What does a pilot say when he thinks he is going to crash?

I waited a long time to answer this, mainly because listening to cockpit voice recorder tapes has been about the worst part of my career in aircraft accident investigation. I put it above running across unrecovered body parts in wreckage (which isn’t very nice) simply because you can’t “un-hear” what was said, and because pilots who have to do this tend to put themselves in the shoes of those about to die. The ones where the crew ultimately didn’t die often are almost as bad, because (1) they thought they were going to, or (2) you hear people completely oblivious to just how close they’re about to come to dying.

Just for headline and tl;dr purposes, I’d refer readers to the three categories of conversations suggested by Chris Everett: confusion (when they know they’re in trouble), determination, and apologies. I’d add “cluelessness” as well. The vast majority of those I’ve personally listened to fall into one or more of these buckets. For me at least, the worst probably have been those where a crew is about to die and doesn’t know why, or they know exactly why and their last breaths are spent on regret.

Now, as to why I’m somewhat crankier than usual about this particular question. Some people seem to treat the popularization of aircraft accidents as one arm of the ever-metastasizing “reality” craze. It isn’t. On many of the tapes on which “last words” are recorded, people are in a life-or-death struggle which they wind up losing. There’s no way that’s entertainment unless you’re a seriously screwed-up individual.

On that score, I’ve watched a number of the “true story” reenactments of accidents I’m familiar with, mainly to see if they got their facts right but sometimes to see if any axes continue to be ground by frustrated/thwarted investigators, dogged seekers-after-truth convinced there’s been a cover-up, etc. A significant chunk of them contain at least nods to “alternate theories;” this may be good TV, but it does a pretty gross disservice to the people who had to put the puzzle together and then come up with useful recommendations to keep a similar accident from happening in the future. Minority opinions have a purpose and a value of their own, but they don’t necessarily deserve equal billing with official conclusions. However, conflict equals drama… which again points to dead people being considered particularly gripping theater by those sensationalizing their deaths.

To me, there’s a limited (but very small) amount of informational value in such programs. Having a bunch of actors resembling real dead people (whose pictures often are helpfully flashed up on the screen from time to time) dramatically interpreting the cockpit voice recordings, not so much. Such programs often pad their hour-long format with non-pertinent or completely useless trivia, or with dramatic re-creations of the investigators going down exciting, provocative or ominous tangents that ultimately don’t pan out. The coda to virtually all of them is at best a sentence or two saying what’s been done to keep that kind of accident from ever being repeated.

Ultimately, most of the “aviation disaster” shows strike me as voyeurism masked in documentary colors. There’s real, hard work associated with investigating accidents — sometimes given a reasonable interpretation in the re-creations, sometimes not — but that’s the real story. Yes, you have to figure out what happened, but then you have to get into why it happened and what can be done about it. That’s sometimes dull, sometimes acrimonious, and sometimes incredibly frustrating.

Watching a computer-generated airplane with the proper paint job crash and burn might look cool but isn’t particularly illuminating, and the words spoken by the participants in the sequence of events leading up to the crash may or may not have any bearing on what actually happened. Regardless, either way, there’ll be people on the screen mouthing the “last words,” ’cause that’s where the drama is.

So, to somebody who knows all too well what people actually do say when they think they’re going to die, curiosity on this subject isn’t just insensitive — it’s an excellent example of why the actual recorded voices from CVRs generally aren’t made public (which is why TV producers have to get stand-ins to say the words for them). This mindset is one of the main reasons why I break from quite a few of my colleagues who think “cockpit video recorders” should be mandatory. To my mind, there’d always be a market for some nice, juicy first-person views of decapitations and dismemberment; if such video doesn’t exist, it can’t be exploited.

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