Aviation Reporting: Good and Bad

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Pilots are, if nothing else, predictable and easily disposed toward certain knee-jerk reactions. One of these is to rail mightily against news coverage of aviation topics that gets the fact wrong or that show the writer's ignorance of the basic technology. (We all sang from this hymnal when the kid controller story broke earlier this month.)

Herewith are two examples—one that's quite good, another that's, well, sloppy and lazily written or researched. The first is Tom Vanderbilt's blog about road landings, which appears here on Slate. You may recall I wrote about Vanderbilt's book, Traffic, a few weeks ago. His shtick is to pore over technical research and technical matter and mine it for findings that a general reader will find interesting. And he's good at it.

In reporting on road landings, he does something that's difficult for reporters to do: He produces a story that readers knowledgeable of the topic will find little technical fault with. Further, he aptly identifies the principle issues pilots think about when considering landing on a road and places them in context that will inform the general reader without insulting the pilot reader. I can tell you from experience as a reporter and editor, this is not easy to do at all, never mind do well.

Then there's this mess over on the DailyBeast, written by Clive Irving, who is identified as the site's aviation expert. Irving has been following the Air France 447 investigation, which hasn't made much progress because the data recorders haven't been recovered. Down in the body of the text is this gem: "This directive suggests a far more specific flaw in the Airbus air speed gauges than has been admitted before. There are three of these gauges on each Airbus, called pitot tubes."

Of course, any student pilot knows that a pitot tube isn't a "speed gauge," it's a pipe connected to a hose connected to an instrument. As an editor, I look at a clunker like this and think several things simultaneously: The writer is too technically inept to understand such basics when they are explained, he can't write well enough to distill technical subjects into prose a general reader will grasp or he thinks the reader is too dumb to digest a sentence like this: On the nose of every Airbus are three so-called pitot tubes, small pipe-like devices connected to air data computers that calculate and display the aircraft's airspeed.

(I have committed all three of the aforementioned sins, so I recognize them when I see them.)

The point, I guess, is that anyone who identifies himself as an aviation expert ought to know what a pitot tube is.

Comments (14)

I read the article in question on DailyBeast. I would love to see what makes him an "expert", other than that DailyBeast says he is. Is he a pilot? has he worked for an airline? Or maybe it's just that he knows all the dialogue from the movie "Airplane". BTW, Brian Ross over at ABCNews.com has another "investigative" piece on the grave terrorist threat from private airplanes.

Posted by: Chris McLellan | March 23, 2010 12:46 PM    Report this comment

Same problem here in Ireland. Nonsense written by Journos called experts by their editor because he talks over their heads about things they all know nothing about.
Maybe pilots should take a proactive stance and submit corrected info to the said culprits.

Posted by: James McErlain | March 24, 2010 4:15 AM    Report this comment

Sometimes the irritation comes from just wanting to get a straight story; even if the journalists' intent is reasonably good they just can't get it right. I just watched a video piece on Fox concerning a rookie controller who talked down a King Air after the pilot diverted in-flight to the pearly gates. Great story, potentially, but despite the controller trying to tell it coherently, both the anchor and the superimposed text were spouting mostly utter gibberish. And they kept cutting to stock footage of a Cherokee landing. Good grief.

Posted by: Glenn Killinger | March 24, 2010 9:56 AM    Report this comment

No one is holding these aviation 'experts' to task. And the 'experts' know this, and also know the pubic in general could care less on the technicality of a story in an industry they only want to use, not learn about. I face the same thing when I constantly have to explain to all outside of amateur astronomy that a stronger power eyepiece lens will not make Saturn closer and clearer. Only more aperture will. Few understand that and fewer still care to. If we want this stuff right we have to keep hounding the 'experts' with the facts - the public sure won't demand it.

Posted by: David Miller | March 24, 2010 11:30 AM    Report this comment

Reminds me of the old saying that people tend to believe what they read in the papers until it's about something they know something about.

Posted by: KIRK WENNERSTROM | March 24, 2010 10:43 PM    Report this comment

While not speaking directly to the articles Paul references, I think much of the national reporting (USA Today, specifically) is very slanted and the impetus for this arises from basic envy. Their thought, based on the current "share the wealth, we are all equal & therefore deserve whatever anyone else has" zeitgeist has generated the envy that since they can't enjoy the freedom, independence and joy that is afforded General Aviation pilots, no one should. (I know, it's a run on sentence, but I couldn't break up the thought) The growing secular progressive direction some in our country are pursuing would dictate that we all live in 10 story brownstones, ride mass transit to work, eat our recycled waste and go quietly into the afterlife with nary a whimper.

Posted by: Burns Moore | March 25, 2010 9:31 AM    Report this comment

"Reminds me of the old saying that people tend to believe what they read in the papers until it's about something they know something about."

Same goes for seeing inaccuracies in a nationally reported story regarding a local event. Sometimes the correct details are just lost in the info. transfer or interpretation.

Posted by: Mike Holshouser | March 25, 2010 9:31 AM    Report this comment

Having been on both receiving sides of the ol pen, alot or should I say most depends on the writer. Being part of an governmental agency that established a new aviation unit, it was a roller coaster ride to say the least. I worked hard after receiving the aircraft to including PR rides with the local media and a couple saves. That paid off in spades when a compressor failure caused a crash of the 2nd helo. Injuries were minor and although the accident took place in front of the busy Emergency Operations Center and was a total for the airframe...it was called a hard landing by the Press and that was it until the NTSB report and by then old news. On other issues like Tasers, I have seen the reporter turn and ignore his/her known facts for the sensational approach in hopes for the Pulitzer. Like the old saying, "a little knowledge can be dangerous." Reminds one of lyrics from the song Dirty Laundry; "The bubble-headed bleach blonde comes on at five, to tell you about the plane crash with a gleam in her eye, its exciting when people die..."

Posted by: Chuck West | March 25, 2010 11:15 AM    Report this comment

I really like the way Clive tied the Toyota fiasco in with this. Is that why he "reported" on this? Just because i am a pilot of a C-172, doesn't make me an Airbus expert either. I think it should follow the same path as type ratings: if you don't fly it, don't report on it; Or at least don't try to sound like you know what you are talking about.

Posted by: MICHAEL SULLIVAN | March 25, 2010 11:50 AM    Report this comment

Burns Moore touched on an interesting point...until the Internet I never knew how much of a love/hate relationship people had with GA. A lot of the anti-GA rhetoric I saw seemed to come from either fear or envy. People who don't know better are fed on a steady diet of aircraft accidents, "evil" rich people and their jets, and theoretical terrorist threats. They then go out on message boards wringing their hands, angry that some people have more than they do or incredulous that a responsible society would allow people to actually operate their own aircraft. "I'm afraid of flying, therefore small aircraft are dangerous and the people who fly them just aren't right."

Posted by: Chris McLellan | March 25, 2010 12:38 PM    Report this comment

I know I'll probably stir up a lot of **it with this comment, but I'm an aerospace engineer and a GA pilot (have been for more than half my life). My engineer co-workers and I are always complaining about how many pilots don't know the first thing about how their aircraft work (and are usually to hard-headed to be corrected by someone who truly knows). By the same token, many engineers have no idea how an aircraft is operated (and are usually too hard-headed to be corrected by someone who truly knows).

I'm reminded of the 10,000 hour airline pilot that asked me (back in my gliding days) what happened when the wind stopped.

Point is, just having a pilot's licence doesn't make you qualified to report correctly on an aviation story. Same thing for an engineering degree. You have to be able to look at multiple sources and try to weed out the correct information.

Posted by: Alex Rudy | March 30, 2010 3:12 PM    Report this comment

I never claimed that the phrase "grave threat" was in the story. Those were my words. No, the article was not about the planes themselves, but planes can't become terrorist weapons without a terrorist on board. Maybe I'm missing the point of the article. This sounds to me like a failure of Customs. Much was made about Chagoury criss-crossing the United States, but he would have had to hit an airport of entry at some point and actually deal with a Customs inspector. Why wasn't he stopped there? That's a different issue than applying airline-style screening to private aircraft passengers. Carrying known passengers on a privately-owned aircraft doesn't imply the same risks as carrying the general public on an airline. Terrorists can cross this country at will in land vehicles, but nobody seems to worry about that. I also take issue with the statement about TSA encountering "resistance from some advocates for privately-owned planes". The wording there implies that some lobbyist scuttled a national security initiative. The resistance from the GA community was more than "some advocates". The public comments about LASP were overwhelmingly negative.

Posted by: Chris McLellan | March 30, 2010 6:35 PM    Report this comment

Let's get this straight, terrorists can and only will use airplanes to facilitate terrorism--by only using any given plane as a weapon on any given flight?
Chris you must be smarter than that, I assure you most terrorists are.
The ones that pulled off 9-11 or even the guy who flew his plane into the IRS building recently was. If you read the story, which never implied (like Chris does) that the airplanes themselves have to be used as a terrorist weapon by some implied requirement (they can be of course if that would be effective (as they have been before in successful and unsuccessful/attempted terrorist acts)

FYI-The story clearly states he flew into and out of the US (more than once) I don't know of any other way to get here by airplane do you?

Why wasn't he stopped .. beats me he should have been. Seems you did get the point of the story after all. The current law regarding people on terror watch lists (No Fly etc) on aircraft -- do not apply to pax on private aircraft. Even though he was on two US anti-terror watch lists-their was NO LEGAL basis to stop and hold him. That is why he was let go. He was stopped in NJ outbound from the US in Feb 2010 as the story states. Somebody there in LE paid attention. Everywhere else they didn't.

Do I have this correct? .. you believe that a terrorist would never use a private aircraft to commit a terrorist act? or to facilitate one via some other methods?

Posted by: Eric Longabardi | March 30, 2010 7:59 PM    Report this comment

Of course it's possible to use a private aircraft...almost any vehicle can and has been used as a weapon. But the utility of screening people flying on a private aircraft is overblown. The guy in Austin didn't have to be all that smart...he kept his mouth shut about his plans and flew his privately owned airplane into the building. All the flight plans and background checks in the world wouldn't have stopped this guy.

If you're talking about getting screened at an airport of entry, that's one thing...That's what Customs is for, and I agree that anyone entering the US should be screened. What I don't find acceptable is applying this kind of screening to passengers on entirely domestic flights on private aircraft, and that's what LASP was all about. The vast majority of passengers on private aircraft are known quantities--they're employees of the company or invited by the owner and/or pilot. By that logic, we should start background checks on anyone who uses their own vehicle to go anywhere. Do you want to be subjected to a background check to be able to drive your private car? How about doing background checks on your passengers in your private vehicle? Why is that any different? If we're going to start screening people who are moving within the country, especially with something as error-ridden as the terror watch list, then let's go all the way with it. I don't want the kind of country where private domestic travel requires government clearance.

Posted by: Chris McLellan | March 30, 2010 11:19 PM    Report this comment

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