Finale on the NYT Mag Airplane-in-Peril Story

The writer was telling us "what he heard and felt." Not necessarily what occurred.

I am grateful to Hugo Lindgren for his response, as editor of the New York Times Magazine, to questions and doubts about Noah Gallagher Shannon's story, "The Plane Was About to Crash. Now What?" The response included time, date, and routing information for the author's flight, which had not appeared in the original story.

Before I heard from Lindgren, I was about to put up a large number ( > 20) of messages from pilots, flight attendants, engineers, etc on why they viewed details in the story as mistakes at best, technically implausible fabrications at worst.

In light of Lindgren's response, I don't think it's worth doing so -- though, thanks to those who wrote in. Here's how it settles out for me:

      - I do believe that the author was aboard a flight two years ago that had an unexpected diversion to Philadelphia, and that this frightened him.

      - I do not believe most of the detail, color, and sequence-of-events in the story. And it strikes me that Hugo Lindgren is not trying to convince me that I should. Look again at this central and extremely artful passage from his statement:

Naturally, not every detail matches everybody else's experience. Surely even people on that plane would remember it differently. The story was about the personal experience of a fearful moment....He only reported what he heard and felt, which is consistent with the magazine's Lives page, where the account was published.

So if you went to the trouble (as I have not done) of finding other passengers on that plane and asking them whether, in fact, a rattled-sounding pilot had left the cockpit during the emergency to yell instructions down the aisle, meanwhile dangling a cap in his hand; or if you found the radar tracks to see whether an airliner had actually circled for two hours over Philadelphia; or if you heard from an Airbus electrical engineer (as I have) that it would have been impossible for the cabin lighting or public-address system to have behaved in the way the story claims; or if you went to the FAA or NTSB and found that their records for that date didn't match this story; or if you did anything else of the sort --  it wouldn't matter. The writer was telling us "what he heard and felt," not necessarily what "happened."

OK. To me this is closed. I appreciate the quick response from Hugo Lindgren. Noah Gallagher Shannon is clearly a very talented young writer -- no one would have wondered about the story if it hadn't been so grippingly told. I  assume he will think carefully about his choice of genre for future work.

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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.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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