On the Latest Bogus NYT Plane-in-Peril Story

'I was holding the winning $350 million Powerball ticket in my hand, and then, the damnedest thing ...'
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Yesterday I mentioned that yet another NYT story on a brush-with-danger aboard an airliner was suspicious. 

Let me rephrase that: The story the imperiled traveler told is phony, and America's best paper shouldn't have credulously passed it along. (I've written the reporter to ask if she knows any more about it.) In short:

  • The passenger said that a plane banked sharply on approach to "Midway International" Airport in Chicago. That is probably true, as you'll read below.
  • He said it banked because the plane was mistakenly headed for O'Hare, with the pilot realizing the gross error only at the last minute. I say that is flat-out false, an invention by the traveler. And if he proves it's right, I'll make an abject-apology video and stop harping on this theme.
  • He says the captain fled in shame and embarrassment from the cockpit. I say, if the captain left in a hurry, this was not the reason.

Let's let the experts speak. First, Rod Peterson, a career air traffic controller who, as it happens, handled exactly the kinds of flights under discussion. He says "it is virtually impossible" that the story is true:

Ah, ha! Now we're in MY bailiwick, as I spent 25 years at Chicago ARTCC (ZAU), feeding airplanes to O'Hare TRACON, bound for ORD [O'Hare], MDW [Midway], and other satellite airports (CGX, NBU, PWK, DPA, etc.). The center arrival procedures for ORD and MDW are markedly different, and it's virtually impossible from an ATC [air traffic control] standpoint for the event described to have happened....

What I can imagine *might* have happened is for the aircraft to have been inbound to MDW when they're landing on 22L [runway 22 Left]. There's no instrument approach for that runway, so it's only used when circling minimums are available and the procedure is to be vectored for the ILS 31C [runway 31 Center, which is at a 90-degree perpendicular angle to runway 22] , and then, when the field is in sight, circle (hard 90° turn, not bank, to the right) proceed essentially on downwind, then a hard 90° turn to the left to base, followed by another 90° turn to the left onto final (the third turn not mentioned, but it may have been a continuous turn to final--sloppy aviating, but it's sloppy writing, so who knows?).

[JF note: just to spell it out, a  90° /90-degree turn is a right-angle turn, which planes -- like ships and cars and bikes -- can make, though not exactly at right angles. A 90-degree bank would mean that one wing-tip was pointed toward the sky and the other toward the ground. Fighter planes, yes. Airliners, no. I won't go through step-by-step of the rest of this explanation, but it boils down to: yes, planes sometimes must bank and turn when going into Midway, but not for the reason the story said.]

The thing is, there's not a lot of room around MDW, so the 30 or more mile long finals commonly seen at ORD are just not possible at MDW. I'd be surprised if there was ever more than a 15 mile final to 31C. I worked the two sectors adjacent to the south side of ORD's area for about three years and I never saw a final long enough to MDW to warrant coordination with us....

Oh, and I guess sloppy writers figure every airport that handles jets is an international airport, and I suppose there are flights requiring customs coming from nearby Canada (the definition of an "international" airport), but those of us in the trade never consider MDW anything other than a reliever airport that can't handle anything bigger than a 757--hardly an "international" airport, and we never describe it as such.

From another reader with an aviation background:

I have flown Southwest several times through Midway and, while I'm not familiar with specific Midway procedures, on more than one occasion, when approaching from the west and landing to the southwest in visual conditions, the flight has been vectored low to the south of the field, circling to a left base with a surprisingly short final. I'm assuming the planes are kept to the south of the field to avoid conflict with O'Hare, and are kept low to avoid conflicts with departing Midway traffic.  

It's not the typical gentle and nothing dramatic approach one is used to, and for someone not familiar with the idea of a left base it can seem a little unusual. And a 25 degree bank at low altitude can seem pretty extreme.  If I had to hazard a guess, I would bet that this is what happened, with the possibility of a missed approach if the runway alignment wasn't just right.  Just a guess based on my Southwest experience into Midway.

Similarly:

Looking straight down at the ground is not the same as a 90 degree turn. Even at 30 degrees, you are looking down one mile for every two across. Since most of us don't have a lot of experience looking down from high places at sharp angles, any kind of banked turn seems pretty abrupt. 

And on the Larger Cultural Meaning, a writer-friend sends this note:

I think the core problem with the NYT Frequent Flyer column is that it exists for the well-off to boast about themselves. Content not fact-checked except in the sense of "that is what he claimed about himself."

Dig this one: "My travel schedule can be insane. In a matter of a few days, I may have hosted a party at Sundance, sat in the hospital with patients and friends, spoken at the United Nations and chatted about repurposing technology platforms and digital strategy in San Francisco."

Good luck finding her listed as making a speech at the UN! Then she claims that when she was being ushered in to meet Bill Clinton, the security guards thought she was Natalie Portman. Nothing about the Frequent Flyer columns ring true, not just the flight descriptions. 

Life is unfair: this wouldn't matter if it were the NY Post. But the NYT isn't the Post, and it should stop publishing things that flat aren't true, and that a modicum of checking would reveal not to be true. Suppose I told a Times interviewer or wrote in a first-person essay, "I was holding the winning $350 million Powerball ticket in my hand, and then -- the damnedest thing! --  a big puff of wind blew it away." Or, "Roger Federer really wanted me for his training partner, but then, with all the politics of tennis..."  In those cases the paper would say, OK -- but let's see some evidence. The aviation stories the Times keep publishing sound just this way to people who know anything about the field. Before the next one appears, let's see some evidence. Please!

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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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