Why did you decide to tell this story?
As a writer, I am always on the lookout for good stories. This one came about as the result of watching the film Flight starring Denzel Washington. I’m a big fan of Robert Zemeckis. Flight, however, was not one of his best. While the premise of the movie was fine, the execution was terrible. Had they spent even a minute or two consulting with an expert in the industry about how pilots do their jobs, they could have avoided making so many cringe-worthy mistakes. So when I came across a post on a TWA forum about the movie, I decided to check it out to see what other people in the profession thought about it. The post and those who commented on it agreed with me about the film, but the person who made the post added a comment about TWA 841.
I had some recollection of TWA 841. I knew that the NTSB had blamed the flight crew for fooling around in the cockpit and then trying to cover it up by erasing the CVR. What caught my attention was a comment about how the NTSB had got it wrong. That sent me on an Internet search where I learned about the controversy and conflicting stories. When it comes to telling compelling stories, conflict is good. This story had conflict at every turn.
The next step was to try and locate the crew members. After several hours of searching online, I found a telephone number for Hoot in Las Vegas. I called, and he picked up after one or two rings. But here’s the thing about that phone call. Hoot told me that it was pure luck that he happened to be there to answer the phone. He was in the process of moving and was rarely home. He was there that day because he was getting a few things to take with him before his big move. I’d like to think that there was more behind our serendipitous encounter.
After talking with Hoot, did you know then that you had your next book?
No. In fact, I had some serious doubts about whether I had enough material for a book. I interviewed Hoot for three days, but his memory was in decline. He couldn’t recall many details. But Hoot told me not to worry because he had saved documents related to his story. “Everything you need is in those cartons,” Hoot insisted.
When I got home after interviewing Hoot, I started going through the five cartons of documents Hoot had sent me. That’s when I knew I had enough material for a book.
What other steps did you take in researching Scapegoat?
I located and interviewed as many people as possible who had a connection to the story: former TWA accident investigators, passengers, TWA employees, and friends and acquaintances of Hoot. I videotaped all in person interviews. I did that for two reasons. One, it’s a good way to have a record of the interview. More importantly, I was considering doing a documentary on this story as well as a book. Unfortunately, I soon learned that while it is possible to do both projects concurrently; it is not possible to do both projects by myself. I didn’t have the video skills or the equipment to both conduct an interview and at the same time get professional level video.
What conclusion did you come to at the end of your research concerning the NTSB probable cause findings?
I started this project with the intent of simply laying out the facts and letting the reader draw their own conclusions. And for the most part, I accomplished that. I feel that I presented the NTSB’s and Boeing’s theories of the accident in a fair and impartial manner. But I don’t think any reasonable person who reads this book and weighs the evidence presented can conclude anything but that the NTSB got it wrong.
What about the other two crew members: Gary Banks and Scott Kennedy?
I was able to contact both crew members. Gary Banks declined several requests for an interview. I located Scott Kennedy very late in the process. I sent him the manuscript to review before I interviewed him. I was surprised to learn that Scott was not aware of the alternative theory of the accident. Gary and Scott were not as adversely affected as was Hoot, but I’m sure both of them are looking forward to having their names cleared.
What are the possibilities of the NTSB re-opening the investigation into TWA 841?
There are still two petitions for reconsideration before the Board that have yet to be acted upon. My hope is that by releasing this book that the NTSB will do the right thing and agree to consider ALPA’s 1990 petition.