The Terrifying Unbroken Plane Crash Scene

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What happened during the Unbroken plane crash? How did Louis Zamperini survive?

The Unbroken plane crash is a major scene in the book. It sparks the beginning of Louis’s life as MIA and later a POW. His wartime years were exceptionally difficult, and the Unbroken plane crash marks the beginning of this stage in his life.

What is the Unbroken Plane Crash Scene?

On May 26, a nine-man crew took off in another B-24, piloted by Clarence Corpening. The next morning, Louis woke early to run. He asked a sergeant to pace him in a jeep and discovered he’d run a mile in 4:12 in the sand. He was in prime performance condition. After returning to his barracks, Louis learned that Corpening’s plane never reached its destination. 

Phil and Louis were told to take the Green Hornet on a rescue mission to find Corpening’s plane. Another pilot, Joe Deasy, would join them in the Daisy Mae. Louis left a note telling his fellow servicemen to drink his liquor if he didn’t come back, then headed out. The Green Hornet’s crew was ready to fly.

Rescue Mission

Leading up to the the Unbroken plane crash scene, Louis and his crew were given instructions to search a 200-mile circumference around the island of Palmyra, where Corpening’s plane was believed to have gone down. Louis and Phil were concerned about the Green Hornet. Phil was wary of flying a plane he’d never flown before, Louis was worried about its immense weight. There was also the issue of missing parts, and both hoped that nothing important had been removed. 

Louis also checked to make sure survival provisions were on the plane. There was a supply box and two rafts onboard, as well as safety vests for the 11-man crew. Louis put his vest on as soon as he was on the plane. 

The Green Hornet and Daisy Mae took off side by side, but because of the Green Hornet’s propensity for mushing, Louis’s plan fell behind. Phil told the Daisy Mae crew to go ahead and soon lost sight of the companion plane. 

During the search, Cuppernell asked to switch places with Phil, a common request during non-combat flights so copilots could gain experience. Shortly after Cuppernell took over, a crewman noticed one engine burning more fuel than those on the opposite side of the plane. Then, the engine stopped, and the uneven distribution of power caused the Green Hornet to dip to one side and sink. This is the beginning of the dramatic Unbroken plane crash scene.

Feathering is a technique in which the side of the plane with the dead engine is turned toward the wind to cease propeller rotation. Feathering was the co-pilot’s job, but since Cuppernell was in the pilot seat and Phil was busy trying to keep the plane afloat, a new engineer was brought forward for the task. 

On the control panel, each engine has a “feathering” button. The new engineer rushed into the cockpit, flipped open the plastic cover, and slammed down on one button. Unfortunately, he killed the working engine on the same side as the dead one. With maximum power on one side and no power on the other, the plane began to roll through the air. Phil tried to get the good engine started again, but there was no time. He told the crew, “Prepare to crash.”

Louis jumped into action and commanded everyone to get into crash positions, then pulled out the life rafts. Mac clutched the supply box. In the cockpit, Phil watched the ocean rising faster and faster toward them. As Louis watched the twirling sky out the window, his final thought before impact was that none of them would survive. 

On Death’s Door

Immediately following the Unbroken plane crash scene, the only sensation Louis felt was the downward pull of the ocean. The plane had burst apart on impact, and as pieces sank, Louis sank with them. Louis tried to swim free, but he was stuck beneath a gun mount with cables wound around his body. 

With a bleeding head wound, Phil struggled to escape the sinking cockpit. He found an open window and, using his feet and all his strength, shoved himself free. When he reached the surface, he saw pieces of the wreckage and two empty lifeboats in the distance. There was no one else above water. He held onto a piece of the plane and waited. 

Far below the surface, Louis continued to struggle against the wires that gripped him. The water pressure caused his ears to pop, and he felt a painful surge through his head and passed out. When Louis regained consciousness, he was surrounded by blackness, but the wires trapping him were gone. 

Louis’s chest burned as he took in ocean water mixed with oil, gas, and blood. He figured out his bearings inside the sinking capsule, forced his way out, and pulled the engagement string on his life vest. The vest ballooned and pulled him upward. When he reached the surface, Louis swallowed fresh air greedily. He was alive. 

The Unbroken plane crash was a dramatic and terrifying scene in the book. Louis and two friends, Mac and Phil survived. Mac died sometime after the Unbroken plane crash while they are still lost at sea, while Phil and Louis were discovered by the Japanese military.

The Terrifying Unbroken Plane Crash Scene

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Unbroken summary:

  • How Louie Zamperini was on track to become an Olympic athlete until the war started
  • The unbelievable story of his capture as a prisoner of war
  • The ultimate fate of Louie and his captors

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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