“Some of them take a long time. Couple of tons of metal spread over 50 square miles of countryside,” Grant Sheckly (Harold J. Stone), an FAA inspector dispatched to solve the case of a plane that’s landed in Buffalo without its passengers or crew, tells airport employees in “The Arrival,” a September 1961 episode of “The Twilight Zone.” Maybe a loose bolt in an elevator hinge, or once in a blue moon, a pilot with a psychosis. But it’s always something. And that something always shows up.”
His confidence is perfectly in keeping with the assumptions that greeted the news almost two weeks ago that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 had gone missing. The loss of a commercial airliner, and the mass deaths involved, are always a tragedy. But it was difficult to imagine that the frantic families whose loved ones hadn’t arrived in Beijing would be denied an explanation for the plane’s disappearance, even the if the passengers’ bodies were never recovered. Now, with an enormous search area, and mounting theories, cultural dispatches from a more elegant, but less technologically sophisticated age of flight, illustrate how little our expectations have changed, and how many gaps in our understanding of the world remain.
Grant Sheckly starts “The Arrival” confident in his own track record and expertise, cautioning airport employees not to let their imaginations run away with them, and sardonically dressing down the airport’s public relations officer. But as the episode proceeds, and answers fail to emerge, Scheckly begins to indulge in a wild theory. And he ultimately becomes unhinged by his inability to solve the case.
“Where did you go down, Flight 107?” he demands after a disturbing encounter with the airport staff. “Why didn’t you leave a clue? Why didn’t you make a contact?…Why didn’t you ever tell anyone what happened to you?” Sheckly’s experience is our own worst-case scenario for Flight 370, the failure of our scientific and technical expertise, and a continued uncertainty.
While Sheckly loses his reason on the ground, “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” which aired in February of 1961, goes inside a plane during a flight gone dramatically awry. Like Flight 370, Global 33 is, as “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling tells us at the beginning of the episode, “a safe, well-engineered, perfectly designed machine.” But that modern triumph of design is not a perfect safeguard against mishap. Global 33 suddenly accelerates dramatically. When it slows down, and the jet dips below the clouds, the flight crew sees the island of Manhattan out the window, but populated by dinosaurs rather than skyscrapers. Speeding up again, they reach 1933. The episode ends with the pilot trying one last time, with diminishing fuel reserves, to reach the present day.
In a contemporary viewing, the time-travel details of “The Odyssey of Flight 33″ matter less than the way the episode captures the crew and passengers’ growing worries about began as a routine flight. Janie (Beverly Brown), the chief stewardess, tells Paula (Nancy Rennick) that something has gone wrong, but encourages her to continue coffee service “with a smile” so as not to disturb the passengers. The captain (John Anderson) eventually tells the stewardesses to stay out of the cockpit, so the crew’s alarm won’t filter back to the passengers. Eventually, he comes clean over the intercom, asking the passengers to pray, which gives them something to do rather than panic. There is a real dignity to the crew’s efforts to keep their charges and each other calm, even as they confront circumstances beyond their understanding, and the growing possibility of their deaths. Even if the scenario is frightening, the characters’ comportment and bravery are a comforting image.
“The Twilight Zone” aired a number of other episodes that addressed the anxieties and risks of flight, whether characters were seeing mysterious creatures on airplane wings, or failing to be seen from the ground after crashes. And Rod Serling’s brother, Robert, who covered aviation issues for United Press International, wrote “The President’s Plane Is Missing,” which became a 1973 television movie (in a bit of aviation pop-culture overlap, Peter Graves, who plays the pilot in “Airplane!”, shows up as a journalist investigating the crash). The story addresses many of the same concerns that have come up during the investigation of Flight 370: fuel reserves, the possibility of a hijacking or other diversion, and the powerful effect of profound uncertainty, particularly when one of the dead passengers might be the president of the United States.
More recently, “Lost,” which ran on ABC from 2004 to 2010 also focused on the purported survivors of a plane crash. Watching the characters try to survive on a mysterious island, while resolving traumas from their pasts, was a fantasy rooted in the idea that there was something meaningful about the plane crash, rather than random, dreadful circumstance or malign intent. The concept is a hedge against happenstance: if technology fails, “Lost” told us that it must be for some reason, giving its spiritual elements a hint of the rational, or at least a search for some sort of balanced scales.
Both “The Twilight Zone” episodes and “Lost” ultimately had something in common: they focused on the people who were on the planes or who were investigating the planes, rather than on those waiting at airports for passengers who would never arrive. In “The Arrival,” one of the elements that makes Flight 107 so strange is that nobody calls to inquire about the people who were on board. All three stories imagine that somehow, at least some of the passengers make it out alive. As with some of the theories that Flight 370 might have landed somewhere in Asia, that’s a comforting dream. If the passengers on missing planes are alive, even if they are traveling through time, or struggling to survive, or behind held hostage by terrorists who have yet to speak, we do not yet have to reckon with the magnitude of their loss.