Air-Minded: Uncritical Reportage of Aviation Accidents

Is there something about aviation accidents reporters don’t understand? Upwards of 95% of airplane crashes (actually, more like 99.9%) are caused by the pilots involved. But you might never guess that from newspaper, magazine, and blog reportage, where a passive-voice form of politeness takes over. They report the who/what/when/where of aviation accidents, but rarely the why, which in virtually all cases is operator screw-up. Why do reporters covering aviation accidents so often handle pilots with kid gloves? They don’t do it for anyone else.

I’ve been following the automotive blog Jalopnik.  Jalopnik’s ground-level reporting seems right on, but when they tackle aviation the results can be risible. Two examples from this past week:

New Photos of Jack Roush’s Scary Plane Crash

A NASCAR team owner flies his own airplane to Oshkosh.  He gets too slow on final approach. His private jet does what any airplane will do in such a situation . . . it stalls (aviation-speak for “quits flying”), rolls, drops like a stone, and hits the ground.

How does Jalopnik describe it? “Roush’s Raytheon/Beechcraft Premier 390 reportedly stalled during an attempted landing at the Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture Fly-In in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.”

Get that? It’s not that Jack Roush did anything. It was the airplane that stalled. One would almost think the reporter thinks “stall” means the engines quit working. Matter of fact, I bet that’s exactly what the reporter does think.

It’s interesting to note that this is the second airplane Mr. Roush has crashed. You’d think he was a doctor, not a car guy.

Malware Blamed for Disastrous Plane Crash

This one is particularly misleading. MSNBC reports (and Jalopnik uncritically passes on) that computer malware caused a deadly airline crash in 2008. Sounds pretty spooky, right?

Not exactly. The pilot and co-pilot tried to take off without setting the slats and flaps. That’s what caused this accident. Had they properly configured their airplane for takeoff, in accordance with procedure, they would not have crashed, and 154 people would not have died. How do I know this? I Googled “Spanair Flight 5022” and read the NTSB accident report (as MSNBC and Jalopnik should have done).

The malware report MSNBC and Jalopnik are trying to sensationalize, two years after the fact, says that Spanair’s ground maintenance computer system may have been infected with a trojan virus, preventing ground maintenance crews from calling up known problems listed in the airplane’s computerized flight log. Okay, that’s a problem worth investigating and fixing, but it had nothing to do with the crash.

Still, I understand the temptation to sensationalize. Wouldn’t it be scary if Al Qaeda could bring down airliners by introducing viruses into on-board computers? You can see the movie now: a giant 747 lifting off from a runway at LAX as a bearded jihadi in a nearby Starbucks sweats over an iPad screen showing a horizontal bar and a flashing word: LOADING . . . LOADING . . . LOADING . . .

Look, Jalopnik (and MSNBC) dudes and dudettes, you wouldn’t hesitate to call a speeding car driver a dumb shit for running a red light and killing a family in a mini-van, would you? Airplane drivers shouldn’t be treated any differently.

© 2010 – 2020, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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