Ford Accident: Why The Silence?


Lacking a better descriptor, I’ll call today’s blog an examination of confirmation bias. We all know this as the tendency to seek or select only that information which tends to confirm our own opinions and prejudices. I have it. You have it. We all have it, to some degree.

A reader wrote yesterday to ask why the aviation press has been curiously silent about the Harrison Ford accident on Thursday afternoon. I found the comment odd, because like every other outlet, we’ve reported the story as straight news. But I’m kind of playing dumb here, because the reader wanted to provoke a discussion. Judge for yourself. He insisted on anonymity, which I never quite understand. If you have an opinion, stand behind it enough to put your name on it. So here’s the note:

I’ve met Harrison several times and am very pleased that he will recover from his accident. Also, there is no doubt that his high skill level probably saved him from a much worse outcome.

Having said this, the aviation media is noticeably silent about the fact that he turned back and attempted to make the runway. We all know what that means! Based on what has been made known about his altitude and distance from the airport at the time of his possible engine failure (all unverified), it was very doubtful he had any chance of making it back to the airport in the PT-22.

Furthermore, from what we have been told, he most likely was over the western end of the golf course and had the opportunity to set up a more controlled and planned landing on one of the long fairways. By attempting to make the airport, he eliminated this option. There is a lesson to be learned from this, but nobody wants to bring it up for somewhat understandable reasons and sensitivities. Still, it’s worth thinking about.

I can’t speak for the rest of the aviation media, but I’m never shy from commenting on things I know at least something about. And frankly, about this accident, I know squat. Most of the information on this accident derives from news reports whose technical veracity and accuracy are both unknown and unverified. The confirmation bias part is “we all know what that means.” Here I’ll stop playing dumb. For those who insist that runway turnbacks are an invitation to disaster, Ford’s accident will be confirmation of that. For those who believe the opposite, the outcome—he did survive, after all—is proof that their view is right.

It’s at this point, I’m capable of throttling my own confirmation biases by pointing out that we don’t know enough about the particulars of this accident to make any kind of fair judgment, much less an informed one. Not that I would anyway until the investigation is done. So in my view, until it is, no lesson yet. Nor am I inclined to speculate.

Early last year, I did my own analysis of the turnback maneuver in this video and this blog. Being a contrarian by nature and a skeptic by predilection, I eschewed the conventional advice to never, ever turn back to a runway in favor of suggesting pilots have to make this decision for themselves to suit the situation they happen to be in at the moment action is required. I still think that’s right. I still think that little piece of FAA-issued plastic in your pocket gives the right and the duty to decide for yourself. I remain a devout agnostic on the turnback. And I’d never second guess a pilot who’s actually in the seat making the call.

I thought NTSB investigator Patrick Jones summed it up nicely when he said this: “Anytime that a human being can survive an accident involving an airplane, it’s a good day.”

And indeed it was.

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