Could the NYT Mag 'My Plane Almost Crashed' Story Actually Be True?

By James Fallows

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.

HaysAirplane.jpg

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/05/could-the-nyt-mag-my-plane-almost-crashed-story-actually-be-true/276375/