Fans of Star Trek are all too familiar with the scene: the ship is badly damaged, the helm is unresponsive, and everything seems to be going wrong. In moments like this, Captain Kirk invariably punches a button on the arm of his chair and calls for help from the Enterprise‘s third in command, Commander Montgomery Scott. When all else fails, Scotty always seems to come up with a solution, securing his reputation as “The Miracle Worker.”
Star Trek is, of course, the brainchild of Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry’s optimistic and heroic vision of the future has inspired millions since Star Trek first graced the television screen in 1966. What most people do not know is that 20 years before the Scotty first came to the Enterprise‘s rescue, Roddenberry found himself in a similar and all-too-real scenario where he earned his own title as “The Miracle Worker.”
Roddenberry served during World War II as a B-17 pilot. His training and experience prepared him for a career in aviation, and Pam American World Airways was eager to sign him on for its newly-expanded air services.
He was serving as third officer of Pan Am Flight 121 on June 19, 1947. The Lockheed L-049 Constellation was a state-of-the-art aircraft, and as it settled into its flight from Karachi, India to Istanbul, Turkey, everything seemed routine.
Five hours into the flight, one of the left engines abruptly failed. The plane could continue in flight with the remaining engines, but it wasn’t long before another serious problem occurred. The remaining engines, overstressed from the extra effort of supporting the plane, overheated. Finally, one caught fire.
Panicked passengers expressed alarm at the sight of flames coming from the engine. Roddenberry moved from the cockpit to the passenger cabin to reassure the anxious travelers. It was at that point that the burning engine detached from the wing. Roddenberry worked to keep everyone calm, even as he prepared them for the inevitable crash landing.
The plane made its unplanned touchdown in the deserts of Syria. Roddenberry sustained broken ribs and bruises, but pushed his own discomfort out of his mind and sprang into action. With the wrecked remnants of the plane burning all around him, he searched throughout the crash site and managed to rescue 22 survivors from the wreckage.
Surviving the crash was only half of the battle. Roddenberry divided the survivors into two groups and went looking for help. The finally managed to locate a village and call for help.
Roddenberry’s heroism and professionalism saved the day for 22 people, but he decided a career in aviation was not how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. He left Pan American World Airways shortly after the crash of Pam Am Flight 121 and devoted his energies to writing.
When Star Trek entered the public consciousness, fans would be captivated by the way the Enterprise‘s crew always managed to overcome insurmountable odds. Little did they know those science fiction scenarios were written by a man who actually knew what it took to turn death into a fighting chance to live.
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