Posted by: harrisonjones | December 15, 2011

Automation Complacency

This is the term currently used by academic soothsayers to explain why some pilots tend to doze off during a flight. The idea is that aircraft have become so automated and reliable, it is no longer necessary for the pilot to remain intensely engaged in the process. I think they called it something different when Lindberg dozed off during his solo across the Atlantic—probably blamed it on tension, brought on by lack of automation. Be that as it may, the Colgan crash in Buffalo and Air France 442 in mid-Atlantic, (both caused by stalling the aircraft and losing control) have called into question the basic flying skills of pilots who fly highly automated aircraft. The soothsayers opine that when the human has to take over and fly manually, the ability to recognize and recover from a stall is just no longer there. If that’s true, the solution would be to simply remove the automation and force pilots to always hand fly the airplane.  

While I sometimes enjoy injecting sarcasm and barbs in my blogged opinions, I can’t completely disagree with the shrinks in this case. An airline pilot normally practices real stick and rudder skills only twice a year. Every six months, a proficiency check is required in the simulator and stalls, steep turns, terrain avoidance maneuvers, V1 cuts, and engine out approaches are performed to a tight training standard. The rest of the year your criteria is smoothness and if you fly long haul trips, 90% of your seat time is in straight and level flight. The simulator training is excellent, but number one, you’re in a simulator, and number two, you know what’s coming and you’re prepared for it. There is no excuse for not being proficient in the training maneuvers, but the point is, your job is to avoid stalls and steep turns in the airplane. Passengers tend to complain about such things.  

Reading the shrink’s articles on the subject, it occurs to me that my stick and rudder skills were probably at their peak when I was a flight instructor in light airplanes. Almost every flight involved teaching or demonstrating training maneuvers and they were second nature. We didn’t need no stinkin automation. My first experience in airliners was flying copilot in DC-9s, B-727s, and DC-8s. Those airplanes had excellent autopilots, but did not feature LNAV or VNAV. We tracked VOR radials by use of the turn knob mode and made wind corrections the same way. The autopilot was capable of tracking a radial, but the wings waggled so much, no one used that mode. VOR frequencies were embedded in our brain and we used charts to stay ahead of the airplane. Believe me, you were fully engaged in navigating and a left-right course indicator along with a compass and a needle pointing at the station were your constant companions. There were actually two needles pointing at the station (two nav radios) and the unspoken competition was to try to split the needles when you crossed the station. If one needle spun to the left and one to the right, you had defeated the zone of confusion and passed directly over the station, even though you were four or five miles above it.  

Some of the airplanes had auto-throttles, but they were erratic and no one used them either. Power settings were constantly monitored to maintain the proper speed and sync the engines. Climbs and descents were made by adjusting the vertical speed and moving the throttles and the point at which you began the descent was computed in your head. If you lost focus for even a brief time, the airplane would humiliate and embarrass you. My point in relating this trip down memory lane is that you were intimately involved with the machine all the time and skill, technique, and focus were points of professional pride. Now, the airplanes are almost totally automated and the only required manual flying is the takeoff. The only unspoken competition is how fast you can program a flight plan into the flight management system. It is easy to become complacent, while watching the computer fly the machine and do all the work (mental and physical). It takes self-discipline to force yourself to scan and monitor and stay intimately involved. Airline pilots, hired in the last few years, received their initial training in fully automated glass cockpits and will spend their entire career in that environment. What I considered valuable experience in DC-9s and DC-8s, they would deem a pain in the butt, however those habit patterns remain with me today and I believe that discipline wards off complacency. I could be wrong. 

My conclusion is that there are two computers on an airliner. The company bought one of them from Boeing and hired the other one. One is contained in a black box and the other is between the ears of the guy they hired. One of them has to be programmed and the other has to be trained. I have to go now; I have my recurrent training with the shrink in lieu of practicing stalls.     

Posted by: harrisonjones | November 19, 2011

This week in the wacky world of aviation

There were several interesting aviation news stories this week to discuss. It was reported that a Boeing 737 made an off schedule landing due to a cracked windshield. This sounds like a potential disaster, but it is usually nothing more than a nuisance. The windshield of a typical airliner is made up of several laminated layers of plastic or sometimes heat tempered glass. The total thickness is approximately one and a quarter inches (1.25”). The problem (crack) usually occurs in the thin outer layer that is electrically heated for anti-ice and anti-bird-strike precautions. The heat is applied continuously and the windshield is never allowed to become cold and brittle. More often than not, the crack is caused by arcing of the heat sensors, and electrical fire is a much larger concern than the structural integrity of the windshield. The airplane can actually be dispatched with a cracked windshield if the circuit breakers are pulled and the pilot’s visibility is not restricted. The off schedule landing was probably due to electrical precautions. We’ve talked about smoke in the cockpit before.

Another story described the United Airlines pilots concerns about new company procedures that might cause them to land with the gear up. Evidently the company has revised the before landing checklist and the article stated that three incidents have been documented in which the landing gear warning horn sounded to remind the crew to put the wheels down. The article mentioned that the pilots union is in contract negotiations with United. This news story goes into the crowded category of    SILLY    .  Come on guys, put the little wheels down and find a better negotiating tactic. You’re making us all look bad.

Last but not least there was the captain who took command of the lavatory and abdicated the more important throne in the cockpit. Finding himself locked in the john; he attracted the attention of a passenger and gave him the secret code to enter the cockpit to inform the copilot of his dilemma. This raised several questions in my mind.

  1. Why not inform the flight attendant instead of a passenger?

  2. Would the copilot also leave the flight deck in order to free the captain from the lav?

  3. How tough could it be to break out of an aircraft lav?

  4. What section of the procedures manual would the copilot refer to in order to deal with the problem?

Okay, I know it’s not funny, but I’m laughing anyway. You do whatever you think is right. I found out that the airline’s procedure is, when the captain goes to the lav, the flight attendant has to go to the cockpit and hold the copilots hand. This makes more sense than the flight attendant going with the captain to hold his hand, but not much. Eventually, into every life some common sense must fall, and most intelligent humans don’t need a book procedure for every possibility. Least of all going to the bathroom. Reminds me of the infamous Captain Granny Gouch in the novel Shadow Flight. I can’t wait to see if the airline writes a new procedure. It would probably require multiple steps; number one either/or number two.

Oh well, the copilot declared a missing captain emergency and ATC called out the fighter jets, however the captain freed himself before the military escort arrived and all turned out well. At least sorta. My question is; would the flight attendant have stayed in the cockpit for landing? My God, what if someone whipped out a cell phone during taxi? It could have been a disaster. Would she get captain’s pay? I bet when it came time to put the wheels down, she wouldn’t be distracted by contract negotiations.

Posted by: harrisonjones | November 15, 2011

Airline fined for losing money

The department of transportation has fined American Eagle Airlines $900,000 for recent delays on the tarmac exceeding three hours. Didn’t I read somewhere that the airlines have been deregulated? Are the fines a deterrent to delays or a revenue enhancement for the government? I doubt very seriously if any airline purposely plans to have one of its airplanes sitting on the ground for three hours. Airborne utilization is the only way an airplane can be profitable and most airlines probably need that number to be at least 10 hours a day to stay in business.

When an airplane is delayed, it not only loses money on that particular flight, but also on the next flight it was scheduled to fly. The delay dominoes throughout the entire schedule and increases cost at every level in addition to destroying customer service. Does Ray LaHood at DOT think that is the airline’s plan? Far be it from me to make excuses for airline management or their customer service record, however my criticism is of their policies on a normal day. When a nor’easter blows in and de-icing is in progress and ATC increases spacing to ten miles in trail or worse yet the weather is below landing minimums, I have to cut them a little slack.

Let’s face the fact that they have to land every flight or else let it run out of fuel and crash. Given the choice… With all the extra flights on the ground, there simply are not enough gates to park them. Someone is going to be odd man out and stranded on the ramp. The airline has no control over ATC and weather delays and they have no control over the number of gates at a given airport. If our friend Ray has a solution, it would be a good time to share it with the industry. Perhaps he could run down to JFK approach control and enlighten them on how to run the system more efficiently. Or possibly he could influence the airport authority in Hartford to build more gates. Here’s an idea; deregulate somebody and then impose some new regulations along with hefty fines for not complying.

I’m sure Mr. LaHood is feeling some pressure from irate airline passengers and the voters who employ his boss, but if he thinks that’s uncomfortable, he should go sit at a radar scope for a couple of hours during a snow storm or perch himself in the left seat of an airliner with 300 people following him around. Imposing a $900,000 fine might ease the pressure at DOT, but it’s not a life or death decision.

Posted by: harrisonjones | October 31, 2011

Stranded on the tarmac

Okay, you are the captain. Your flight is scheduled to depart sunny Ft. Lauderdale, bound for Newark. The forecast calls for snow in the northeast. The company flight plan reveals that you have trip fuel, plus 45 minutes holding fuel, plus fuel to the alternate (Philadelphia), plus a thirty minute reserve. Is that enough? You’re the captain. Oh, you say you want another thirty minutes of reserve? The company dispatcher relents and orders up the extra kerosene. You have 130 passengers. Are you still within weight limits for takeoff and landing? The computer spits out a new weight data sheet showing the added fuel is not a problem. Check the weather one last time before heading out to the airplane. Newark is reporting 100 overcast with visibility at 2400 RVR in blowing snow and winds out of the northeast at 20 knots. Ceiling is not a criteria for landing minimums and you’re good down to 1200 RVR visibility with a max crosswind of 10 knots. Runway 4 L/R is well within limits. No more whining; are you going or not? Okay then, haul your suitcase and flight kit up to the airplane and act like you know what you’re doing. 

The preflight is done and everything is working, including the copilot, Fred, who trusts your decision. Susie, the flight attendant wants to know if it’s okay to board the passengers. This is not your first Rodeo and you tell her to sit on the jump seat while Fred gets the clearance. ATC reels off the clearance at 200 words per minute and Fred reads it back perfectly. ATC responds, “Read back correct, sir, you have a wheels up time of 1800.” Quickly converting to local time, you determine that there will be a 90 minute delay. Susie asks when she should board. You’re the captain. The wheels up time could be revised earlier or later. Oh, you’re going to split the difference and board 45 minutes before scheduled wheels up? Okaaaaay. 

How are you holding up so far? You’re number five for departure with both engines running when ground control informs you that the wheels up time is now extended until 1845. You are instructed to pull into the run up pad at the end of the runway and wait. You want to go back to the gate and replace the fuel you’re going to be burning for the next hour? You have the authority to do that, but it will require a new dispatch and a new clearance. Oh, you’re going to run the auxiliary power unit and shut down the engines to save fuel. Okaaaay…talk to the passengers…give them the bad news. Susie hates you now. 

Wheels up time comes 15 minutes early. ATC wants to know how soon you will be ready. Three minutes… four max…start the engines…tell Susie to prepare the cabin. You’re number one and everybody is waiting on you. Position and hold. Ten airplanes behind you. Checklist complete…waiting on the cabin. Susie… “Cleared for takeoff.” Susie… “Uh… standby one tower.”

“Sir, I need you to roll or clear the runway.” You’re the captain. 

Susie rings, “The cabin’s ready.” Release the brakes, takeoff power, 80 knots, V1, VR, V2. Positive rate. Gear up. Contact departure. “See ya.” 

You’re cruising…drinking coffee…telling jokes over Virgina. Washington Center calls, “You’re cleared to the Tar River VOR, hold southwest, expect further clearance at 43 past the hour.” That’s 35 minutes from now. You ask how many airplanes are ahead of you. “You’ll have to ask New York center when you get there, sir. Looks like 18 in my airspace.” You now have ten minutes of hold fuel left and you’re not talking to New York yet. You’re the captain. Oh, you want to check the Philadelphia weather. Fred calls company and gets the weather for Philly along with the news that there are 39 airplanes holding for Philadelphia International. You calculate 3 minutes for each airplane in the stack and come up with two hours. Talk to me, captain. Oh, you want to know what else is available. Company suggest Hartford. The weather is above minimums and there is very little delay. You can get there with 45 minutes of fuel left. You can do a couple of more twenty mile turns around the holding pattern while you decide. The copilot says, “I don’t want to put any pressure on you, boss, but I’ve got a wife and two kids.” Oh, you want a clearance to Hartford? Okaaay. 

New York center gives you a descent for Hartford and adds that you should expect holding from approach control. How long? Don’t know, approach will give you instructions. Fred asks if you want to declare an emergency or at least min fuel. You’re the captain. Oh, you want to wait and talk to approach. There’s a lot of paperwork if you declare. Fred says, “There’s even more paperwork for a funeral.” He just finished the CRM short course. Approach says to expect one turn in holding. No problem, runway in sight. 

You clear the runway with 40 minutes of fuel in the tanks. Ground control directs you to a remote pad for parking and you note 8 other airplanes already there and accumulating snow on the wings and fuselage. You set the parking brake and Fred shuts the engines down. You hope the APU will provide enough heat for the cabin. You pick up the PA for the tenth time today, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain…again…” 

Susie stopped speaking to you about two hours ago, but the number three flight attendant is new and feels sorry for you so she honors your request for coffee. Three hours later, when all the food and beverages are gone and the toilets have run out of flush water, the number three stops speaking to you also. All your request for a gate, or for fuel have been ignored and the airplane now looks like a pop cycle covered in a foot of ice and snow.  

That brings us to this morning’s newspaper articles about passengers stranded on the tarmac. For what it’s worth, tarmac is a paving substance that was invented in 1901 and declared unfit by Orville and Wilbur. Any reporter that uses the words Boeing and tarmac in the same article is highly suspect and deeply discounted by yours truly. See ya, captain.

Posted by: harrisonjones | October 21, 2011

Do you feel emotional?

The answer is, “Yes you do.” If you answer otherwise, then you are obviously apathetic which is a human emotion and negates your negative reply. If my pointing this out makes you angry, disgusted, afraid, happy, sad, or surprised, then I have accomplished what all writers strive to achieve. I have evoked an emotion in the reader. My fervent hope is that you will not be angry or disgusted with me, but rather with one of my fictitious characters. And in the course of spinning my tale, if I can change your anger or disgust for that same character to affection or empathy, then I feel pride which is another human emotion. 

We generally don’t take the time to categorize and catalog each of the emotions that we experience during a normal day, and I know you’re thinking, “Whatever…” See, there’s that apathy thing again and it probably made you yawn. Oh my…did you just yawn? Did I evoke you to do that? I might have a future in this business. On the other hand, apathy and yawning are not exactly what I hope you experience while reading my novels. 

Normally, there are two elements that have to be developed in a novel. One is the plot and the other is the characters. In my own reading, I seldom get emotional about the plot other than maybe curiosity or a little confusion. If mystery is involved, I will either figure it out myself or if my intellect fails me, the author will reveal all at some point. Either way, the plot becomes finite. It begins and it ends. The characters, however, will live on long after the story ends. If the characters are well developed, I will feel what they feel. I will love, hate, fear, feel happiness, sadness, surprise, (no apathy please) as they do. I will think of them as friends or enemies after I’ve turned the last page and I will miss being involved with them. 

My philosophical musings here are for my own benefit to remind me what I’m supposed to be doing as I develop my next novel. I’m getting to know the characters and I hope to introduce them to you soon. What about the plot? Knowing the characters like I do, they would be upset if I revealed the plot before they have their input. Meanwhile, hone your intellect and your emotions.  

Posted by: harrisonjones | October 12, 2011

In the beginning…

I procrastinate. I put off, delay, postpone, dally, defer, and dawdle. However, the time to begin the next novel has come and after staring at the blank screen for a few minutes and realizing that it reflects my thoughts, I decided to blog instead. Thus, the opening sentence, I procrastinate. Someone once said, “You can’t edit a blank page,” so I will have to type words, good or bad, and hope the editing process works. While signing books at the air show last weekend, I had the opportunity to get feedback from several people who had read Shadow Flight and was encouraged by their comments. Invariably, they ask about the next book and when they can expect it. I, of course, dawdled and one of them suggested that I start at the end. Confused, I asked for an explanation, and he said just start where Shadow Flight ended. Why didn’t I think of that?  

I have assembled a list of characters and developed a rough idea for the plot. You may recognize Kyle, Madison, Cason, Colt, Ed, Harry, Brooke, Charlie, and Bud. I’ll be introducing you to Cameron, Joyce, Maureen, Estelle, and Grace, among others. In doing some preliminary research, I have been fortunate enough to coerce several flight attendants into consulting on the project so that I represent the cabin crew accurately. They will be reading portions of the manuscript and pointing out the error of my ways. Their influence has already made an impact as they have made me promise to taxi slow and make judicious use of the brakes while they are moving about the cabin.  

Okay, no more procrastinating. I think I’ve got the opening paragraph of chapter one and it may make sense to you if you have read Shadow Flight.      

Chapter 1 

          He had read the letter so many times; it was burned into his memory like the lyrics of a favorite ballad. Nothing more than words imprinted on paper. Just a form letter with his name inserted as the subject of the first line. Yet the words would change his life forever. A goal achieved, a dream realized, and prayers answered. 

Now I just need another 100,000 words…

Posted by: harrisonjones | October 4, 2011

VIPs and more important people

Occasionally, in our life, we have the opportunity to meet someone deemed important or famous; a celebrity of great renown, or a superstar with great ability or talent. My career as a pilot afforded me many such opportunities and sometimes I was impressed, but more often I was not. You never know who is going to show up on a flight. I usually made a note in my logbook when we had VIPs on board. Sometimes movie stars want to remain incognito, and other times they want to entertain the entire cabin. Burt Reynolds is a friendly guy and Jerry Clower, the country comedian, is always on no matter where he is. The late Leslie Nielsen was also a full time entertainer. Sometimes they’re not acting; it’s just who they are. 

I can say that I have shared a cockpit with Astronauts Neil Armstrong and John Glenn. On separate occasions they were booked on my flights and both were kind enough to stop by the flight deck and introduce themselves. Classy people who didn’t want to talk about themselves; but were more interested in my airplane. Although, John Glenn was very enthusiastic about an Aero Commander he had just checked out in. An aviator through and through.  

There is a long list of VIPs in my logbook, including President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosylyn Carter. This was after he left office, but they were accompanied by a contingent of Secret Service agents. The stack of gun toting permits with the flight plan was impressive. Few people know that a Secret Service agent is the only government official who has access to the cockpit at any time without prior notice. 

After blathering for a few paragraphs, let me get to the point. Yesterday I met someone who truly impressed me. I had the honor and privilege to visit with an amazing young man named Cameron Horner. You might not know Cameron, but if you did you would be impressed too. Cameron represents everything that is good and everything that is right about American youth. As a Civil Air Patrol volunteer, Cameron serves with the Burlington, North Carolina Squadron and has attained the impressive rank of Cadet Captain and Squadron Commander. Grab a pencil and write down all the 18 year olds you know who are willing to devote so much of their time to community service. Didn’t take long, did it? 

On August 11, Cameron suffered a diving accident that resulted in spinal injury. He was transported from his home in North Carolina to Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta where he remains to fight his battle with the support of his friends from a distance. His mom, Joanna has dropped everything to be by his side, while his dad juggles work schedules between visits. We all know that we will face adversity in our lives, but to see an 18 year old face a challenge with such strength and determination is a blessing I will long remember. Cameron is blessed with parents who have taught him to, “Do the right thing,” and that’s exactly what he’s doing. The smile on his face and the character and integrity that shines through, along with the strong Christian faith that guides his family, tells me that he will compete and he will win. Don’t talk to me about million dollar superstars. I’m talking about the real thing here. He will win.  

I want to thank Cameron and his mom for allowing Diane and I to visit. I just spent a weekend standing at a book signing table and listening to people talk about themselves incessantly. That’s okay, occasionally it’s interesting. The refreshing thing about our time with Cameron was that he didn’t talk about himself. He asked about our family with true interest. If that reminds you of something you’ve read recently, you can back up a few paragraphs and refer to John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. I seldom meet anyone who reminds me of those gentlemen, but Cameron does. I bet John and Neil were influenced by wonderful parents also.  

I wanted to share this with you because it is rare that I’m truly impressed by someone and it was an honor I will remember. Follow Cameron on Facebook at “Prayers for Cameron Horner.” You can also follow at

You can click on Cameron’s name in my blogroll at the right to reach his page anytime. 

Prayers are the only request by the Horner Family, but words of encouragement and other offerings of support can be sent to the following: 


Attn: Cameron Horner Benefit Fund

PO Box 919

Graham, NC 27253


Cameron Horner                                                   

Shepherd Center                                                    

Room 525                                                                       

2020 Peachtree Rd. Northeast                             

Atlanta, Ga. 30309-1465                                                                

Posted by: harrisonjones | September 30, 2011

A celebration of heritage

Tomorrow I will be signing books at the Delta Heritage Museum in Atlanta. It will be a day-long event as the museum hosts an airline collectibles event. Vendors will display and sell or trade historic items from more than 75 years of airline and aviation history. I always look forward to any opportunity to discuss my book and to personalize signed copies, but to do so in such a historic setting is even more exciting. The museum is located in Delta’s original Atlanta hangars built in the mid 1940s.

The large hangar in this 1949 photo is now the museum. The photo was taken from a DC-3 (notice the de-ice boots on the leading edge) while crossing Runway 21, which no longer exists. In 1925 this location was the infield of an automobile race track when Atlanta leased the land to open the city’s airport and name it Candler Field after the land’s owner, Asa Candler (founder of Coca-Cola). Tomorrow, I’ll be thinking about the open cockpit air-mail flights that landed here. I’ll be thinking about October of 1927 when “Lucky Lindy” landed the Spirit of St. Louis here while touring the country after crossing the Atlantic. I’ll be looking at the museum’s Waco 125 that was built in 1928 to carry the mail, and the Travel Air and Stinson Reliant that carried passengers in the 1930s. I’ll be thinking about how they navigated by beacons on the night flights. I’ll spend some time with Delta’s first DC-3 that began service in December, 1940 and I’ll wonder where it was a year later when Pearl Harbor was bombed. I’ll marvel at the courage and skill it took to fly the “3” across the country in all kinds of weather with no radar. I’ll wonder if I could have measured up flying the airplane with just a low frequency range to navigate. What was it like before Air Traffic Control and ILS approaches? I’ll pay tribute to all those pioneers who wore the black double breasted jacket with gold buttons and gold stripes and made it possible for me to wear it so many years later, and I’ll be grateful that Delta has never changed the pilot uniform. I hope they never do. I’ll stand beneath the wing of Delta’s first Boeing 767, that is now displayed in the museum, and sign books, and I’ll remember all the hours I sat in the left seat of that airplane, viewing God’s creation from miles above. And I’ll know that in the grand scheme of things, I am insignificant, but extremely grateful.

Posted by: harrisonjones | September 20, 2011

Why do they quit?

I recently read an on-line discussion that asked the question, “Why is the dropout rate in flight training 80%?” First of all I was astonished that so many students would begin the process and then quit. At last check, there were 66 comments on the question and there were lots of opinions. It’s completely understandable that some people take that first flight and just don’t like it; motion sickness, fear of heights, lack of confidence, and any number of other valid reasons. The 3D environment of flying an airplane is not for everyone, nor should it be. There were other obvious reasons for dropping out, such as the high cost and the low return on investment in today’s economy. Okay, everyone has their priorities and we have to accept that. I certainly had to rearrange my disposable income to pay for flying lessons. I didn’t visit the movie theatre for a couple of years and I brown bagged at work in lieu of eating out. That was a personal choice and fortunately I had a supportive wife. Still do.  

Here’s what blew my mind. The second most common reason for student drop outs, after cost, was the flight instructor. Please tell me that a more formal survey would not reveal the same result. I have no doubt that most flight instructors have a passion for flying, but it’s the passion for teaching that makes you great. It’s not about the instructor. It’s about the student. It’s not about airplanes. It’s about people. It’s not about what makes an airplane fly. It’s about what makes a student learn. The student doesn’t care if the instructor is the greatest pilot in the state. The truth is, a student wouldn’t recognize a great pilot if he saw one standing next to a statue of himself holding a portrait. I’ll reiterate one of my favorite quotes, “They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” 

Okay, I’m done venting now and you can all relax. Let me tell you about another story I read that still blows my mind. You may have heard this one. It’s about a couple of bicycle mechanics who decided to do a home built in their garage. For reasons unknown to me they couldn’t find a flight instructor, so they taught themselves to fly the thing. The moral for instructors is; try to develop a better method than trial and error while sitting on the beach waiting for a stiff breeze. A little personality wouldn’t hurt either. The moral for students is; if you want to get to the top of the tree, you can either start climbing or sit on an acorn. Either way you’ll get there.

Posted by: harrisonjones | September 17, 2011

Ground school for news media

Why can’t the news media report aviation news accurately? It’s as if some uninformed reporter filed an inane story fifty years ago, and it’s been plagiarized and repeated as the standard source since. Of course, the consistent inaccuracies occur most often when an accident occurs. Speculation begins before the smoke clears, and indictments of the airplane, the pilot, or the system are proffered immediately.  This is just a random thought, but since aviation is a huge part of our society, I would like to think that each news organization could afford to send at least one member of their staff to a local ground school for a few sessions to enhance their credibility.  

I’m not talking about becoming an expert, but just understanding a few basic terms and facts would eliminate a multitude of common errors in reporting. Defining terms such as stall, altitude, attitude, flight plan, control tower, and a few others could clear up a lot of misunderstanding. I offer a few examples and I apologize to my readers, who already know these things, but I’m trying to make a point about news media and credibility. 

1-      “The engine stalled and the airplane crashed straight into the ground.” Of course, we know that the term stall refers to the wing losing airflow over it and has nothing to do with the engine. The airplane flies just fine without an engine, it just won’t maintain altitude. A commercial passenger jet, with all engines failed, has a glide ratio of approximately three to one. From 10,000 feet it will glide 30 miles. From 20,000 feet it will glide 60 miles. I listened to a retired airline pilot (a suspicious group of people at best) try to explain this to CNN last night. He was attempting to explain accelerated stalls without much success.

2-      “The airplane was in a nose up altitude.” Enough said.

3-      “The airplane was at an attitude of 10,000 feet.” Enough said.

4-      “The pilot did not file a flight plan with the FAA.” If every pilot filed a flight plan for every flight, the size and budget of the FAA would triple. Someone should explain to the media that flight plans are generally only required for IFR flights.

5-      “The airplane was approximately 600 miles off shore when it lost contact with the control tower.” The control tower normally owns about five miles of airspace.

6-      “The pilot did not report a problem before the airplane crashed.” Let’s think about that. The pilot is a pilot, not a reporter. If he or she is up to their neck in alligators, it would follow that he or she might be more concerned with solving the problem than reporting it.  

These are but a few examples and I would be interested in hearing yours. My concern is that if the media reports aviation news with this level of credibility, then what am I to believe when I read the political or business news. I mean, if it is reported that, “According to our sources, the Senator was seen leaving the bar in the company of an attractive female goat,” what does that infer? Who was the source, and are they saying he neglected to file a flight plan or failed to report that the wing fell off?  


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