Perception vs. Reality
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.