Michelle Obama's Plane Was Not in 'Danger'

(See UPDATE below. And see later update. ) What is up with the WaPo's scare coverage of aviation? A story on line just now leads this way, emphasis added:

"A White House plane carrying Michelle Obama came dangerously close to a 200-ton military cargo jet and had to abort its landing at Andrews Air Force Base on Monday as the result of an air traffic controller's mistake, according to federal officials familiar with the incident."
This is not true, as the story itself pointed out two paragraphs down,
"Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration confirmed Tuesday that the first lady was aboard the plane and said that "the aircraft were never in any danger."

The planes, according to info way down in the story plus other accounts, were at their closest three miles apart, with one trailing the other on the approach for landing. If instead they had been heading straight at each other, with a combined closing speed of 600 to 1000 miles per hour, a three mile gap would have been closed in seconds. But in this case, their closing speed would have been slow. This was indeed an air traffic control mistake, in that they were supposed to be five miles apart, mainly to allow the "wake turbulence" created by the large Air Force C-17 to dissipate before the next plane landed. But it's not like there was a chance of one plane running into the other. There is no basis for the article's leadoff claim that the planes were "dangerously close."

As FAA spokesmen said, and as the NYT made clear in a much calmer-toned story (the WSJ calm too), the maneuvers required of Mrs. Obama's plane -- doing "S-turns" to slow down as it neared the airport, and then "going around" for another approach when it became clear that the first plane wouldn't get off the runway in time -- are routine and the farthest things from emergency procedures. A mistake, yes. A near-miss, no.

Last month, the Post had a similar alarmist story about National Airport's sleeping controller forcing planes to "land on their own." (The online version of the story has been changed from the one I talked about in that post, to a calmer lead.) It was obviously bad then to have no one on duty in the tower, and it was bad this time that the planes got closer than they should have. But there was nothing in this new situation to justify the assertion that the planes got "dangerously close." I hope that by the time you see the online version this story will have been changed too.

Drop-down image credit: ReutersUPDATE: Here is how the print paper played the story this morning, on the front page:


Unt-uh. It wasn't a "close call" and she didn't "escape." This is really sensationalized. In my opinion.

Bonus update-update! A reader writes:
>>I am a retired captain for a major US airline.  I have been rolled almost ninety degrees from upright in an airplane bigger than Mrs. Obama's by wake turbulence from an airplane smaller than a C-17.  The most dangerous time is just where they were, close to the ground and flying slowly.  Collision is not the only hazard.<<
Yes. "Wake turbulence" is a real issue, even for big planes. And stories like the NYT's explained that fact. The tone of "dangerously close" and "close call," though, obviously implied a different kind of risk, that of a mid-air.

EXTRA UPDATE: The Post has just put on its site an audio clip billed as "Recording of Michelle Obama's plane being diverted."

It is nothing of the sort.

It is routine chatter between the pilot and controllers about altitudes and frequencies, ending with a two-second question about whether the plane should slow down. There is nothing on this clip that is remarkable in the slightest way. And everything in the description below is misleading too, most of all the "near-miss."


If I were one of the Post's editors I would think, What the hell? That's what I think even not being a Post editor.

Presented by

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.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Politics

From This Author

Just In