Flights of No Return: Aviation History’s Most Infamous One-Way Tickets to Immortality, which we reviewed recently, is an outstanding and authoritative book covering many flights throughout history that ended without the happy landings their pilots and crew so urgently wished for. We asked author Steve Ruffin if he could take the time to answer a few of our questions about his book, and his responses are below. Ruffin, who has written many aviation articles, including a few for us, discussed how he picked the subject for his second book, his research and writing processes, and why there will always be aviation mysteries. A noted World War I aviation historian, he is currently finishing a photo history of the Lafayette Escadrille, the all-American flying unit that flew for France during World War I.
Were you approached to do this book or was this your idea?
Flights of No Return was an idea I came up with, based on a chapter I wrote for my first book, Aviation’s Most Wanted, which came out a few years ago. One of the categories I featured in that book was a chapter I called “Departures of No Return” which dealt briefly with ten famous flights that failed. I had a lot of fun writing that chapter and decided that this was a topic – that is, one featuring historic flights from which one or more persons aboard never returned – that I could easily expand into an entire book and that would would be of universal interest.
What motivated you to write a book about final flights?
It was certainly not because of the grim ending all of these true stories have. After all, I’m a private pilot myself and have been for most of my life. I generally don’t dwell on the risks of flying, but after a lifetime of reading about aviation’s greatest flights, greatest successes and achievements, I wanted to present the other side of it. Failure has always been as much a part of aviation as success, just as it is a part of life, and I wanted to convey to my readers that all of aviation’s wonderful successes have come at a cost. I also wanted to point out, hopefully, in an interesting and entertaining way, some of the mistakes, bad decisions, and bad behavior that have, over the years, caused flights to end unexpectedly. Each provided lessons to be learned and, in many cases, led to changes and improvements that made aviation safer. I think every author wants to educate as much as entertain and I tried my hardest to do both.
Which of these stories was the first one to take hold of your imagination, and when was that?
I’d have to say that the incident that first caught my interest was the one about Lady Be Good. As you know, that was the USAAF B-24D Liberator based in North Africa that failed to return from a 1943 bombing raid. The inexperienced crew became separated from the rest of their formation and somehow missed their base on their way back from their target of Naples Harbor. No one knew what happened to them until the big bomber was discovered some 15 years later in the Libyan Desert by a British Oil Crew. This amazing find occurred back when I was a young boy and I remember the wonderful, highly illustrated article that appeared about it in a 1960 issue of LIFE magazine. The “ghost bomber” was a top news item and it made a lasting impression on me. As I looked at those eerie pictures, I never suspected that I would, myself, someday tell the story of Lady Be Good and her lost crew. It’s of course tragic – it cost the lives of nine young Americans – but it’s also a great story.
Whether included in the book or not, what aerial mystery or tragedy affected you the most or continues to stick with you?
The one that still haunts me today is one that occurred near my home when I was a small boy. A Beach Bonanza flying over one night exploded in the sky, for reasons I never learned, and crashed in pieces all over a neighboring Southeast Missouri cotton field. My dad took me over there to take a look and I wish he hadn’t. It was a terrible sight that I have never forgotten. I don’t know any of the details, but the men in the plane were carrying a lot of money because people were finding $100 bills strewn all over the field—now that I think about it, that may be the reason my dad took me over there. Anyway, I’ve avoided crash sites ever since.
There have been many aerial disappearances and crashes over the decades; what were the criteria for inclusion in the book?
I had a pretty good idea of the type of story I wanted to relate when I began this book. The one basic requirement for inclusion was that it had to be a flight from which one or more persons never returned. Beyond that, I wanted to include flights that occurred throughout the 230-year history of manned flight – from balloons to spacecraft. I wanted my readers to understand that such flights have always been a part of aviation, and I wanted to present events involving various types of aircraft from different eras. And finally, I chose flights that were in one way or another unique. Some had something quirky or eerie about them, most of them were controversial or involved a well-known person, but all were out of the ordinary, interesting, and packed with human drama.
Which stories did you leave out that you wish you could have included?
I wanted to write about the infamous Francis Gary Powers shoot down and would have if there had been any more space. It’s a great story that a lot of younger people are hearing about for the first time, thanks to the new Spielberg/Hanks movie, Bridge of Spies. Another great story fitting into my category that I wanted to tell was the Jimmy Doolittle raid. The problem, of course, is that it involved many flights of no return, but I’d have found a way to deal with it. There are many other stories I’d like to tell – Admiral Yamamoto’s last flight, WWI ace Frank Luke, etc. Who knows, maybe I’ll get the chance, someday in the future, to include them in a sequel.
What was your process for researching and writing the stories in the book?
I spent several months researching and writing each chapter. Once I decided on a particular flight, I began collecting all the books, documents, and photos I could find about it. Libraries, especially interlibrary loan, were helpful for published works, while I found most of my primary materials – documents and photographs – in museums and archives and online. Online research is tricky. There is a lot of erroneous information on the Internet, but if you know where to look, there are also plenty of sites where you can find good, hard documentary materials, such as aircraft data and accident reports. In many cases, I also contacted and received help from other researchers who were knowledgeable about certain incidents or had unique photographs. Once I had gathered and digested what I believed to be the complete package – original documents and photos, accident reports, maps, interviews, books, articles, you name it – I began putting down words, writing and rewriting until I felt that my narrative was as accurate, as interesting, and as tightly written as I could make it.
Were there other, earlier books you read that inspired you to write this one?
There have been several books that I read years ago and enjoyed that helped me formulate the idea for writing this book. They all had a similar theme of mystery and intrigue in aviation and included such works as Alexander McKee’s Great Mysteries of Aviation, Dale M. Titler’s Wings of Mystery, and Martin Caidin’s Ghosts of the Air. I’m not sure all the stories these authors related were completely factual, but they were fun to read and contained a lot of good ideas.
You included MH 370 in the book, but there are probably a half dozen other recent disappearances or aviation accidents that could have been included. Do you think such events will continue to occur despite all our technological advances?
I do, and for one reason alone: the human factor. Flying will never be without some risk, however small, simply because human beings will always be part of the process of building, monitoring, and operating even the most perfectly designed aircraft and safety systems. Humans will always make mistakes and there will always be a few people who misbehave, and therein lies the risk. Having said that, however, flying is far safer today than it has ever been and technological advances will ensure that flight safety continues to improve into the future.