A scientist who was a passenger on a transatlantic flight that ran out of fuel over the middle of the ocean has carried out a study to assess the long-term trauma of making an emergency landing at sea where everyone thought they might die.
Margaret McKinnon, a psychologist at Canada’s McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, interviewed 15 fellow passengers on the Air Transit flight from Toronto to Lisbon on 24 August 2001, who were involved in a terrifying ordeal lasting 30 minutes.
Halfway through the flight, the passengers were told to prepare for an ocean ditching when the pilot discovered that the plane had suddenly run out of fuel.
The 306 passengers and crew on board Flight 236 had to don lifejackets, breathe from oxygen masks and engage the brace position as the plane made a rapid descent to the ocean.
Five minutes before the ditching, however, the pilot managed to locate a military airstrip on an island in the Azores and safely glided the aircraft to a rough landing.
“My motivation was that this was a unique opportunity to study the memories of a group of people who had shared the same traumatic event,” Dr McKinnon said.
“Imagine your worst nightmare – that’s what it was like. This wasn’t just a close call where your life flashes before your eyes in a split second and then everything is ok. It lasted an excruciating 30 minutes and was extremely frightening,” she said.
The study found that all the passengers had a deeply enhanced memory of the event, whether or not they suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. Previous research had suggested than only PTSD sufferers were likely to have vivid memories of a traumatic incident.
However, Dr McKinnon and her colleagues compared passengers with PTSD with those who did not and found that sufferers had much stronger memories of other contemporary details of their lives that were not directly relevant to the actual incident.
“We expected people with PTSD to have the most enhanced memories but we didn’t find that. They all had enhanced memories. However, the passengers with PTSD had a better memory of ‘non-episodic events’ that had no direct bearing on the traumatic event itself,” Dr McKinnon said.
“This tells us something about the quality of the memory and how perhaps we should go about treating PTSD,” she said.