Joe Sharkey, who provided pragmatic advice to business travelers in hundreds of articles in the New York Times only to find himself at the center of a harrowing disaster in 2006, when the executive plane he was traveling on collided with a Boeing 737 over the Brazil, died November 6 at his home in Tucson, Arizona. He was 77 years old.
The cause was a hypertensive stroke, said his wife, Nancy Sharkey, a retired Times editor.
Mr. Sharkey was returning home from a freelance assignment for Business Jet Traveler magazine on Sept. 11, 2019. Friday, Oct. 29, 2006, when the airliner clipped a wing and tail of the Embraer Legacy 600 carrying him , four other passengers and a two-man crew at 37,000 feet above the Amazon rainforest.
The executive plane managed to land safely at a remote military airport, but the Gol Linhas Aéreas commercial airliner that collided with it did not have such a lucky fate: it crashed to the ground, killing all 154 people on board. At the time it was the deadliest civilian plane crash in Brazil.
The collision spurred investigations by the Brazilian military and American transportation safety investigators. Both placed the blame on air traffic controllers, but never fully resolved who was to blame or why the planes were flying at the same altitude.
Mr. Sharkey was writing the weekly “On the Road” column for the Times’ business travel pages when he gave a vivid first-person account of the collision. He had it on the front page the following Tuesday under the headline “Confront Death at 37,000 Feet and Live.”
“Without warning, I felt a terrible jolt and heard a loud bang, followed by an eerie silence, apart from the hum of the engines,” Mr. Sharkey wrote. “And then the three words that I will never forget. “We were hit,” said Henry Yandle, another passenger standing in the aisle near the cockpit of the Embraer Legacy 600 jet.
He added: “The sky was clear; the sun low in the sky. The rainforest has gone on forever. But there, at the end of the wing, was a jagged ridge, maybe a foot high, where the five-foot wing should have been.
“And so began the most harrowing 30 minutes of my life,” he continued. “Over the next few days they would tell me over and over again that no one ever survives a mid-air collision. “I was lucky to be alive.” Only later did she learn that everyone aboard the Boeing 737 had died.
“I thought about my family,” he wrote. “There was no point in taking out your cell phone to try to call: there was no signal. And as our hopes faded with the sun, some of us took notes for spouses and loved ones and put them in our wallets, hoping they would later be found.”
Among his traveling companions were executives from Embraer, the plane’s Brazilian manufacturer, as well as ExcelAire, the charter company that was ferrying the plane to its base on Long Island.
Sharkey’s weekly columns, filled with personal insights, were popular because they offered practical strategies for making business travel, by any means of transportation, more convenient.
I compared the benefits of taking Amtrak to those of booking short flights in the Northeast Corridor; reported that more and more budget-strapped companies were forcing employees to share hotel rooms; wrote about cruise lines’ efforts to woo business travelers; and gave advice on how to get through airport security.
“Although Sharkey’s columns are more concerned with the functional operations of air travel,” wrote Christopher Schaberg in “The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight” (2012), “his reliance on literary form is significant: Sharkey lays the groundwork for the airport as a textual space, a place of performance that begs to be interpreted.”
Joseph Michael Sharkey was born on October 15, 1946 in Philadelphia. His mother, Marcella (Welch) Sharkey, was a supervisor for JC Penny. His father, Joseph C. Sharkey, was a shift supervisor for the Philadelphia Electric Company and a consultant for the company’s nuclear power plant.
Joe attended Pennsylvania State University, majoring in English. He was the first in his family to attend college but, short of money, he did not graduate. Instead he joined the Navy. After appealing to the base chaplain during basic training to be transferred to a less dangerous job than tailgating landing planes on an aircraft carrier, he was assigned as a reporter for the Navy News Service in Vietnam.
His marriage to Carolynne White ended in divorce in 1982. He married Nancy J. Albaugh in 1985. In addition to his wife, he is survived by children from his first marriage, Dr. Caroline N. Sharkey, Lisa Stone, and Christopher Sharkey; his siblings, Eileen O’Hara, Susan Palmer and Thomas, Edward and Michael Sharkey; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Before joining the Times, Sharkey was a reporter and columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer; the executive city editor of The Times-Union in Albany, NY; and assistant national editor of the Wall Street Journal.
He wrote a weekly “Jersey” column for three years for The Times before launching his business travel column in 1999, which he wrote for 16 years until his retirement in 2015. He continued to write a column column in line.
Mr. Sharkey was also the author of one novel and five nonfiction crime books, one of which, “Above Suspicion: An Undercover FBI Agent, an Illicit Affair, and a Murder of Passion” (1993), was adapted into a film released in 2021.