Perception vs. Reality

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When I first started on the aviation beat, about a hundred years ago, I remember looking at a report about an airliner that had to turn around and land due to “smoke in the cockpit.” I wondered for a minute or two if that was newsworthy, but a little research quickly schooled me — these kind of “emergencies” happen every day. That doesn’t mean it’s not an emergency — you wouldn’t want to ignore that smoke — but it’s not news. Working the beat, you soon learn what’s a real emergency — as in life-threatening — and what’s a “routine” emergency, in that it must be immediately dealt with, but chances are good all will be well. This kind of distinction, though, is not clear to the traveling public.

I always feel a little guilty about that when I encounter news reports about emergency landings, where in fact there is very little risk of a bad outcome — say, a problem with one engine on a two-engine airplane that’s perfectly capable of single-engine flight, or that untraceable everyday smoke — and the passengers are panicking, understandably, and calling their loved ones on their cellphones and composing their final goodbyes on their laptops. I’m sure the cabin crew tries to reassure them all, but you can’t blame them for ignoring that. Reality may be clear to the educated and expert, but misperception rules among the unschooled, in the uncertainty of the moment.

Our job, of course, in the aviation media, is to report the news for our savvy audience, not to educate the teeming masses who have no idea how an airplane flies. That education task, it seems, is nobody’s job, and it never gets done. The same is true when it comes to educating people about gender equity. We expect everyone to know by now that humans are all essentially the same, despite our diversity. Women can be pilots, men can be stay-at-home dads, everyone can be anything they like, if they have the talent and the opportunity. Yet gender remains an issue, driven by those ingrained perceptions. A friend once told me when you run across these assumptions about womanhood, try replacing “woman” with a racial or ethnic modifier. For example -- we saw plenty of headlines the last few weeks about the brave “woman pilot" who safely landed a Southwest 737 after an uncontained engine failure — how would it feel to see the same breathless headlines referring to a “black” or “Asian” or “blond, blue-eyed” pilot? It’s all about how we perceive differences, and nothing to do with real capability.

Which brings me to another aviation accident that’s been on my mind the last few weeks. Tammie Jo Shults was not the first woman to be at the controls of a damaged airliner. Thirty years ago, in April 1988, Aloha Airlines Flight 243, a Boeing 737, was flying 24,000 feet above the Pacific when a 20-foot section of the airplane’s fuselage was lost in an explosive decompression. First officer Madeline “Mimi” Tompkins, age 36, was the pilot flying when it happened, and she assisted Captain Robert Schornstheimer throughout the ordeal, bringing the damaged aircraft in to a safe landing on Maui. One flight attendant lost her life, and eight others on board were seriously hurt. Considering the damage to the airplane, with the cabin torn open and the fuselage shredded, it seems miraculous that anyone survived. Mimi Tompkins went on to work for Hawaiian Airlines, where she was a leader in Critical Incident Stress Management work, and also worked with ALPA’s Air Safety Committee, where she led the union’s pilot-assistance efforts.

“First Officer Tompkins is the supreme example of a pilot who turned her experience of living through a tragic aviation incident into an opportunity to help other pilots and their families who are dealing with similar challenges,” said Captain Lee Moak, ALPA’s president, on the occasion of giving her an award for her service, in 2011. “Her compassion and commitment serve as a powerful example for all airline pilots.” Mimi Tompkins showed everyone, 30 years ago, what “woman” pilots are capable of. Maybe it’s time to lose the modifier.

Comments (16)

I think that minority-focused organizations are probably necessary until the minority population reaches a certain critical mass. Maybe 25% of the whole group. Having been to a number of aviation focused events (Oshkosh, Sun N Fun) and working in the industry, I can tell you that I still observe that about 80% (or more) of pilots are white men. I think non-white males have an edge over female pilots in terms of becoming more common.

It's worse out in the maintenance hangar. The rate of female A&P Technicians hovers around the 1% mark. Definitely plenty of room for growth there. A support group for those brave individuals is (in my opinion) entirely appropriate.

I think a clever name for the group helps. Something like "The 99s" which doesn't toss the minority name or designator into the title.

Posted by: David Bunin | May 30, 2018 7:25 AM    Report this comment

Folk, commenting turned off briefly. I deleted a couple. Please keep responses civil and on topic. Thanks.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 31, 2018 2:16 AM    Report this comment

Why don't we just set up a quota system Dave. That seems to work real well. Right? That'll get you to your numbers real quick and everything all right. Right?

Posted by: Tom Cooke | May 31, 2018 4:56 AM    Report this comment

Regarding smoke in the cockpit emergencies, I guess it depends on the ultimate outcome if it's news or not. I recall several incidents where smoke became a true emergency (Swiss Air 111 for one, plus a few others I don't recall the flight numbers of).

Aloha 243 amazes me every time I see the photo of the aircraft. It almost defies logic that it remained in one piece and that more lives weren't lost.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | May 31, 2018 7:37 AM    Report this comment

concering the media
Edgar Allen Poe
said it best in his famous story
'The Mystery of Marie Roget'

'We should bear in mind that, in general, it is the object of our newspapers
rather to create a sensation- to make a point- than to further the
cause of truth. The latter end is only pursued when it seems
coincident with the former.'

Posted by: David Ahrens | May 31, 2018 8:06 AM    Report this comment

Yes, but we will shift to make distinctions between "robot" pilots and "human" pilots in the future. But more enlightened entities will remind us that robots are equal to humans.

When will Avweb stop its discrimination of robots and let them post to these comments? ;)

Posted by: Matt Recupito | May 31, 2018 2:02 PM    Report this comment

+1 to the thoughts of David Brunnin.

Talking to little kids in recent years is a reminder from childhood that girls and boys are as equally impressed with aircraft as I could tell. Being in charge of one has simply seemed less attainable or realistic to one gender. That really is changing. IMO the delay in that change translating into pilot numbers and aircraft ownership could be 2 generations.

Posted by: Cosmo Adsett | May 31, 2018 11:21 PM    Report this comment

This is what happens when you go "politically correct." There was nothing uncivil posted Paul.
Maybe a little off topic, but, nothing uncivil. It's all about political correctness.

Posted by: Tom Cooke | June 2, 2018 5:31 AM    Report this comment

You can't talk about gender or race anymore. To many mine fields to get caught in and the consequences are just not worth it. You can pretend to talk about it, but, you're really not. The conversation is just to guarded. It has to be. To many unforeseen and unjustified consequences.
You don't want to hurt millennial Mary or cream puff Harry's feelings. Guarded conversation doesn't mean anything. It can't. Its not real.

Posted by: Tom Cooke | June 2, 2018 5:54 AM    Report this comment

Just so you know, Thomas, one commenter called another a name that could easily be taken as perjorative, which I did thanks very much. Political correctness? Sorry, no. Rudeness. I'll clip those notes to maintain decorum.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 2, 2018 9:10 AM    Report this comment

" a name that could easily be taken as perjorative,"

It's all a matter of perception vs reality, some people perceive a perjorative in "Have a nice day." Maintaining a civil conversation is getting to be impossible. These days you're never more than three comments away from someone doing a total meltdown

When trying to send this I got a message that my verification that I am not a robot expired. What in 20 seconds your RIC (Robot in Charge) thinks I may have turned into a robot? Now it's done it again.

Posted by: Richard Montague | June 2, 2018 1:56 PM    Report this comment

You don't want to hurt millennial Mary or cream puff Harry's feelings. "

Or old fart Jack or know-it-all June or tough guy Max's feelings, too, I suppose. Why would you?

I suppose if there's nothing left in the tank for social interactions it's left to mockery and condescension, which reveals, sadly, feebleness, not superiority. And you couldn't be more wrong about millennials. I've got one at home, and as a group, they strike me consistently to be color-blind, sexual-choice indifferent, and generally non-judgemental. And they fight overseas for us just splendidly.

"Maybe it's time to lose the modifier."

Recently I had a total hip replacement. After surgery in the room, in walks a male nurse - my first, meaningless thought from being steeped in customs and traditions. My second thought was my ice pack needed replacing, which we joked about. Isn't that the important point?

As I recover from surgery, I'm watching some TV, and today I have on golf, the LPGA US Open. Who gives a rats-rear what things are called if you're always pursuing excellence?

Posted by: Dave Miller | June 2, 2018 3:33 PM    Report this comment

It's all a feckless exploitation of humanity. GA will rise again!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 2, 2018 9:00 PM    Report this comment

It is time to lose the modifier. It makes me mad when I hear somone make derogatory comments on how a female pilot gets to where they may be as a crew member. Same goes for someone who may be racially different than myself. As company instructor pilot and captain I take comments like that personally because I would not recommend that person for a check ride or for upgrade if that person did not meet or exceed that standard. It is unfortunate that these derogatory attitudes still exist in this business. Yes, it is long since been time to lose the modifier!

Posted by: matthew wagner | June 2, 2018 11:44 PM    Report this comment

Not sure whats more unfortunate. That comments on a blog addressing an issue which obviously won't go away require moderation or is it that an issue that won't go away requires a blog in tge ywar 2018, 49 years after we figured out that we can set foot on the moon....

Posted by: Jason Baker | June 3, 2018 12:12 PM    Report this comment

Thanks, all, for the thoughtful comments, both here and via email, and thank you, Paul, for moderating.

Posted by: Mary Grady | June 3, 2018 1:33 PM    Report this comment

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