Stargazing

Comic of ‘Star Trek’ creator Gene Roddenberry’s 1947 plane crash strikes emotional chord

A comic about “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry drawn by Seattle cartoonist Matthew Inman has gone viral.
A comic about “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry drawn by Seattle cartoonist Matthew Inman has gone viral. Twitter

A story about “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry depicted in a comic that went viral this week seemed so amazing that even Internet myth-buster Snopes investigated it.

As a young pilot Roddenberry survived a plane crash in 1947 and heroically pulled people from the burning plane?

True story.

Seattle cartoonist Matthew Inman told the tale in a series of illustrations he posted earlier this week to his website, The Oatmeal.

By the end of the week the comic had been seen by millions, shared more than 67,000 times on Facebook and retweeted more than 4,000 times on Twitter. (You can see it here.)

Inman, known for his humorous cartoons, seemed overwhelmed by the response to this serious one, which he spent nearly a week creating.

“Thanks to everyone for the amazing, heartfelt responses to my latest comic. Other than going for runs in the woods nearby, I didn't leave my house for five days as I was drawing this - it kind of took over my life,” he wrote on Facebook Thursday.

“I know this one is a bit heavy, so I promise I'll return to jokes about bears and butts very soon.”

In June of 1947 Roddenberry was a much-decorated B-17 pilot in World War II working for Pan Am on Flight 121 from Calcutta. During the leg from Karachi to Istanbul, one of the plane’s engines caught fire and fell off.

The plane crashed into the Syrian desert, killing seven crew members and seven passengers.

Hobbled by broken ribs, Roddenberry, then 26, helped pull survivors from the fiery wreckage. The last passenger he pulled out died in his arms.

His actions helped save 22 lives that day.

After the crash Roddenberry quit flying. He resigned from Pan Am to pursue a new frontier - TV writing. “Star Trek” debuted in 1966.

Roddenberry fans likely already knew the plane crash story, detailed in “Star Trek Creator: The Authorized Biography of Gene Roddenberry,” which Inman cited as his source.

“All we could do then was watch while the plane burned, slowly at first and then fiercely,” one of the stewardesses from the fated flight recounted in the book.

“It must have burned for hours, but I do not remember too well. There wasn't any sound but those flames. Everybody who died must have been killed outright.”

Inman told The Washington Post that he was moved by Roddenberry’s “unfettered humanity.”

“No wonder his stories are so compelling and crazy and heartfelt,” Inman told The Post. “He has this whole other life before being a TV writer. Most of us have one.”

Readers have been struck most by the sense of hope and solace Inman depicts by drawing Roddenberry comforting a terrified young woman on the plane as it goes down.

(Readers of Roddenberry’s biography have pointed out online that he walked down the aisle comforting all the passengers, telling them lies like “it looks worse than it is” to keep everyone calm as the plane went down.)

In Inman’s comic Roddenberry sits next to the woman and holds her as he watches the engine burn and then fall off the plane.

“It’s going to be OK,” he tells her.

“A friend of mine has had several family tragedies this year,” a woman wrote to Inman on Facebook this week. “She's too young to be going through what she has... I posted your comic on her wall after she announced the death of her mother. I think it meant a lot to her.”

After soaking up two days of accolades Inman found himself in an odd and ironic situation on Thursday.

He shared it on Twitter.

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