Near catastrophe — or minor event?

Once again, the press grossly overstates an incident’s danger. Sorry, there was no “hero pilot”


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Patrick Smith
September 29, 2010 1:01pm (UTC)

On Sunday night, a regional jet carrying 64 passengers and crew made an emergency landing at JFK Airport after its right main landing gear became stuck in the retracted position.

The plane circled for a while as the crew attempted to troubleshoot the malfunction. Failing to get the errant gear deployed, they opted for a landing on Kennedy's Runway 31L. The flight originally had been bound for White Plains, N.Y., but JFK's so-called "bay runway" is one of the longest in the country, and together with the airport's advanced emergency response team, this was the better and safer option.

The Canadian-built CRJ-900 touched down on its left-side gear, decelerated, and eventually the unsupported right wing made contact with the pavement. Moments later the jet came safely to a stop and was evacuated. There was no fire, no major damage, no injuries. 

The press and TV took it from there, spinning this minor event into a near-catastrophe that never was. The biggest mistakes and distortions were the usual and predictable ones: They got the airline wrong, they grossly overstated the danger, and once again we are led to think that jetliners are flying around with only one qualified person -- "the pilot" -- at the controls.

No offense to my fellow writers here on Salon, but earlier today a Mary Elizabeth Williams story described the landing as nothing less than a "near death experience." And as I prepare this column, almost 48 hours after the incident, the Yahoo home page is running a big, above-the-fold feature: "Dramatic footage of emergency landing," sings the headline. "Cell phone cameras capture the scene aboard a Delta flight as passengers are told to 'brace for impact.'"

Well, let's see. First of all, it wasn't a "Delta flight." It was a Delta Connection flight, operated by Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA). The crew members on this plane were no more Delta employees than the firefighters and rescuers who rushed to the scene, just in case.

Just in case. There is very little chance that a stuck landing gear will result in anything serious, especially with a smaller aircraft like the CRJ. There was a slight chance of spilled fuel or fire, but with the emergency apparatus only a few feet away even this would have been a relatively minor hazard. Things played out more or less exactly as one would have expected them to, without casualties. 

In fact, if something is going to go wrong with your plane, the landing gear is one of the least hazardous places for it to happen. Provided you aren't blowing tires at 150 knots on takeoff, gear problems are pretty easy to manage.

Not that the media has any interest in reporting it that way.

And this isn't the first time. Once again we are reminded of the 2005 JetBlue emergency landing in California, in which an Airbus A320 came scraping to a stop with a twisted nose gear. That event, analyzed in this column here, here and here, was even less threatening than this latest one, yet it became what is arguably the most overhyped incident in the history of commercial aviation. Rather than learn from its mistakes, the media keeps repeating them.

Yahoo, meanwhile, has embedded its online coverage with a slew of links and sub-links to various aviation-related articles, the majority of them inaccurate and full of nonsense.

And here we go again with "the pilot"? Almost every story I've seen has referenced the skill and expertise of "the pilot." The New York Daily News calls him "a hero pilot."

Will the media ever -- ever -- knock off this annoying habit? Your attention please: There are always at least two fully qualified pilots in the cockpit of any commercial airliner. To speak of "the pilot" is at best misleading. There is a captain and a first officer. And the latter, as I've explained previously in this space, is not merely some helpful apprentice; he or she is as much a pilot as the captain. First officers perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do, and can be at the controls during any regime of flight, including emergencies. In fact it's common in certain abnormal situations for the captain to delegate the hands-on flying duties to the first officer while he runs the checklists, troubleshoots, communicates with air traffic control and the company, etc.

There is no "hero pilot" because, I'm sorry to say, there were no heroics. I almost hate to say it, but, frankly, skill had little to do with the outcome. From a pilot's perspective, you would have performed what is basically a normal landing, albeit with some finesse to keep the right wing off the ground for as long as possible -- similar to the technique used in a crosswind landing.

That is not to diminish the value of pilots, whose work is obsessively misrepresented by the media (through its terrible habit of perpetuating the myth that cockpits are "computerized" and "automatic"). But false claims of heroics have their own way of undermining and cheapening what it is pilots actually do for a living.

It's strange, I know: On one hand I'm always ranting about how pilots are disrespected in the press. Yet, on the other hand, I'm quick to pooh-pooh the alleged "heroics" of people like Chesley Sullenberger and now the ASA crew.

I guess my point is that a pilot's value is borne out not only in emergencies, but in the unseen, and uncelebrated, day-to-day operations of normal flying. Pilots work hard even when things aren't going wrong, even if few people seem to realize or believe that.

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Getting on to more fun stuff:

For those of you in or around Boston, this Wednesday night is going to be Ask the Pilot Night Out at the Middle East restaurant and club in Cambridge. Former Hüsker Dü drummer and co-vocalist Grant Hart will be performing, and I'll be milling around somewhere if you'd like to say hello, buy me a beer, kick my ass or pelt me with garbage.

Sad to say, I have not seen Grant Hart since one of his first solo tours back in the late 1980s. That was a long time ago, and it's a little unfair, as I've been much more enamored of Grant's post-Hüsker work that I have been of Bob Mould's. How to say it, exactly, but Grant Hart today still sounds more or less like the Grant Hart at his songwriting peak in 1985 -- if a touch more mellow and stripped down. To some of you that'll sound like a knock rather than a compliment -- the whining of a devotee who refuses to move on -- but unlike his former bandmate, Grant hasn't let ego get the best of him, and has stayed within the boundaries of his talents. Bob, by comparison, went off the rails somewhere in the mid-1990s.

Grant Hart can seem a master of droll, guilty-pleasure melodies; his songs are easy to like. But that's not giving due credit. His work on " Zen Arcade," for example, is quite moody and complex, and there's a rich underside to even his catchiest numbers. Going back to Hüsker Dü days, Grant is the author of a dozen or so little masterpieces, from "Diane" and "Standing by the Sea" to "Pink Turns to Blue" and "Keep Hanging On."

Just don't look for them in iTunes. I was heartbroken, and frankly a bit angry, when I recently discovered that iTunes stocks only Hüsker Dü's final two albums, released after the switch from indie label SST to Warner Bros. Not that these discs don't have a few highlights, but they are the group's weakest efforts and a terrible place to start.

Instead, find yourself a copy of 1985's "New Day Rising," set the volume to 11 and behold Grant Hart's "Terms of Psychic Warfare" and, my favorite of all, the buzzing, electric, piano-laced poem that is "Books About UFOs." Call me crazy, but these are two of the best songs of the past 30 years. If only indie rock could be that good again.

Last minute update:

 

Patrick has a plus-one on the guest list for tonight's Grant Hart show in Cambridge, Mass. If you'd like to go as Patrick's guest, be the first e-mailer at: PatrickSmith@AskThePilot.com.

The winner also gets a free Ask the Pilot shirt or baseball cap.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his website and look for answers in a future column.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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