Defending pilots

Pilots hate the media. It’s been that way for years. It’s not without good reason. They think the media doesn’t know anything about why airplanes fly. And some of the cable TV anchors obviously don’t. Unfortunately, America often relies on them for news.

Throw a plane crash into this, and the rhetoric can get pretty heated. The Colgan Air crash in Buffalo is one such example. There’s no question that media reports are quick to try to piece factoids together into some coherent explanation. That’s not a media character flaw. The first question people ask after an accident is usually, “what happened?” Possibilities are not conclusions, however.

On his excellent blog, Blogging at FL250, “Sam” (we don’t know his last name or what regional airline out of Minnesota he flies for) gets a good broadside off:

I’m not going to speculate on what caused the crash. All that I know about the circumstances are what’s been reported by the NTSB thus far and repeated in the media. The morning after the crash, enough was already known that there were only a few likely culprits. I myself suspected it was one of two scenarios. The first known facts made one seem most likely, and subsequent information is now shifting the investigation towards the second possibility. The media hasn’t reported accurately on either scenario, with a few exceptions. There’s a decent chance that more information will come to light that will take the investigation in a completely different direction before it’s all over. To say I have any idea what really caused this accident would be a farce. I will, however, give my take on some of the ways the known information has been interpreted and reported to the general public.


All those answers will come with time; in the meantime, any certitude on the part of the media, most of their sources, bloggers, or web board participants is mere affectation.

Many of the nation’s best aviation reporters are pilots. There isn’t a separate set of laws for physics for people who fly airplanes for living vs. those who fly for some other reason.

Take James Fallows of the Atlantic, for example. Fallows, a pilot, does a great job in his post today of explaining what the word “stall” is in aviation.

For the pilot of any airplane, large or small, the practical implications of a stall center on whether you are pulling the airplane’s nose up (by pulling the control wheel or stick backwards, toward your body) or pushing the nose down (by pushing the stick forward, away from you). Everyone who has ever flown an airplane has gone through stall-recovery drills. These involve climbing to a safe altitude; pulling the stick back more and more until you raise the nose so high and make the angle of attack so great that the airplane stalls and begins falling toward the earth; and then immediately pushing the stick forwardas the very first step in getting the airplane under control and flying again.

Pilots themselves, of course, object to suggestions the crew might have done something wrong. We don’t know they did. We don’t know they didn’t. Besides, they’re dead and don’t get to defend themselves.

But it’s entirely possible that they were guilty of nothing more than human survival instinct in the 5 seconds they had to figure out what was happening, and get it fixed.

Here’s the scenario when a plane stalls close to the ground. Pretend you’re the pilot. You’re 1,000 feet off the ground when your plane loses its lift because you’re going too slow. The ground is coming up fast in your windshield. What do you do? Pull the plane’s nose up? Or push it down?

The correct answer? You push it down… toward the ground you don’t want to hit. It — and not the engine power — is the most immediate way to can gain enough airspeed to get the plane flying again.

Where Fallows errs in his article today — and where he gives ammunition to the Sams of the world — is with this paragraph:

So if these reports stand up over time, and if the evidence ultimately shows that whoever was controlling the plane reacted in exactly the wrong way, it will be the rare case of a professional air crew, out of panic or for whatever reason, forgetting an elementary procedure that they certainly knew. After the USAir water-landing in the Hudson, many people observed that the casualty-free outcome was both an individual and a collective achievement. Individually, the air crew (pilot, copilot, attendants) reacted with supreme competence. Collectively, everyone involved did exactly what they had been trained to do. If what the WSJ says turns out to be what really happened, the Colgan-Buffalo crash will be a startling case of individual failure, which in turn will raise questions of how a professional air crew could have reacted this way.

How? Because with only 5 seconds to get it right, every neuron in your brain is telling you not to push a plane closer to the very thing you’re trying to avoid.

The truth (probably) is: By the time it got to that point, the result was almost inevitable. The real question — and I suspect the real focus of the investigation — is how it got to that point.

  • Brian Hanf

    Again, Bob, you explain what the TV and Radio 30 second sound bit could never do. Heck better than than a 3 minute story.

  • David W.

    Thanks Bob. It’s a pleasure to read what you have to say about this awful crash given you are both a journalist and a pilot yourself.