That Grainy Old Photograph – The Crash of Flight 191

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I often find myself looking at old photos, not of people I know or places I’ve been, but of people I don’t know and places (at least sometimes) I haven’t been. There’s one aviation photo I find myself looking at time and time again, it’s an image I find captivating but for all the wrong reasons – it’s such a tragic event caught on film and one I find so hauntingly interesting. American Airlines flight 191 was a regularly schedules passenger flight flying out of O’Hare airport in Chicago, captained by Capt. Walter Lux it should have been a regular flight. Captain Lux had been flying the DC 10 since its introduction in 1971 and with 22,000 flying hours, he was one of the most experienced pilots flying with American Airlines.

As horrifying as this crash was, it’s not the crash itself that I find so interesting, it’s more, the thought of the crash, that fraction of time, that split second frozen in a single frame that I find so intriguing – it’s the photograph. For me, it’s a feeling that if stare at that infamous photo taken by Michael Laughlin back in 1971 for long enough I can sea Captain Walter Lux along with co pilot James Dillard fighting with the controls like true heroes, I can hear the warning alarms, the ground proximity warning I can see the sheer determination of both pilot and first officer.

Looking at this grainy, faded old photo of the crash and looking at the plane (a DC10) it’s easy to imagine the horror the passengers inside must have felt. Most (if not all) would have been able to tell something was not right with the take off, hearing a loud bang as the number 1 engine (the left side) detached from the aircraft flew up and over the wing tearing vital hydraulic lines as it did so. I find it frighteningly easy to imagine the noise coming from inside the plane, the sound of passengers gasping and baggage falling from over head. I can imagine loved ones holding hands as they sit, helplessly strapped into their seats and strangers staring at each other in fear and disbelief – what were they thinking? What were they saying? All this from a single photograph.

Unlike a lot of other airline accidents, flight 191 differs in that there is very little cockpit voice recorder audio. A single word is all that’s picked up, “Damn”, an air traffic controller sees what’s happened to American Airlines 191 and asks “…do you want to come back, and to what runway?” – there was no response. It’s strange how much can be read from a single photo – or rather, how much we think can be read, but with photos like Michael Laughlins’ the harrowing truth is presented to us in a basic and frightening form. The sense of horror and the sense of ‘end’ is so prevalent in this image one has an almost overwhelming feeling of hopelessness. May they rest in peace.

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