Tonight's 'VIP Airplanes In Peril' Update

Last month I was tut-tutting about the Washington Post's scare-mongering "near miss" coverage of a fairly routine maneuver by a plane with Michelle Obama and Jill Biden aboard.

Today I can sound less tetchy in pointing out a very good illustration of how to cover such an incident. It is the report by Rebecca Kaplan and Marc Ambinder of a "missed approach" by Air Force One before its safe landing at Hartford's Bradley field today. Their item is short, so give it a read yourself. But it is excellent in conveying clearly what made this different from a usual good-weather landing, yet why it was still comfortably within the range of familiar procedures. Nicely done.

[Disclosures: the story ran on the Atlantic site; Ambinder used to work for the Atlantic; and National Journal, where both of them now work, is the Atlantic's sister publication.]

If you're wondering, the reason Air Force One circled before making a second approach was that the weather was bad. For the record, here are the "METARs" -- the aviation weather reports that pilots check when planning flights and preparing for landing -- for Bradley field between around 8am and noon today (from Aviation Weather Center -- and, welcome to the world of reading aviation weather data! If you want, just skip to the "what it means" paragraph):

KBDL 181600Z 01005KT 10SM OVC008 16/14 A3010 RMK AO2 CIG 006V010
KBDL 181551Z 02006KT 2 1/2SM BR OVC008 16/14 A3010 RMK AO2 SFC VIS 5 RAB25E43 SLP193 P0003 T01610139
KBDL 181533Z 08006KT 2SM R06/5000VP6000FT RA BR OVC008 16/14 A3010 RMK AO2 SFC VIS 5 RAB25 CIG 004V011 P0003
KBDL 181518Z 36005KT 5SM BR OVC008 16/14 A3010 RMK AO2 CIG 004V011
KBDL 181451Z 36003KT 2SM BR BKN005 OVC008 15/13 A3010 RMK AO2 SFC VIS 4 RAB03E12 CIG 003V008 SLP193 P0000 60001 T01500133 53004
KBDL 181430Z 02005KT 2SM BR OVC006 14/13 A3010 RMK AO2 SFC VIS 4 RAB03E12 CIG 003V010 P0000
KBDL 181351Z 35005KT 1 1/2SM OVC008 13/12 A3009 RMK AO2 SFC VIS 10 RAE12 CIG 003V010 SLP189 P0000 T01330122
KBDL 181251Z 35006KT 1 1/2SM -RA BR OVC007 13/12 A3009 RMK AO2 SFC VIS 4 RAB18 CIG 003V008 SLP190 P0001 T01280117
KBDL 181224Z 36005KT 1 1/2SM -RA BR FEW003 OVC007 12/11 A3009 RMK AO2 SFC VIS 4 RAB18 P0000
KBDL 181151Z 01007KT 4SM BR BKN005 OVC008 12/11 A3009 RMK AO2 RAE02B30E48 SLP191 P0000 60013 70073 T01170106 10117 20106 53006

What this means is a variety of signals that through the whole morning the weather would be bad and the ceiling would be low. There would be mist and light rain (-RA BR); the visibility would be poor -- less than the length of the runway (1 1/2SM,or visibility of 1.5 statue miles); and the ceiling would be far too low to allow a normal visual landing (OVC006 -- overcast at 600 feet.) A plane with proper instrument-navigation equipment can land perfectly safely in these conditions, as Air Force One did. Indeed, any pilot with an instrument rating has had to show an ability to land in conditions worse than this. But it's not a "gimme" landing, and if the pilot did not feel properly set up for the approach, it's standard, safe procedure to "go around" and get set up better.

On the other hand, the WaPo is also reporting a dangerous episode in Chicago coinciding with Joe Biden's arrival there:

This sounds as if it really could have been dangerous, in the way the others weren't. But just how close a call is not entirely clear from the initial stories, and it will be interesting to hear more of the facts. And of course, glad everyone on all planes is safe.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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