Aviation Reporting: Good and Bad


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.