Why Speculating on Crashes Is a Good Thing

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In case you haven't noticed, the way you receive and process information has undergone a fundamental revolution during the past decade. You now have stuff coming at you a mile a minute from dozens of sources—Web sites, e-mail, print, cellphone and texting, radio, cable. What you may not have noticed is that this has radically changed the way we hear about and think about aircraft accidents.

The salient recent example is Air France 447, in which bits and pieces of information continue to trickle out slow-leak fashion, like a box of jigsaw puzzle pieces with a hole in one corner. Another example is the Colgan crash in Buffalo, where the NTSB was unusually forthcoming with detailed information as the crash investigation got underway.

What this does, of course, is to fuel rampant speculation about causes. In days of yore, we used to consider ourselves smug professionals in showing the discipline and sophistication to avoid speculating until the accident investigators had done their job. Now, it's more or less a free for all in every aviation forum across cyberspace, not to mention the talking heads on cable TV.

Is this is a bad thing? In my view, it's a good thing. For one, it permits the individual reader to place his or her own opinions and beliefs against a broader perspective. Nothing clarifies the thinking like having it exposed to even semi-rigorous review. Second, long threads discussing these sorts of things inevitably draw in participants who have not just informed opinions, but direct, hands on expertise with the airplane's being discussed. I've learned more about the Airbus series of airplanes by blogging about the type than I ever would have otherwise.

The potential downside of this—and it's not much of one for the sophisticated reader—is the closed-loop feedback syndrome. At one point a couple of weeks ago, CNN was quoting the scattershot opinions and views expressed on PPrune as actual news. That's just dumb journalism, in my view, but the savvy viewer should be able to recognize it for what it is. And generally, the participants in AVweb's forums are quite savvy.

So, if you have an opinion, a question or information to add about an aviation accident, by all means feel free to express it. I certainly do. If the idea has high dingbat value, don't worry, someone will let you know. Besides, the world needs dingbats, too.

Comments (24)

Excellent perspective, sir. I wish the heavy iron hot shots at the other forum were a little less intolerant of non-expert (read, non-Airbus-driver)questions and suggestions. I think most of us are professional enough to understand the difference between what amounts to e-hangar flying and a real accident investigation. Speculation, hopefully somewhat informed speculation, is just how the aviation community has processed tragedies as long as I've been around airplanes. The technical posts at PPRuNe have opened my eyes to just how complex a system a modern heavy aircraft is. I am certain that however the details turn out, the cause of this tragic accident will have been an unexpected combination of normally recoverable problems. I truly hope that the better angels prevail in the long run, and the result is a new step forward in aeronautical safety.

Posted by: Glenn Killinger | June 15, 2009 3:16 PM    Report this comment

Wholeheartedly agree, and willing to add even further : running through my own what-if scenario's (as well as a selected few of others that I deem worthy - my prerogative :-), I feel better prepared for an eventual mishap. Take the Hudson dive : what would I do in this case ? Where do I look, how do I evaluate distance. I may even try this out one day, aim for a field on the edge of what I think should work, and then validate that assumption. Whether my concoctions relate to the actual cause of this or that accident is moot, the fact is just contemplating a number of options makes me more knowledgeable and better prepared. Besides, part of my attraction to flying is the combination of so many sciences, and most accidents offer interesting concoctions of science to fuel thought. Keep up the great work AvWeb !

Posted by: Peter De Ceulaer | June 16, 2009 4:56 AM    Report this comment

Wholeheartedly agree, and willing to add even further : running through my own what-if scenario's (as well as a selected few of others that I deem worthy - my prerogative :-), I feel better prepared for an eventual mishap. Take the Hudson dive : what would I do in this case ? Where do I look, how do I evaluate distance. I may even try this out one day, aim for a field on the edge of what I think should work, and then validate that assumption. Whether my concoctions relate to the actual cause of this or that accident is moot, the fact is just contemplating a number of options makes me more knowledgeable and better prepared. Besides, part of my attraction to flying is the combination of so many sciences, and most accidents offer interesting concoctions of science to fuel thought. Keep up the great work AvWeb !

Posted by: Peter De Ceulaer | June 16, 2009 4:56 AM    Report this comment

It's a good thing if you are in media, where speculation brings you page views and click throughs for your advertising.

Speculation doesn't require much effort or expertise, which is perfect for this format, which loves to mock the professionals who are tasked with solving and preventing the tragedy from happening again in the future.

Posted by: Max Buffet | June 16, 2009 3:04 PM    Report this comment

Second guessing the investigator is nothing short of a hazardous operations brain storming session. It is a mental exercise in what ifs and what could. Every opinion is valid and each opinion could be correct.

As for NTSB not paying attention – that is their problem. However, some of the board past and present members need a good kick in the ass. Nevertheless, it is mental stimulation for learning and discussion. Nothing about it harmful and it improves the open exchange of ideas.

Posted by: Christopher Basham | June 17, 2009 3:11 AM    Report this comment

As a heavy iron driver I find it ENORMOUSLY annoying. Paul, how would you like to have had your Mooney incident in the Southeast second guessed by a bunch of student pilots ? Imagine how irritating it would be to listen to a bunch of guys who have not even soloed yet speculating on what you did wrong or right concerning this incident. As a volunteer EMT I have no business speculating on what may have gone wrong in complex neurosurgical procedure even though I have a rudimentary knowledge of the human body. So why is that when an Airbus crashes every BOZO with four hours in Cirrus has got an "expert" opinion ? Conversely it is absolutely all right to ASK questions to try to gain better understanding and appreciate what you may not really know. Juries are to be made up of one's peers (though they rarely ever are) PLEASE, leave the speculation to those that have legitmately been there and done that.

Posted by: RANDOLPH PALMA | June 17, 2009 7:35 AM    Report this comment

Hugh, you seem to have an elitist attitude. Remember that even though you're head down into your job, you're SO close to it that you might miss the big picture. Or you can't see the 'remove before flight' streamer from the cockpit. The guy on the ground crew may not know how to get your 'heavy iron' off the ground, but he can sure save your butt by reminding you to uncover that pitot tube. I'm concerned that someone that may end up in the front office of my aircraft isn't open to new viewpoints from others that he considers unqualified to hold those viewpoints. I know, I know... we're not all as smart as you are.

Posted by: brian smyla | June 17, 2009 9:34 AM    Report this comment

Brian, Accepting helpful direction from a ground crewman is not the same as listening to a forty hour wonder prosyletizing as to the cause of an aircarrier accident.

Posted by: RANDOLPH PALMA | June 17, 2009 10:06 AM    Report this comment

Hugh, my point is that even someone with 0 hours logged can be a good source of information. It could be that an outside observer would be able to point to something relevant that trained and experienced persons may have dismissed because of their training and experience. No one person has all the answers, and it's important to accept and consider ALL sources of ideas - whether we happen to personally like the source or not.

Posted by: brian smyla | June 17, 2009 10:25 AM    Report this comment

What if that forty-hour wonder is an engineer involved in designing and building your "heavy iron". I have to agree with Brian - helpful insight can come from the most unlikely sources.

Posted by: Dennis McNish | June 17, 2009 10:28 AM    Report this comment

Dennis, I would WELCOME comments from an Airbus engineer involved in building my heavy iron. Thing is I NEVER SEE them weighing in. I belive that is because like me they are waiting for facts to emerge before they open their respective yaps. For example, right now the "Rocket Surgeons" on the AOPA Forum are prognosticating that Air France was brought down by a meteor ! What next UFO's and Black Helicopters ??? These type of comments do the little guy's credibility little good.

Posted by: RANDOLPH PALMA | June 17, 2009 11:00 AM    Report this comment

To those who suggested them: Meteors, UFO's and Black Helicopters will be added to the list of possibilities. Now have a seat in the back and we'll get to them in order of likelihood :)

Posted by: brian smyla | June 17, 2009 11:06 AM    Report this comment

Hugh, I agree with you on this completely. But in order to have a free discussion you have to allow it,and just toss this nut-case drivel aside. Or think of it as comic relief.

However, there are a lot of folks with little or no experience with analytical minds that think hard and seriously about stuff and just may come up with a gem and it would be too bad to miss it.

By the way I am not a pilot and have never stepped foot in an Airbus aircraft, but I have followed aviation for over 50 years years. I read these columns with the hope that I may learn something and perhaps contribute something as well. Just as I pick the minds of pilot friends (both military and commercial, and recreational),to glean any info I can. You'll never see anything about meteors, black choppers of UFO's in any post of mine. Cheers!

Posted by: Dennis McNish | June 17, 2009 11:25 AM    Report this comment

>>how would you like to have had your Mooney incident in the Southeast second guessed by a bunch of student pilots ?<<

Frankly, I would find it enormously annoying. Why the very nerve...I'd want to box back the ears of these punks because they haven't been there and done that.

But I would never admit that, because I don't want to think of myself--much less state as much--as having such a closed mind as to insist that anyone who hasn't BT/DT shouldn't be allowed to express an opinion on any topic they like, provided it remains civil.

As I approach the yellow band of middle age, I am realizing how much I have learned from people who (a) don't know anything and (b) whom I don't agree with.

I'm beginning to think of myself as an equal opportunity reactionary.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 17, 2009 11:32 AM    Report this comment

If you hold the yoke back long enough, an airplane is gonna go down instead of up. And it doesn't matter if you're 16 or 66, a 6th grade graduate or a PhD holder in all things aviation.

Posted by: Mike Holshouser | June 17, 2009 1:27 PM    Report this comment

Hugh I have to agree with Brian, Dennis and Paul you never know who is actually putting forth a view. The person could very well be an engineer with years of experience or a student pilot.

Hugh you say you would love to hear from an Air Bus engineer. Frankly that will not happen; all engineers sign confidentiality clause in their employment contract. That is done for good measure. It allows the company to speak with one voice and keeps disputes within the experts within the company. Corporation simply do not allow internal issues to be aired in public.

That aside many people that comment here are professionals in their own right. Nevertheless, they are here because of a common bond and that is a deep commitment to aviation in all its forms. A safety engineer can be expected to tackle hazards in any industry and it does not matter whether they are specialists within that industry. It does help to be an insider, but engineers always have to deal with the unknown parameters.

Posted by: Christopher Basham | June 18, 2009 12:21 AM    Report this comment

As for the student pilot, I have taught a few PHDs from the aircraft industry. You will be amazed how quickly your lesson plan can be derailed by an overly simplistic description. They are armed with a depth of structural, mathematical and flight mechanics knowledge. After surviving a baptism of fire I must say I learned more from them than they from me. They got their license and I additional explanations. Don’t just plug the standard lesson plan – know your student.

I suggest you read the terms of how to run a Hazardous Operations team. You will be surprised at it is a structured free for all. Team members are critical and a balance must be struck with different skill sets. These forums are nothing less that a haz ops team were you can only work with who volunteers.

Posted by: Christopher Basham | June 18, 2009 12:23 AM    Report this comment

When and IF I ever see any USEFUL speculation coming from a forum such as this I will GLADLY give that individual an hour of Boeing 777 simulator time !

Posted by: RANDOLPH PALMA | June 18, 2009 5:03 AM    Report this comment

As an engineer, now retired, who spent a number of years laboring over smoking holes in the ground in an attempt to identify the root cause for the accident that caused the hole, I agree with those who say that keeping an open mind is important. Keeping an open mind until all the available evidence is evaluated and analyzed is the surest, perhaps even the only, way to avoid additional smoking holes.

Some, perhaps even most, of the remarks of those cheeky student pilots will miss the mark. However, if even one of their remarks reveals a thread that eventually weaves itself back to the root cause, then listening to all of their remarks with an open mind is worthwhile.

If I broke my airplane, I would want to know how to avoid creating the circumstances that led to the breakage even if it meant listening to a lot of folks with less flying experience than me for clues that might help me avoid the circumstances in the future.

Posted by: William Harper | June 18, 2009 10:18 AM    Report this comment

I am just a low-time Cessna 152/172/182 pilot. But I think the threads about accidents are very valuable for several reasons. First, it gets us all to THINK. As another poster said, it gets us asking ourselves, if I encountered that situation, what would I do? It also gets us to ask ourselves questions like What can I learn from this so I don't find myself in a similar situation one day? Finally, some of the participants in the forum are professional airline pilots who weigh in with their perspective, and I learn things I never know and never would have known because I would not have ever had the opportunity to gain from their experience and knowledge any other way.

Posted by: George True | June 18, 2009 2:14 PM    Report this comment

Unfounded speculation on a focused forum like this one is one thing, speculation that gets airtime by the talking heads of the mainstream media is something else. Here the audience presumably at least has a passing understanding of the subject matter and the truly nonsensical speculation gets what it deserves. And fortunately the odds of any speculation on a forum like this ever reaching the mainstream are pretty slim.

On the other hand, speculation that ends up on the CBS Evening News (or whatever mainstream media you choose) is "reported" by talking heads that dont have a clue what they are talking about. And yet these heads seem to have a way of swaying public perception which has the potential to lead to changes in public policy or regulation that just make no sense. The media of today seems to have a talent for making, shaping, or guiding news rather than merely reporting it. I'd just as soon have them keep their mouths shut.

Posted by: Mike Wills | June 18, 2009 2:16 PM    Report this comment

"When and IF I ever see any USEFUL speculation coming from a forum such as this I will GLADLY give that individual an hour of Boeing 777 simulator time!

Hugh,

That'd be really nice. I could put it in my logbook with the rest of the B777 sim time I've accumulated. EVERYBODY has the right to express an opinion. If you don't like to hear opinions from GA pilots, then don't listen. I have heard more than one low time person in any discipline make the comment/express an opinion that is the key to solving a problem. Sometimes it's just the simple things that those with more experience miss.

Posted by: Linda Pendleton | June 22, 2009 11:59 AM    Report this comment

Kudos, Linda

Posted by: Roger Dugan | June 22, 2009 7:03 PM    Report this comment

Hmmm Linda Pendleton -- I have heard that name before -- definitely not a student pilot!

Hugh you had better beware; I believe I have crossed swords with that lady before.

Live and learn

Posted by: Christopher Basham | June 22, 2009 11:33 PM    Report this comment

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