TODAY   |  March 31, 2015

‘Why planes crash’ examines in-air collisions

When two planes in the same airspace collide it’s a rarity, but it still happens. In 2006, a small business jet lost radio contact and the results were catastrophic. TODAY’s Lester Holt reports, with an interview with the New York Times business travel columnist Joe Sharkey who experienced the 2006 collision.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> mid air collisions, two planes in the same air space at the exact same time, thankfully are a rarity these days. but they still happen on occasion. tonight on "why planes crash" on msnbc i take a look at a collision that happened over the skies of brazil back in 2006 . a small business jet with seven americans onboard was flying at the same altitude as a boeing 737 when catastrophe struck. i warn you some of you might find the animation you are about to see tough to watch. by the time radio contact is made at 4:53 p.m . the connection is so bad the legacy pilot and controller can't understand each other. the planes are closing in.

>> everybody was sort of dozing or working. i hear and feel, bang. and the loudest noise i've ever heard. i was in vietnam and i've heard bombs. but just bang! and every atom in my body i felt kind of implode.

>> i've flown as a passenger a lot and you go through all kinds of weather and all kinds of turbulence and i've never felt an impact like this before.

>> reporter: because of the angle at which the planes collide, the 737, though much larger, takes a far worse hit than the legacy.

>> one of the wings, which has a wind lid on it, actually spliced through the 737 wing. there's a lot of flight control systems that are damaged. it rendered the airplane incapacitated and uncontrollable and as the 737 went out of control, of course, the aero dynamic forces actually caused it to break up in flight.

>> reporter: everyone onboard the legacy knows something bad has happened. but they don't know they've collided with another aircraft. they don't even know their plane is damaged until joe sharkey looks out his window.

>> i opened my window shutter and looked out. this is a sight i'll never forget. i'm looking at the wing and part of it is missing. it's a jagged bit of metal.

>> they need on the ground in a hurry. they need the first available airport.

>> "new york times" business traveler joe sharkey you just saw in that report was aboard the legacy that day. good morning. great to see you.

>> good morning, lester.

>> i remember you were on with matt shortly after you got back from brazil.

>> i was.

>> and you describe in that tape the noise, seeing the jagged piece of the wing. but did you -- did anybody in that airplane realize you had struck another airplane?

>> we did not. we had no idea what had happened. obviously something catastrophic had happened. i think the assumption was that the best guess was that a military plane might have exploded at a higher altitude and we hit debris. as we found out later when two airplanes are coming at each other each one flying at 500 miles an hour, you don't see it. it's a closing speed of a thousand miles an hour so you see nothing.

>> it's a flash. we saw the wing lid is sheared off but the plane is still flying. as you're flying and they're looking for what they eventually found was a military air field was the wing starting to lose pieces?

>> the leading edge was starting to come up, starting to come apart. so, you know, i didn't know enough about flying then to know how dangerous and how bad that is.

>> enough to write a note to your wife.

>> we figured we done. we had 25 minutes of flying. we were gradually losing altitude. it was basically a slow crash. yeah. we had 25 minutes to contemplate disaster.

>> you had been down in brazil writing articles on business aviation . you guys get on the ground eventually and then you had to put on your "new york times" reporter hat.

>> that's correct.

>> now you're covering a serious accident. do you remember the moment when everyone learned that plane had struck a passenger jet and that plane was lost?

>> i'll never forget it. we were three hours in custody in this sort of remote brazilian base in the middle of the amazon and no one there knew what had happened. but three hours later, the base got a phone call that the brazilian plane had disappeared at the same place we had the impact. i have to tell you, i've never seen the american pilots -- i've never seen two people as stricken as these guys were. they were just stricken with grief and with misgivings about what might have happened because we simply didn't know. we hadn't put it together. to suddenly have this, to be told that's what happened is stunning. and i'll just never forget that, that time in the jungle with those people.

>> i know the facts are somewhat in dispute as to the cause. the u.s. had an investigation and the brazilians as well. we'll get more into that in tonight's program.