is nowadays, poor maintenance of aircraft, and corner-cutting by airlines themselves.
Curiously, whilst most of the best known air disasters – Munich, Lockerbie, Staines and the Potomac disasters are all present and correct over the course of the programme’s thirteen series and one hundred and nine episodes – several are not, including the infamous TWA Flight 800 (which was widely assumed to be a terrorist incident until the subsequent investigation confirmed that it was an explosion in a fuel tank, although many still believe that the investigation in this case was a cover-up), the Concorde crash in Paris of 2004 and 9/11 have not been covered by the series. Such is the variety of types of accidents covered by the programme, indeed, that it’s tempting to draw the conclusion that its producers choose the accidents that they are to cover laregly on the basis of providing a variety of different types of incident.
It is in juggling the cold, hard science of the investigation with the heartbreaking human angle of those left behnind by those who have perished, however, that ACI plays its strongest hand. The personal testimonies of friends and family members – particularly parents – can be difficult to watch at times, but they are nevertheless essential viewing, and the extent to which some family members can and will go in order to pursue justice for those that they lost can border upon – and in one episode, about a mid-air collision over Uberlingen in southern Germany in 2002, well and truly overshoot – the limits of the love that human beings can have for each other. Meanwhile, the cold jargon of the accident investigators is effectively contextualised for a mass audience, meaning that by the end of most episodes, the viewer is left with the feeling that they have really learnt something from the programme that they have just watched.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the show has built up a large cult following, and there are plenty of full-length episodes available on YouTube, especially since the programme’s producers seem to have toned down their aggressive take-down behaviour towards those that upload episode of it to that site in the first place. There is, therefore, a lot of it out there to love. And there is, as occasionally happens in episodes of the show itself, a twist in the tail to this particular eulogy, which is to mention that for those of us that are afraid to get into a metal tube and hurl themselves through the air at 500mph, ACI can be a very comforting experience. It reminds us of the lengths that investigation teams will go to in order to get to the root of an accident, of the stringent safety regulations that air carriers have to adhere to and, perhaps more than anything else, of the brilliance of the pilots and cabin crews themselves. More than anybody else, they are the stars of this most surprisingly enjoyable of television series.
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