Into the Abyss: An Extraordinary True Story
by Carol Shaben, Grand Central Publishing, Toronto, Canada, 2012, $25
In October 1984, a Piper Navajo Chieftain commuter flight, loaded to the gunwales with nine passengers and too much baggage plus one young and thoroughly in-over-his-head pilot, crashed onto a snowy mountain slope in northern Canada. Six of the passengers died, some slowly and in agony. Three, plus the pilot, survived and spent a bittercold night and part of the next day in their street clothes, without shelter, before being saved by a substantial search-and-rescue operation mounted by the RCAF, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and civilian pilots and snowmobilers. All four kept their wits about them despite having injuries ranging from banged up to severe.
It was an odd quartet. One was an important Canadian politician. Another was the pilot, who knew he had screwed up badly by trying to make a solo night instrument approach to an airport that was below minimums and had an ADF beacon as its sole navaid. And the other two were a Mountie and a tough young ex-con he’d been escorting to court. The prisoner was the strongest, bravest and most resourceful of them all. Without him, more might have died.
Author Carol Shaben had unusual access to the four. Her father was the pol, and she has used that happenstance to tell a survival story in a manner and with a style that the deservedly lauded Jon Krakauer would appreciate. As somebody who has both piloted Piper Navajo Chieftains and flown in the Canadian north country, I also find it remarkable that Shaben, a nonpilot, has gotten every aviation detail right. There are “aviation experts” writing and reporting for major media outlets who couldn’t do half as well as Shaben does.
The book in fact is about long-term survival far beyond a cold night in the bush. There are the struggles of an overworked young pilot trying to build hours so he can get a real airline job, as well as the marginal existence of the tiny, family-run commuter line that hires him. The crash bonds the four survivors, who become friends—particularly the Mountie and his former prisoner. Each handles the experience in a different way, and their lives are thereafter shaped by it. Shaben follows them all through their emotional and physical struggles. She tells a fascinating story of lives that were changed forever by a dreadful night that the rest of us can barely imagine.