Let’s Leave Crash Theories To The Real Experts


One of the many hazards of this job (we do it all for you, gentle readers) is reading accident investigation reports. The chief danger is the inevitable realization is that there are so many truly dumb ways to crash an airplane that it can give you pause every time you call “Prop clear” or step from the jetway. New methods of creating smoking holes are being discovered every day. 

A second danger of scanning those reports is in using the NTSB’s hopelessly complicated and counterintuitive database to find what you’re looking for. If you’ve encountered Carol, the perplexing name for this morass of frustratingly confusing dataspeak, you know of which we speak and it’s a topic for another day.

When you finally crack Carol’s code or somehow stumble into the information you seek in the volumes of reports, you’ll be amazed at how complicated seemingly straightforward accidents can be. Investigators look at an amazing range of factors and evidence in determining probable cause. It takes months of interviews and analysis and it shows how the slightest inconsistency, the tiniest slip-up and the most minor malfunction can blow up into full-fledged disaster in the blink of an eye.

So that’s why I get a little frustrated with the rush to judgment by armchair pundits who pontificate on the “possible cause” of crashes literally before the smoke clears. And the more mysterious the accident, the more numerous the theories become. When they’re transmitted at the speed of social media, they become fact before anyone has actually determined their truth.

Even the most diligent media can get caught repeating false information that has trended through the social media ranks to become a false fact. A lot of well-respected media organizations and bloggers were tricked by several flight simulator videos of other crashes that got passed off as a shot of the China Eastern Boeing 737-800 that crashed in southern China last week. Despite all the corrections and retractions by the many who were mortified by their mistake, the damage was done and those screen grabs from simulations will live on forever as an actual picture of the crashing airplane.

It’s human nature to wonder about how such tragedies occur and it’s largely up to us as the media to find answers to those questions but boy, do we have to be careful. The paucity of details available about the unusual crash in China has, as is often the case, fueled rampant speculation and led to a disturbing “theory” that is gaining traction all over the forums and on social media groups.

The fact that there is so far no evidence that suggests it’s correct not only muddies the waters for those trying to determine what actually occurred, it shows immense disrespect for crew members who were among the 132 people killed in the crash.

So, we get that you’re curious. So are we. But spreading unsubstantiated or downright false innuendo based on wholly uninformed opinion gets in the way of us finally being able to get you the truth. 

When you finally discover the keys to Carol’s vault chronicling the missteps, failures and occasional treachery that bring down airplanes, there is much to be learned and it’s all factual. But like all good things, there’s some effort—and patience—required to properly use it.

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  1. Having been involved with many crash investigations, I know first hand not all the information about a crash is seen, or even reviewed by the NTSB. This leads to questionable ‘theories’ put out by the ‘experts’. Some of the reports even hint they know the real reason for the crash, but don’t go there for various political reasons.

  2. Russ, you’re asking for the media to act in a responsible manner. There is not even a remote chance that is ever going to happen. I didn’t even need to say that for everyone to already know that. That being said, what is the purpose of even addressing the issue of “rush to judgement?” I don’t get it.

  3. As I expected, the “Probable Cause” Youtube channel (Dan Gryder) quickly published “his” probable cause (pilot suicide). IMO, he’s the worst offender pretty much every time. The whole purpose of his Youtube channel is to do exactly what a responsible writer would never do.

          • I guess I should be that hard on the guy.

            I think that it’s his cadence when he tries to do a script. He’ll not even be in mid sentence, but in mid breath and forget what he was about to say, do a poor cut, and attempt to finish the thought.

            I’m like, “just spit it out man!”

      • Man, you’re over here spouting off like a complete ignoramus. Doing exactly what this article is about, except to Dan.

        I’m gonna shine a little light here and make you look bad. Just a little fair warning.

        * His channel is A GIFT to the GA community. He is legitimately saving lives AND doing it on his own dime.

        * His echannel has never been about money or fame, he could care less

        * He travels the country on his own dollar and goes to these fatal accident sites so the flying community can learn and not repeat the same mistakes. It’s much better to be 90% correct and get the info out FAST than it is to be 93% correct and take years.

        * He does the AQP program FOR FREE at your location, so that weekend warriors can be more like commercial pilots and not crash 4 times a week.

        * He is an FAA Gold Seal CFI and can certify PIC & SIC on everything from single engine Cessnas to old tail wheel warbirds to Boeing triple 7s.

        * He uses his DC3 to rescue lost and stranded pets out of natural disaster scenarios as part of his Airborne Animal Rescue project and asks for huge donations in the amount of $1 or $2.

        * I sent him $2 via CashApp. My 3 year old grabbed my phone an hour later and accidentally sent Dan $400. He sent it back within 20 minutes.

        * He also spent thousands of his own cash to shine a light on the cult that is/was Remnant Fellowship Church. Evil doesn’t begin to describe this place.

        * He is doing God’s work FOR FREE. What have you done there Lindbergh?

  4. If real (and real-speed) video of a crash is available on you toob, I will watch it. If it’s repeated at slow speeds with voice-over commentaries, I mute it. I believe useful information can be gained without necessarily being told what I am watching by some self-styled expert. As for social media, well, I don’t participate in that quagmire, so what happens there stays there and does not intrude on my experience.

  5. Nope. Put me in the camp that enjoys reading AND LEARNING from “potential pitfalls”. I wondered how long it would be before someone here came after Probable Cause or Blanco. Haters gonna hate. I appreciate the information. Learn and Live. NTSB is often speculation that you wait years to receive. Keep ’em coming.

    • Nothing wrong with learning from “potential pitfalls”, but there’s nothing to be learned from “speculative pitfalls”, which is all that pre-accident-report post-crash “analysis” are. In fact, learning from such speculation can sometimes even be dangerous because they may draw the completely wrong conclusions. And with all of the accidents that do have completed reports, what’s the point about speculating about a new crash before all of the evidence has even become available? There are plenty of existing opportunities to learn from actual pitfalls.

      The difference between the NTSB/AAIB/etc “speculation” and others’ speculation is that the former (as flawed as they may be at times) came from a team of trained crash analysists. And they take months to complete because it takes that long to collect all the evidence and analyze it, being careful not to jump to “obvious” conclusions. And in many crashes, the “obvious” cause ended up being definitively proven not to be the cause.

      I know many pilot friends who share crash reports of GA aircraft and sometimes even speculate what happened. And at one point, I would speculate about crashes too. But I now don’t participate in them, partly because some of my speculations were later proven wrong because I didn’t have all the facts.

  6. Thank you Russ for saying what unfortunately occasionally needs to be said. Your blog’s most prescient statement is “it shows immense disrespect for crew members who were among the 132 people killed in the crash.” As a retired professional for whom it could have been me, I take that immense disrespect of premature publicly repeated wild speculation personally.

    Being human we all have tendencies to speculate, some more privately than others. I’d like to think that at least among the professionals at the AVweb table, speculation is privately or at least closely held. I’ve chosen and am happy to sit at the this table along with everyone else, professional and non-professional. But above all other opinions issued here, I feel most ambivalent about being here when wild speculation on accidents of this nature is carelessly splattered into public comment.

  7. I totally agree with you, Russ. Idle speculation about “probable cause” is akin to conspiracy theories. The only fact we have is that a tragic crash happened, and no one alive knows why. Let the experts probe for whatever facts may be available. Then, perhaps, we will know why. Or maybe, as sometimes happens, we never will.

  8. Im fascinated by the hubris of those who believe that expressing an opinion, specifically about the possible cause of an aviation crash is anything other than just that, an opinion. Looking at it from that perspective, I never knew I had such power!

  9. This is a freedom of speech issue. The last people that should have the only keys to the gate is the government (USA or Chinese). Shame on you Russ because you should know better. Even Richard McSpadden (AOPA Air Safety) published a video of the ElCajon LR-35 accident before the rubble was cleared from the street. Does the video make Richard wrong? Hell no it doesn’t. Thank you very much but I will choose to read and believe what I want to. I don’t need you to tell me to believe the government first and foremost.

    • Great point! Avweb has a number of writers that appear to worship at the throne of government who often focus on pieces for publication that tell us how we are not very smart and need to be told who to listen to and on what and when we should comment.

  10. I had a long diatribe about pilots and their speculations.

    However, it is summed up with:

    “Suspicion alone is not enough to speak. Once spoken out, the suspicion of such depravity is real enough to do the work of truth.

    The facts are necessary. Without facts, you must remain silent.”

    -Gaius Octavian

    Pilots are their own worst enemy.

      • Except that’s not at all what that quote means. Regardless of who said it, it’s nonetheless true that speaking of suspicion without fact is the best way to sow fear and doubt, or at the very least, confusion.

        Now, if there were facts that one could use to back up suspicion that the recent crash in China was caused by, for instance, pilot suicide, that’s entirely different than just speculating without solid evidence that it might have been pilot suicide. It also “might have been” spacial disorientation, or poor maintenance, or a flight control issue, or snakes on a plane.

        • Of course we can differ on the meaning of a quote and I agree that you are making a rational argument in support of your opinion. I simply don’t believe in the underlying premise that (to play this theory out) that in the conference room at crash investigation headquarters in Beijing, investigators are fearful or confused about the evidence due to commentary of uninvolved individuals.

          • It’s not the investigators themselves, itt’s the rest of the public that don’t know enough to take these speculations as just that and instead see it as fact. Or uninformed journalists who pick them up and present them as “such-and-such expert says it’s X”, even if said expert tries to go out of their way to explain that it is just speculation.

            Though that being said, I can’t be entirely trustful of what Beijing investigators eventually come up with either. But presumably by then, at least more facts will have become available.

      • I have a co-worker that lives on a narrow, winding road. There’s an automobile accident about every three months on that road.

        My coworker, without facts or knowledge, always chalks it up to “gosh durn kids in their phone”. He believes that since he’s not a “gosh durn kid on a phone” he’s a perfectly safe driver. His conclusions are not based on facts, but assumptions.

        And it can get a little more nefarious. Our local fire departments are all volunteer and many citizens listen for call outs over their scanner. Many a times there’s been a “common” house fire, give it 24 hours and through rumors, and without fact or knowledge, that house fire becomes a “grow house” or “meth lab”. Families get run through the wringer, cops and media gets involved (all because of a rumor). The media never prints a retraction and the neighbors base conclusions on rumors and hearsay.

  11. Having gone through the same accident invest school as the FAA, I was amazed at the lack of technical knowledge exhibited by some of my classmates. One completely missed the cause of an in flight engine failure ( a large hole in the crankcase and a missing connecting rod) while another didn’t know the number of “Ruddervators” on a Bonanza. One wanted to remove the wings from a twin commander( difficult to do with a one piece wing) due to some wingtip damage ( was afraid there was spar damage)

  12. I certainly can agree that rush to judgement or unfettered speculation put forward by influential media outlets & sources can and often has done harm by unjustly impacting an innocent party, and that such influencers have a moral and often legal obligation to avoid speculative accusations of fault.

    On the other hand, I find myself siding with commentors like Jeff Welch & C340Guy with respect to the notion being put forth that there is a need to suppress ordinary individuals’ opinions or theories of accident cause while waiting for full data and/or some distant future conclusion reached by officialdom. I disagree that there is something intrinsically immoral about an individual having and sharing an honestly held opinion about likely cause, even if not backed by hard data. A shared cloud of the opinions and theories of others is actually a useful data source in and of itself, not just as they relate to the accident itself but as they provide insight into all the factors that influence group thought.

  13. “This is a freedom of speech issue… I don’t need you to tell me to believe the government first and foremost.”
    So, whose freedom of speech exactly?…🙄

    ‘First and foremost’, this has nothing to do with free speech. Nowhere did the author posit such nonsense as to imply freedom of speech should be curtailed in this case.

    For me, Russ is speaking about the inherent danger of the ‘loose lips sink ships’ idiom we all have heard of and know the potential danger it represents. Ever more so in today’s world of social media, group/tribe gullibility and grievance, thin-skinned reactions that replace thoughtfulness, and other accidental ‘smoking holes’ of impatient, obtuse reactions.

    To the snowflakes and word victims who think the gubment and AvWeb writers and, oh, so many others! are out to take your freedom of speech away or tell you what to do or think or just ruin your day for spite –
    -That is exactly the point of concern the author was making.

  14. Russ the other thing to note is that when a credible media outlet or real expert try to correct a wrong and/or speculative comment that is not based on fact, it gets put in the conspiracy theory coverup pile. So the wrong facts are facts and the truth is a conspiracy theory.

  15. One more thing: all media outlets should require a date/time stamp on images and videos they publish. This is not hard to do and would eliminate a lot of of mis/dis-information on all topics (not just aviation). Blockchain or other technology could be used to validate the actual image time, date and location and us savvy consumers should be skeptical about stuff we see until this verification process (or similar) can be rolled out. Just too much crap out there.

  16. I have been involved in the NTSB investigation of a fatal bizjet accident. I lost all respect for the NTSB during that time. They showed up with a predetermined cause and disregarded any evidence that did not fit their narrative. It was frustrating watching square pegs hammered into round holes and vice-versa to prove their theory. Any of their reports today I read with great suspicion. Many armchair investigators have more thought provoking insight into an accident than the NTSB could ever hope to.

  17. Russ, I appreciate your suggestion to ‘let the experts’ do it. There are three schools of thought on whether to sit back and let the NTSB crank through their process.

    The FIRST is the silent majority of pilots who don’t care about accident reports, are disinterested in speculation, care less about CAROL, and will NEVER read anything resembling a govmnt document unless it’s required to renew their driver license.

    The SECOND and much smaller group of pilots who are confident they are inadequately prepared to conduct ‘thought experiments’ – i.e. speculate about causal factors or anything else. This second group is confident that in a year or perhaps three all will be revealed in a Final Report backed up by a Docket that answers all pertinent questions about who, what, when, where, why, and how come (the Probable Cause!!). Unfortunately, unless it’s a spectacular event (think Galloping Ghost in the Reno Air Race a decade or so past, Tenerife, the demise of the world’s first supersonic airliner, or a particularly notable celeb like John Kennedy – JFK’s son) most will forget that accident occurred, and we can be assured that the Media (including AvWeb) will likely forget as well.

    And somewhere between the silent majority of pilots and the patiently waiting pilots are those (me too) who try to learn from every accident. That learning comes from respectful discussion and speculation among pilots. A few of us (me too) track down the NTSB’s Preliminary Report and use it to find the Final Report and Docket. Tom Turner’s Mastery Flight Training newsletter offers an excellent example of high value discussion about aviation mishaps where many details are yet to be made known.

    Flying is a serious activity where a large amount of learning can be drawn from the details of accidents and incidents. As with everything, we may discover useful knowledge through discussion — even discussion that may turn out to lead to incorrect speculation.

  18. Will the NTSB, and BOEING have any influence over China Eastern pilot training and maintenance and over the (China FAA) Civil Aviation Administration of China’s investigation? More shall be revealed.

  19. I don’t think this is confined to air crashes, it’s the general degradation of the quality of information people are happy to accept, and lazy journalists who are happy to repeat what’s reported on social media without independent verification that give it credence.

    • C’mon guys. I don’t trust anyone (including the pilot, if he survived) for an timely post-crash analysis. (Except Bertorelli, who’s not afraid to say “I don’t have a clue.”)

      Until some independent third party, unaffiliated with anyone involved in the accident, arrives on the scene with demonstrably more expertise than the NTSB, I’ll wait for their probable-cause report. I sure as hell won’t put any credence in anything reported on social media.

      • Best comment so far! In 59 years of flying, and 54 in the FBO business, I’ve never understood the “need” for pilots to speculate on a probable cause, before all of the facts are known. Many say they want to “learn” from accidents–but the reality is that they speculate only hours afterward–with little knowledge of the aircraft, pilot, or circumstance.

        Even the so-called “experts” are suspect–most are far from trained forensic experts. In one local accident investigation, the inspector blamed the damage on a 172 in a crosswind landing on “fuel imbalance”–there was 7 gallons of fuel in one wing tank, and 11 in the other.” One particularly inept “investigator” looking at a medical helicopter crash opined after only half an hour of looking at the site: “I think I’ve got this wrapped up. There’s an audio entertainment system on this aircraft–notice that the switches are up–I think the pilot was bopping along listening to tunes, and got distracted.” I pointed out that he was looking at the LEFT seat audio panel–that ALL of the switches were up (unlikely), and that the helicopter was normally flown from the RIGHT seat! The “investigator” had no helicopter experience. Engine teardown confirmed the pilot’s claim that one of the engines had failed, and the helicopter rolled over following a skid contacting the edge of the pavement after a run-on landing on grass.

        Don’t get into SPECULATION–even if it comes from a would-be “expert.” Far too many “armchair generals” engage in it–even without first-hand knowledge.

  20. You don’t have to be a woodworker to recognize a table.

    Let the speculators speculate. They won’t convince anyone. But as an un-credentialed observer, I have a few candidate causes, and they aren’t “run of the mine” causes. I feel assured one of them will turn out to be correct.

    People seem overly sensitive either to opinions without certainty or to their right to express an unfounded opinion. Lighten up, brothers. No reasonable person will be either injured or misled by the speculators.

  21. It’s really an argument based on emotion for those who act like a speculative opinion is some line you should never cross. Since no rational thinker actually believes that a simply expressed opinion by a non-relevant party ultimately has an impact on the actual evidence considered for cause determination (no one posting comments on this piece has said so) it must be a belief that someone might get their feelings hurt or be shown unintended “disrespect”. The author in his piece provided ZERO evidence that all the “noise” created by media (social and news) makes one bit of difference in the ultimate evidence and fact as it relates to an official finding. No amount of handwringing will stop the ideologically driven media and nuts in the world from reporting and saying what they will.

  22. I am shocked that any responsible conscientious aviation interested person would support your assertion; much less actually publish it!

    How on earth is conjecture and speculation harming anyone? Isn’t getting us all talking about possible causes a good thing? Even if the causes given early on turn out to later be proven incorrect, what possible harm could there be in bringing to all of our minds the potential results of the causes given? Every time we hear “stall spin” we all become ever so slightly more aware and it’s potential made more real in our minds. We see carnage lying on the ground associated with “Fuel Exhaustion” and most of us are going to check those gauges a little bit more often going forward. Even if early conjecture is later proven invalid, That conjecture has already creates a much greater awareness of potential threats to flight safety. There is no negative.

    And that’s just if the early conjecture is proven wrong. If it turns out to be right, the flying public gets to use that information for several more YEARS than it would otherwise. How many lives could be saved in that time is anyone’s guess. I’ll take the potential for saving lives over waiting to be sure any day.

    I won’t argue a good investigation takes quite a while. But it does not take the amount of time we are currently subjected to. A dedicated cadre of professionals with proper support and commitment should be able to put out a report in a time frame that is measured in months – ot years. The public has recognized this and is responding by undertaking accident evaluation itself. When “the Authorities” begin providing the service the public demands and deserves, early accident investigation by private individuals will lose its value and cease. Until then, the aviation community is attempting to look out for itself; and that’s a good thing.

  23. I appreciate what Mr Niles is trying to say, along with his supporters and detractors on this issue. [Excerpt those who claim it is a ‘free speech’ issue. It’s not. Thanks to our Bill of Rights, the goverment cannot abridge your free speech except in very rare and extreme circumstances, but the private sector–and your friends and family–can definitely shun you for your speech they don’t like. This is commonly misunderstood–and frustrating.] I take a middle ground on the issue of early aviation accident analyis in the media (and social media). I say it is OK–SO LONG AS IT IS LABELED REPEATEDLY AND FORCEFULLY BY THE PURVEYOR AS MERE SPECULATION. As entertaining as some of these analyses are, and I do enjoy and learn from many of them, they often turn out to be partialy or wholly incorrect. Sure, the NTSB is frustratinly slow and flawed too, but that is not the question here. The question is, should people with platforms jump out front and speculate about accident causes before all the facts are known. My answer: Sure, but (1) use it as a teachable moment, and (2) remind everyone ad naseum that you’re taking a guess based on the limited info you have. Max Trescott does a great job of this. The others, not so much. (Though Juan Browne is very hard not to like. And Dan Gryder is a blowhard, not to like.) Fly safe, y’all.

  24. Some accidents it is pretty clear that there were bad decisions made that put a pilot in a situation where he/she was not going to succeed for numerous reasons. Nothing wrong with pointing this out. The Visalia Bonanza crash is a prime example. Other accidents are much more complicated and what actually caused it is not immediately apparent. I was at a seminar where an FAA employee explained the process and it is not intuitive.

  25. Unfortunately, most media has decided to pick sides instead of presenting dialog between so called experts. I guess picking sides is now the only business model for medica companies. In the case of accident investigations, why isn’t dialog ok? Why can’t there be two or more videos with competing conclusions? Yes, there are cases where people are killed and that is tragic but it is through dialog that insight and knowledge is developed. As we have learned over and over, a one sided view of any topic results in inaccuracy and falsehoods. Dialog teases out the truth and has done so for millennia.