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.
Without the financial support that many white families can provide, minority young people have to continually make sacrifices that set them back.
He died on a Saturday.
My mother and I had planned to pick my dad up from the hospital for a trip to the park. He loved to sit and watch families stroll by as we chatted about oak trees, Kona coffee, and the mysteries of God. This time, the park would miss him.
His skin, smooth and brown like the outside of an avocado seed, glistened with sweat as he struggled to take his last breaths.
In that next year, I graduated from grad school, got a new job, and looked forward to saving for a down payment on my first home, a dream I had always had, but found lofty. I pulled up a blank spreadsheet and made a line item called “House Fund.”
Neuroscientist James Fallon discovered through his work that he has the brain of a psychopath, and subsequently learned a lot about the role of genes in personality and how his brain affects his life.
In 2005, James Fallon's life started to resemble the plot of a well-honed joke or big-screen thriller: A neuroscientist is working in his laboratory one day when he thinks he has stumbled upon a big mistake. He is researching Alzheimer's and using his healthy family members' brain scans as a control, while simultaneously reviewing the fMRIs of murderous psychopaths for a side project. It appears, though, that one of the killers' scans has been shuffled into the wrong batch.
The scans are anonymously labeled, so the researcher has a technician break the code to identify the individual in his family, and place his or her scan in its proper place. When he sees the results, however, Fallon immediately orders the technician to double check the code. But no mistake has been made: The brain scan that mirrors those of the psychopaths is his own.
Nuts-and-bolts Washington coverage has shifted to subscription-based publications, while the capitol’s traditional outlets have shrunk.
Back in 2009, I had a job with a Washington, D.C.-based newsletter called Water Policy Report. It wasn’t exactly a household name, but I was covering Congress, the federal courts, and the Environmental Protection Agency—a definite step up from the greased-pig-catching contests and crime-blotter stories I had chased at a community newspaper on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, my first job out of college.
One of my responsibilities at the newsletter was to check the Federal Register—the official portal that government agencies use to inform the public about regulatory actions. In December of that year I noticed an item that said that the Environmental Protection Agency had decided that existing pollution controls for offshore oil-drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico were adequate, and that there wasn’t enough pollution coming from those platforms to warrant further review or action.
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.”
The sport is becoming an enterprise where underprivileged young men risk their health for the financial benefit of the wealthy.
Football can be a force for good. The University of Missouri’s football team proved it earlier this month when student athletes took a facet of campus life that’s often decried—the cultural and economic dominance of college football—and turned it into a powerful leverage point in the pursuit of social justice. Football can build a sense of community for players and fans alike, and serve as a welcome escape from the pressures of ordinary life. The sport cuts across distinctions of race, class, geography, and religion in a way few other U.S. institutions do, and everyone who participates reaps the benefits.
But not everyone—particularly at the amateur level—takes on an equal share of the risk. College football in particular seems headed toward a future in which it’s consumed by people born into privilege while the sport consumes people born without it. In a 2010 piece in The Awl, Cord Jefferson wrote, “Where some see the Super Bowl, I see young black men risking their bodies, minds, and futures for the joy and wealth of old white men.” This vision sounds dystopian but is quickly becoming an undeniable reality, given new statistics about how education affects awareness about brain-injury risk, as well as the racial makeup of Division I rosters and coaching staffs. The future of college football indeed looks a lot like what Jefferson called “glorified servitude,” and even as information comes to light about the dangers and injustices of football, nothing is currently being done to steer the sport away from that path.
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.
Places like St. Louis and New York City were once similarly prosperous. Then, 30 years ago, the United States turned its back on the policies that had been encouraging parity.
Despite all the attention focused these days on the fortunes of the “1 percent,” debates over inequality still tend to ignore one of its most politically destabilizing and economically destructive forms. This is the growing, and historically unprecedented, economic divide that has emerged in recent decades among the different regions of the United States.
Until the early 1980s, a long-running feature of American history was the gradual convergence of income across regions. The trend goes back to at least the 1840s, but grew particularly strong during the middle decades of the 20th century. This was, in part, a result of the South catching up with the North in its economic development. As late as 1940, per-capita income in Mississippi, for example, was still less than one-quarter that of Connecticut. Over the next 40 years, Mississippians saw their incomes rise much faster than did residents of Connecticut, until by 1980 the gap in income had shrunk to 58 percent.
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.
Why one journalist wanted to grade Finland’s schools
In Finland you’re not supposed to wonder—let alone ask out loud—if one school is better than another. That’s because all Finnish schools are designed to be equal.
We Finns are very proud of our equal education system. In fact, education is the one positive thing Finland is known for all around the world. Our results in global assessments of 15-year-olds have won us international attention a small nation rarely receives.
The strong ideology of equality doesn’t always make life easy for us Finnish education reporters. We feel, for example, we should rank the nation’s high schools even though the government doesn’t want us to.
In 2011, my boss asked me to help her create a more ambitious high-school ranking than anything Finland had ever seen. I had just been promoted from an education reporter to the editor of domestic news at the Finnish News Agency, which is like the Associated Press of Finland except on a smaller scale. (Since there are only 5 million Finns, all things Finnish are small scale.)