That Which Survives  

This is entirely factual. All the characters are - or at least were - real.

You may already know this tale - or part of it anyway. If so, I hope you will agree with me that it is worthy of re-telling. If you aren’t aware of this history then you may be surprised. If it makes you think twice before boarding an aeroplane remember that everything which took place here happened in the first half of the twentieth century, when air travel was less sophisticated or reliable than it is today.

Incidentally, I know that Pearl Harbour is not spelt like that but I absolutely refuse to use American spellings!


Eugene is perhaps not the first Christian name which springs to mind when thinking of Texans but it is a common enough name and in this case was chosen at the birth, in 1921, after the newborn’s Father, who was also named Eugene.

When Eugene was just a few years old, an incident occurred early one morning when the milkman noticed that the house in which the family lived was on fire! He pounded on the front door until Eugene’s Mother finally woke up and rushed out of the dwelling with the boy and the other family members in tow. This might have been considered to be a traumatic event for a youngster but it was to pale almost into insignificance compared to that which was to follow some years later.

Like many young men growing up in America in the 1920s and 1930s, Eugene was interested aeroplanes. He obtained his pilot’s licence thanks to a flight training programme for civilians sponsored by the United States Army Air Corps. Enlisting in 1941, just days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, by 1943 he was piloting Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses, those four-engined heavy bombers which helped to establish air supremacy for the Allies in Europe in the Second World War.

In August 1943, on the Pacific Island of Espiritu Santu, the B-17 which Eugene was piloting, named “Yankee Doodle”, suffered a mechanical failure. Already careering down the runway it was unable to attain the required speed and the take off had to be aborted. Eugine applied the brakes but they did not respond. The tail brake was activated but also failed and the Flying Fortress overshot the end of the runway by 500 feet. Coconut palm tree stumps lay beyond the tarmac and the bomber crashed against these, crushing its nose, collapsing the undercarriage and starting a fire. Two of the crew, positioned in the nose, died as a result of this accident but Eugene managed to escape. He had just had his second glimpse of a potential fiery death.

Perhaps because of this first hand experience of an aircraft accident, Eugene subsequently took on the role of an air crash investigator and, based at Washington DC, flew all over the United States investigating aviation accidents and incidents. It was during this time that, incredibly, he was involved in another aircraft accident. This time he was a passenger on a military flight which crashed and caught fire. Eugene pulled three men to safety from the blazing wreck: fire and potential death again.

Despite Eugene’s own first hand involvement in air accidents and his job investigating the causes of others, his love for flying did not diminish and after the war he became a pilot for the civil carrier Pan American World Airways, America’s largest commercial air carrier at the time. He would often be tasked with flying passenger routes from New York to Johannesburg or Calcutta, at the time the airline’s two longest routes.

This brings us to 18 June 1947 and Pan Am Flight 121 from Karachi in India to Istanbul, one leg in a round-the-world service which the airline had just launched. It was to be flown that day by “Clipper Eclipse”, a propeller driven Lockheed Constellation with four 18-cylinder engines. There were ten crew on board but, on this occasion, Eugine was not piloting the vessel. Instead he had been designated as Third Officer, which meant he was effectively a relief pilot, there to take over from the pilot, Joseph Hart, or co-pilot, Robert McCoy, whilst they were on their rest periods during the long, ten and a half hour flight. They departed from Karachi at a little after half past three in the afternoon with an estimated arrival time at their destination of two o’clock the following morning.

After about five hours in the air, whilst routinely cruising at 18,500 feet, the number one engine developed a fault. The nearest airfield was an RAF base at Habbaniya in Iraq but the Captain did not feel this military airfield would possess adequate repair facilities for the Constellation. Nevertheless, he contacted the tower at Habbaniya who reported that all airfields along the plane’s flight path had closed for the night. Nevertheless, given the unlikelihood of Habbaniya being able to undertake the necessary repairs, Captain Hart decided to continue to Instanbul. He shut down the number one engine and feathered the propellor, rotating the angle of the blades towards the airflow to reduce drag. The aircraft could fly on the remaining three engines, although they would need to work hard in order to maintain altitude.

Some twenty minutes later, the three working engines were overheating, as the airspeed obtainable was not sufficient to provide them with adequate cooling. The only way to try and counteract this was to reduce power but this led to the inevitable outcome that the aircraft could not keep its height. It began a gradual descent. Falling gently through 17,500 feet the engines were still overheating and as the aircraft reached denser air, at around 10,000 feet, the number two engine - which had experienced several problems in the recent past - caught fire, lighting up the entire cabin with red light. All suppression measures failed and with the plane’s situation having deteriorated rapidly, the Captain pitched it forward in a rapid descent with a view to making an emergency landing before the fire took hold.

The flight was now over the vast expanse of the inhospitable and often rocky Syrian desert and as they plummeted down, the engine fire spread to the wing. Frightened passengers on the left hand side of the plane, peering through their windows facing the bright glow, suddenly heard a sickening crunch. They were horrified to see the number two engine separate from the wing and fall away into the darkness like a fiery meteor. The fuel lines were now exposed and the left wing continued to burn as the Captain brought the aircraft down fast into the black night for what would have to be a belly landing.

During the descent Eugene was in the cabin with the Chief Flight Attendant, Anthony Volpe, endeavouring to calm the passengers. He knew, this time, that the reaper could not be cheated. Even so, he tried not to show his certainty of impending extinction and went along the aisle, hanging on to the seat armrests to keep his balance, uttering comforting words to the passengers such as “it looks worse than it is” and asking everybody to keep calm and to ensure their seat belts were buckled. He even sat next to a young woman who was flying on her own and told her “everything is going to be alright”.

It was not long before the plane hit the ground - hard. The left wingtip made the first contact, then the feathered number one engine propeller followed by the left wing at the number two engine position. With an awful wrenching and cracking, the violent impact tore the left wing from the fuselage near its root. Sliding uncontrollably along the relatively smooth, hard-packed desert sand, the plane swung violently round 180 degrees to the left and skidded backwards for a distance of 200 feet, finally lurching to a halt some 400 feet from the first point of impact. Flames poured into the cabin, yielding a tremendous heat and those who were able immediately fought for the nearest egress. A few jumped out but others stayed to help those passengers who were alive but injured. These were manhandled carefully down to those already on the ground who dragged them away from the ever increasing inferno. Some were actually burning and pillows were used to help extinguish the agonising flames.

Working hard to help the survivors were Volpe, Jane Bray the Stewardess and, unbelievably, despite facing fire and death at close quarters yet again, Eugene, who was alive! He had suffered two broken ribs and multiple bruising, yet he remained in the cabin helping to evacuate passengers. One of these was the Maharani of Phaltan, an Indian Royal, who had received a head injury and lost some teeth on impact. She was in a hysterical state but Eugene calmed her, forced open her broken seatbelt and she was bundled out of the ruptured fuselage and carried away to comparative safety.

All this time the aircraft had continued to burn fairly slowly but, suddenly, the wind direction changed, causing the fire to engulf the passenger area of the plane. Scrambling away just in time, the last passenger Eugene pulled out of the wreck died in his arms. The three surviving crew members ran round the blazing fuselage and remaining wing to the front of the plane and tried to peer into the cockpit windows. There they could see the flight crew, sitting at their stations but slumped over their seats, dead or unconscious. Eugene and the other two frantically pounded on the glass to try and rouse them but the flames soon drove them back and there was nothing more which could be done.

Eight passengers and seven crew members died in the crash and the ensuing fire. Thanks in great part to the heroism of Eugene, Chief Flight Attendant Volpe and Stewardess Bray, who were the only members of the crew to survive, 19 passengers also lived, eleven of whom needed hospital treatment. Now all of them needed rescuing.

Just before the aircraft hit the ground, Eugene had noticed a light in the distance. Taking charge as the senior surviving crewman, the following morning he sent two of the passengers - both English - off in that direction, whilst he remained with the rest of the survivors. Soon after, nomads appeared from a different direction. They had heard and seen the flaming crash in the night and had come to investigate and, it was quite apparent, to loot the dead. Eugene feigned welcome by shaking hands with the leader but was unable to communicate further as neither could speak each other’s language. In time, the nomads went away unable, or perhaps unwilling, to offer any assistance.

The light which Eugene had seen just before the plane crash landed turned out to be a small Syrian military outpost, which the Englishmen finally reached. From there a small plane was sent to investigate and Eugene returned in this to the outpost to broadcast a message which was relayed to Pan Am. The airline immediately sent a rescue aircraft and in due course all were safely evacuated. Two weeks later, the Syrian authorities granted permission for Eugene to return to America where, later, he testified at an Aviation Authority enquiry in New York. He and the two surviving crew members were commended for their work following the crash for "devotion to duty and calmness and efficiency in the difficult and hazardous experience".

Eugene returned to flying, the probability of him being involved in another serious aircraft accident now being infinitesimally small. Yet, by a remarkable twist of fate almost impossible to credit, he was! In 1948, while flying out of La Guardia Airport, New York, on a particularly cold and snowy day, the controls froze during takeoff, almost causing the plane to stall. This last incident finally rammed home the message to Eugene: somebody clearly didn’t want him to fly planes! He resigned from Pan-Am the following year and, completely changing direction, decided to pursue a new career - writing, particularly for the then new medium of television.


Eugine had escaped death not once but many times. If he had not survived, television history would now contain an enormous void. We would never have come to know him by his diminutive name, Gene, we would never have heard of his surname, Roddenberry and there would have been no creation from him called Star Trek, cult phenomenon and the most influential science fiction television series ever.

© Richard Farquharson, Maulden, Bedfordshire May 2016 ("That Which Survives" is the title of one of the Episodes of the original Star Trek series)