Two weeks ago I read the NYT Mag's back-page story on a harrowing brush-with-death encounter when pilots had to land an airliner while thinking that its wheels had not come down. I was about to head off on a trip so I didn't take the time to write what I was thinking, which was: this doesn't sound right.
Now I see that questions about the veracity of the story have cropped up -- in Romenesko and Metafilter, in a Gene Weingarten's item for the Washington Post, and elsewhere. For the record, here are some things that seemed fishy to me.
1) The whole scenario. The plot line of the essay is that the pilots discovered, on a trip from some unnamed city to Denver, that the plane's landing gear didn't work. Thus they "circled for two hours over Philadelphia" to burn off gas before attempting a wheels-up landing.
Here's the problem: why would the pilots have discovered mid-flight that the landing gear had failed? Normally pilots would be paying attention to their landing gear exactly twice during the flight. One would be a few seconds after takeoff, when the flight crew would retract the gear into the plane's body so as to reduce drag as they climbed. If the wheels didn't retract then, the crew would know that right away -- and they could circle back (perhaps after burning off some fuel) for a normal wheels-and-all landing.
The other time is not long before landing, when the crew would put the wheels back down. If the wheels didn't go down, that would be a problem -- with various possible counter-measures. (Manual gear-lowering systems; flying by the tower so controllers can look at the plane's belly with binoculars and see whether the gear are actually down; and so on.)
The rest of the time, the wheels just sit there. They don't fail mid-flight. They're just in their bay inside the plane's fuselage. The pilots pay zero attention to the landing gear until they're going through the descent-and-landing checklists. So, maybe this happened. But it doesn't resemble any "failure mode" I have ever heard of. Unless the gear didn't retract after takeoff to begin with, and the pilots circled but didn't say anything to the passengers (who also didn't notice anything) for the next two hours.
2) The pilots' Airplane! style behavior. According to this story, the pilots are opening the cockpit door and yelling encouragement and safety instructions to the terrified passengers, because they've turned off the cabin electric system (to avoid sparks on landing) and therefore can't use the public-address system.
Really? Try to envision the scenario of the pilot yelling down the aisle, as "his cap dangled in one hand." I can't. Including the part about the cap, which pilots don't wear while sitting at the controls.
3) The mood of impending doom. The whole emotional tone of the essay turns on the pilots' preparing everyone for a brush with death. It's easy for me to believe that some passengers might be terrified. Not the pilots. Gear-up landings are bad for the airplane -- the belly of the plane obviously gets chewed up. But they are more common than other airline mishaps -- one happened just last week at Newark -- and they rarely kill people. The pilots would know that.
4) The engines "spooling down." This passage caught my eye when I first saw the piece: "You can actually feel the air holding you up when a plane's engines power down. Like when you're riding a bike downhill and you stop pedaling, there's noiselessness in its speed."
Well, yes. The air holds you up the entire time the plane is flying. But let's concentrate on the engine. The author never explicitly says that the engines were turned off, but several times he talks about the "noiselessness" as they "power down." To which I say again, Really?
Any plane reduces power as it descends for a landing. An airliner would need to slow down from its 400+ knot cruising speed to the low-100-kt range for final approach -- and do so even as it is descending, which speeds the plane up. Pilots manage that transition through reduced power. But for a wheels-up landing the pilots might maintain more power than usual just before touchdown, not less, so as to make the final contact with the ground as gentle and gradual as possible.
5) The Philadelphia disaster team. According to the story, the plane circled over Philadelphia because its airport had the best disaster-response team. Reportedly the author heard this judgment from another passenger who worked for FEMA rather than directly from the pilot. Still, it sounds odd.
All big airports have on-scene fire squads and equipment to spread fire-retardant foam over the runway to protect an inbound wheels-up plane. It is 100% believable that pilots of a such a plane would be looking for a nearby airport that had the longest runways, or the ones best aligned with the wind. Choosing this airport on the basis of EMT teams sounds strange. No offense to Philly, but what would be wrong with Boston -- site of the miracle trauma-treatment scenes after the Marathon bombing? If the plane needed to burn fuel for two hours, it could easily have gotten there.
6) When did this happen, anyway? Practically the only specific reference in the story was to Philadelphia. Otherwise there is no mention of: which airline this was, or when it occurred, or on what kind of plane, or where the trip began. Any of these, of course, would make the story easier to verify.
So, maybe this all happened. I know, from experience, that the NYT Magazine has good fact checkers. But a lot of details sound very unlikely to me.
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.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
As the public’s fear and loathing surge, the frontrunner’s durable candidacy has taken a dark turn.
MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina—All politicians, if they are any good at their craft, know the truth about human nature.
Donald Trump is very good, and he knows it better than most.
Trump stands alone on a long platform, surrounded by a rapturous throng. Below and behind him—sitting on bleachers and standing on the floor—they fill this city’s cavernous, yellow-beige convention center by the thousands. As Trump will shortly point out, there are a lot of other Republican presidential candidates, but none of them get crowds anything like this.
Trump raises an orange-pink hand like a waiter holding a tray. “They are not coming in from Syria,” he says. “We’re sending them back!” The crowd surges, whistles, cheers. “So many bad things are happening—they have sections of Paris where the police are afraid to go,” he continues. “Look at Belgium, the whole place is closed down! We can’t let it happen here, folks.”
Why the ingrained expectation that women should desire to become parents is unhealthy
In 2008, Nebraska decriminalized child abandonment. The move was part of a "safe haven" law designed to address increased rates of infanticide in the state. Like other safe-haven laws, parents in Nebraska who felt unprepared to care for their babies could drop them off in a designated location without fear of arrest and prosecution. But legislators made a major logistical error: They failed to implement an age limitation for dropped-off children.
Within just weeks of the law passing, parents started dropping off their kids. But here's the rub: None of them were infants. A couple of months in, 36 children had been left in state hospitals and police stations. Twenty-two of the children were over 13 years old. A 51-year-old grandmother dropped off a 12-year-old boy. One father dropped off his entire family -- nine children from ages one to 17. Others drove from neighboring states to drop off their children once they heard that they could abandon them without repercussion.
The Nebraska state government, realizing the tremendous mistake it had made, held a special session of the legislature to rewrite the law in order to add an age limitation. Governor Dave Heineman said the change would "put the focus back on the original intent of these laws, which is saving newborn babies and exempting a parent from prosecution for child abandonment. It should also prevent those outside the state from bringing their children to Nebraska in an attempt to secure services."
Can we predict romantic prospects just from looking at a face?
By the time you swear you're his, / Shivering and sighing. / And he vows his passion is/ Infinite, undying. / Lady, make a note of this — /One of you is lying. ― Dorothy Parker
Edward Royzman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, asks me to list four qualities on a piece of paper: physical attractiveness, income, kindness, and fidelity. Then he gives me 200 virtual “date points” that I’m to distribute among the four traits. The more I allocate to each attribute, the more highly I supposedly value that quality in a mate.
This experiment, which Royzman sometimes runs with his college classes, is meant to inject scarcity into hypothetical dating decisions in order to force people to prioritize.
What one woman learned from 10 years of teaching in a New York City public school
Laurel Sturt was a 46-year-old fashion designer in New York City whose career trajectory took an unlikely shift one day on the subway. A self-proclaimed social activist, Sturt noticed an ad for a Teaching Fellows program. Then and there, she decided to quit her job in fashion design and shift her focus to her real passion: helping others. She enrolled in the two-year program and was assigned to teach at an elementary school in a high-poverty neighborhood near the South Bronx.
Students at Princeton University are protesting the ways it honors the former president, who once threw a civil-rights leader out of the White House.
The Black Justice League, in protests on Princeton University’s campus, has drawn wider attention to an inconvenient truth about the university’s ultimate star: Woodrow Wilson. The Virginia native was racist, a trait largely overshadowed by his works as Princeton’s president, as New Jersey’s governor, and, most notably, as the 28th president of the United States.
As president, Wilson oversaw unprecedented segregation in federal offices. It’s a shameful side to his legacy that came to a head one fall afternoon in 1914 when he threw the civil-rights leader William Monroe Trotter out of the Oval Office.
Trotter led a delegation of blacks to meet with the president on November 12, 1914 to discuss the surge of segregation in the country. Trotter, today largely forgotten, was a nationally prominent civil-rights leader and newspaper editor. In the early 1900s, he was often mentioned in the same breath as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. But unlike Washington, Trotter, an 1895 graduate of Harvard, believed in direct protest actions. In fact, Trotter founded his Boston newspaper, The Guardian, as a vehicle to challenge Washington’s more conciliatory approach to civil rights.
The frenzied day after Thanksgiving, as we know it, may be dying. That is an extremely good thing.
BlackFridayDeathCount.com keeps a running list of the casualties incurred by the rites and rituals of the day after Thanksgiving. Since 2006, the site says, Black Friday has claimed 97 deaths and injuries—seven of the former, 90 of the latter—as the result of the tramplings, pepper-sprayings, shootings, stabbings, and other tragedies that can occur when the term "doorbuster" is taken too literally.
Ancient Romans filled their Colosseum with throngs thirsting for fights; Americans fill our own arena—our TVs and newspapers and mobile screens—with, among so much else, an annual event that makes bargain-hunting a matter of athletic competition. Black Friday is a media ceremony; it is also an extremely commercialized, and oddly moralized, form of bloodlust. "People are crazy," we say, watching the news reports and shaking our heads and assuring ourselves that we are not part of the "people" in question. "How could they just trample someone?"
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Retailers are experimenting with a bold new strategy for the commercial high holiday: boycotting themselves.
It starts with a scene of touch football in the yard. Next, a woman and a girl, cooking together in the kitchen. “Imagine a world,” a soothing voice intones, “where the only thing you have to wrestle for on Thanksgiving is the last piece of pumpkin pie, and the only place we camped out was in front of a fire, and not the parking lot of a store.” And, then, more scenes: a man, cuddling with kids on a couch. An older woman, rolling pie dough on the counter. A fire, crackling in the fireplace. Warmth. Wine. Togetherness. Laughter.
It’s an ad, unsurprisingly, but it’s an ad with a strange objective: to tell you not to buy stuff. Or, at least, to spend a day not buying stuff. “At T.J. Maxx, Marshall’s, and HomeGoods, we’re closed on Thanksgiving,” the spot’s velvet-voiced narrator informs us, “because family time comes first.” And then: more music. More scenes of familiar/familial delights. More laughter. More pie. The whole thing concludes: “Let’s put more value on what really matters. This season, bring back the holidays—with T.J. Maxx, Marshall’s, and HomeGoods.”
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.