Hey NYT, What Is It With You and These 'Near Disaster in the Air' Stories?

Free advice for our leading paper: Don't run any more stories about in-flight emergencies. Plan B: Get them fact-checked.
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C'mon, New York Times, I just got done writing an item about your ever-growing preeminence in world journalism. And you do ... this again?

Visitors to this site may recall the flap over a bogus NYT Magazine "Lives" story called "The Plane Was About to Crash. Now What?" The story described a harrowing two-hour ordeal over Philadelphia airport as a Frontier Airlines flight circled to burn off fuel before attempting a dangerous landing. In fact the plane was only in the air a brief time, it didn't circle anywhere, there was never any danger, and the air of emergency, while apparently quite real to the author, was strictly in his mind.

Today we get a Times "Frequent Flier" story about another brush with disaster. In specific:

We were supposed to be flying into Midway International and the pilot’s approach was long and slow. As we were coming in for the landing, not more than 1,000 feet off the ground, the pilot made a sharp turn to the right. The turn was so tight that he seemed to bank at a 90-degree angle. I had the window seat and was looking straight down at the ground. I could hear alarm bells going off in the cockpit. Just as I was convinced we were going to flip over on our back like a turtle, and any turtle can tell you that is not a good thing, the plane went into another 90-degree turn. But this time, it was to the left. I looked out the window again and I saw stars.

It seemed the pilot confused Chicago O’Hare with Chicago Midway and was landing at the wrong airport. At the last minute either he or the control tower realized the problem and he tried to correct his mistake. When we finally did land at Midway, the pilot bolted off the plane. I have never seen anyone move that fast.

It would be very, very interesting to hear something more specific about this flight. Like when it (supposedly) happened, and on what airline. Because every known BS-detector alarm bell should be going off right now.

Airplanes, even airliners and military aircraft, sometimes land at the wrong airports -- there are a few famous cases I am not taking the time to dig out now. As I've mentioned before, one Air Force base in the Dakotas is close enough to, and lined-up-enough-with, a local civilian airport that the controllers routinely warn planes to be sure they are headed for the right one.

But mixing up O'Hare and Midway? The Google Earth screen shot at the top of the page shows where the two of them are -- ie, not close together, and not similar-looking. O'Hare is the big one at the top; Midway, the small one at the bottom. What the picture doesn't show is that dozens, even hundreds, of miles out, airliners would be setting up on the "arrival" and "approach" sequences for the different airports. They would also be talking with controllers about which runway to expect -- not merely which airport, but which specific runway there.

So while I can't prove that this story never happened, I'd bet a lot of money it didn't. Same from Patrick "Ask the Pilot" Smith, who gives many more details and says

Call me uptight or overly sensitive, but it infuriates me that passengers are taken at their word when it comes to things like this. Mr. Hill [the flyer] clearly knows nothing about flying, yet the most prestigious newspaper in the world will go ahead and print an account in which, despite having no credible evidence, he accuses airline pilots of being lost and making reckless maneuvers. He couches it with the likes of “it seemed,” and surely the paper will say that his subjective observations are just that, and fair game. But of course this story will be quoted and passed along as fact. And it’s precisely this kind of thing that helps perpetuate the many myths and fallacies of commercial air travel, and further galvanizes people’s distrust, if not outright contempt, for airlines. Over and over again we see this in the media: when it comes to flying, anything goes, no matter how ignorant, untrue, or ill-informed.

Here is a hint for the Times: Don't run any more stories about people who "remember" near-disaster airline experiences. And if you're tempted, call up Patrick Smith for a BS test. This one would fail.


Update: One of Patrick Smith's readers sends in this "load factor" chart, with additional details on the BS-quotient in this story. The passenger said that the plane seemed to go into a 90-degree bank. As the chart illustrates, that would have meant an enormous G-load factor, probably beyond what the airplane was designed to withstand and certainly more than any normal airline passenger has experienced. 

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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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