The Author of the New York Times 'Plane Crash' Story on What He Got Wrong
Noah Gallagher Shannon explains how he came to write, and the Times magazine came to publish, an account veteran pilots immediately questioned.
Last month, as part of its last-page "Lives" feature, The New York Times Magazine published an article by Noah Gallagher Shannon called "The Plane Was About to Crash. Now What?" It described the author's experience on a 2011 flight whose track is shown above: It was headed to Denver from Washington's National Airport, but turned back after 20 minutes of flying time and made an unscheduled landing in Philadelphia.
Almost as soon as the story was published, it provoked controversy and questions about the accuracy or even plausibility of its details. You can find links to many related items here. The most consequential discrepancies were maintenance records showing that the plane never had any real or suspected landing-gear problems, though a landing-gear failure was the main narrative premise of the piece; and that its entire flight time from takeoff in Washington to unexpected landing in Philadelphia was 42 minutes, versus the tense 2 hours of circling over Philadelphia to burn off fuel described in the article.
So far the main public response has been a note from Hugo Lindgren, the editor of The New York Times Magazine, saying that the article was meant only to describe the author's subjective memories of the experience. This morning I spoke by phone with Noah Gallagher Shannon to ask him about the background of the piece, the factual problems that have arisen, and its aftermath. I told him that we would run the Q&A in full, and that is what you find below.
So let's just start with the basics. How did you decide to do this Times magazine story? What happened in the two years between when you had this problem on the plane, and when the story came out?
Initially, when I was on the plane, I got off and was happy to see my family, happy to make my friend's wedding. I journaled about the experience, and at this point I was not working as a journalist or a writer. I just sort of kept it in the back of my head, and about six months ago, I wrote a story for Slate and Jack Shafer, who's a journalist at Reuters, got in touch with me and we talked for a while. Then when I was trying to place this story, I sort of told him I had a wild story about an emergency plane landing. He said, well, I think that'd be a great New York Times back-page story. So I got in touch with Hugo Lindgren and sent him the story, and they liked it. So they agreed to run it.
In the time between--there was like a year and a half between the plane flight and when you were contacting the Times magazine--had you told friends the story? Had it taken the shape in your mind that you then described in the magazine?
Yeah, that story was sort of on repeat in the next few weeks after the incident. In particular at the wedding, which was the next day, in the foothills in Colorado. Particularly the comments the pilot made about not sugar-coating it, and trying this, and the fact that the pilot came out in the alley--those were details that stuck out readily in my mind. The shape of it remained consistent for about that year. It was only once I was writing it down that I tried to do a little bit more research and give it a better shape.
So you weren't working mainly as a writer then--you were in graduate school? What were you doing when you were on the plane?
When I was on the flight I was an intern at a literary agency in D.C.
When you turned in the story to the Times magazine, what was the editing and the fact-checking process like there?
I got a call early in the morning on Wednesday from the editor of the column, saying they wanted to run it the next weekend--not that Sunday, but the next Sunday. And from there, we went over drafts and I was contacted by the fact-checker. She took me through the process, asking me about the quotes and the exact airline, and the flight number, and running up on all the different facts of the flight.
So she--the fact-checker--got from you the specific flight, the specific date, etc. Why was that not in the story itself?
You know, that really wasn't discussed. And that was probably my fault. That was an oversight. I was really trying to focus the story more on my personal sense of fear in a moment, rather than making it a report on the flight itself or on Frontier's emergency procedure. Because, all things considered, I was safe, and I arrived in Denver that same day. It was my decision not to include it, and for that I take full responsibility. It was a mistake.
You were going from telling this as a story to friends to writing it as a story for the magazine. Were there things that you, yourself, thought, well, I'd better go back and see about this procedure, or this event? You said you were double-checking--what sorts of things did that involve?
I went back and I tried to contact Frontier to get a little bit more information on what happened, exactly. And when I didn't hear from them, I just basically decided to rely on my impressions of the event, and my feelings, and try to qualify certain observations as observations. And that probably was a mistake, and it was wrong to give the impression of certainty about a few of those things when, as it turned out, I was wrong.
I should say, in some solidarity, here, I have tried to contact Frontier a number of times in the past week, and I have not heard back from them either. Was there a time when you considered, or the magazine suggested, throwing in some phrase to suggest that you were doing an inner monologue or a recollection of your state of mind as opposed to the actual reality on the plane? For example, "Maybe it didn't happen this way, but what I remember is ..."? Is that something you ever discussed?
No, and to be honest, that's really just my fault as the writer. I definitely should have qualified certain impressions and reactions as such, or qualified something as a recollection or done something that better indicated to the reader that this was a recollection, or that I was not clear on it, or that it was two years later that I was writing it. So in that way, I gave the impression of certainty when at times I wasn't. And that was a mistake.
Let me ask you about a couple of the details. One is, there's the circling for two hours over Philadelphia, when as you probably know now, the entire time the airplane was in flight was 42 minutes. There was the business of the landing gear emergency, where we know now that there was a different kind of hydraulic problem. And there is the matter of the way the lights turned off in the airplane, that sort of going row by row, and there were lights going off, when actually they go on or off all at once, and the lower lights are designed to stay on when there's an emergency--and those major points people have raised.
Those first two, I would say, are oversights on my part. The amount of time circling was constructed ex post facto by me, thinking about when we took off, according to my flight manifest, and when I remember getting into Philadelphia. The actual problem with the aircraft -it was my impression that it was a problem with the landing gear. Of course, I was wrong, and I should have better vetted that, or done better background research before I gave the impression of being certain about that.
With regard to the electricity, my notes that I had--my journaling--told me that there was flickering, and that I remember certain icons shutting off, and from there I reconstructed those events according to my impressions. And, as it turns out, those might have been wrong.
And when there started to be blog comments, and other controversy about the piece, did you have further discussions with the magazine? Why did neither you nor the magazine come out with any further explanation of the story for quite a while?
Why didn't we?
Yes--I'll clarify this question. First, when there started to be some controversy, did the magazine contact you, did you contact them? What happened in the week or two after the story came out?
To be honest with you, I wasn't aware of much of the controversy surrounding it until the magazine fact-checkers and Hugo Lindgren got in contact with me and said that we had to answer some of the questions that people were raising. From there I worked pretty closely with the editors and the fact-checkers and the standards editor at the newspaper to look into the exact facts of the flight, to give some explanation to people who raised questions, and to go over my memory with a fine-toothed comb to figure out what I was most confident with and what I was least confident with.
And Hugo Lindgren did send to The Atlantic and to me a statement, which I put on our site, essentially where he was saying, this was meant to be a subjective recreation of your experiences, as opposed to some kind of forensic investigation of a flight. Did did he discuss that statement with you?
Yeah, we went over that statement together. And he asked me a lot of questions about my experience, and the research that I did, and the fact-checkers helped him compile a lot of the data in that response.
So--to ask the other part of the question I was packing together before--why have you not said anything publicly until now?
Up till now I didn't really think it was necessary. You know, people were discussing certain parts of my problem--or certain problems in my piece--and now just felt like the right time to speak, because it didn't feel like it was just dying away. It seemed like people had some real, abiding problems with it. And at that point it was my responsibility to step up and take responsibility for the problems in it, rather than letting the readers and the Times continue to be misled.
Let me now ask you a wrapping-up question. As you think back over this last month-plus in your life, and the months before that when you were preparing the story, what do you take from them, and what will you do? How will this affect your own writing plans?
Can you clarify that? I'm sorry--
Yes--you have an opportunity for sort of a big-picture wrap-up statement. What have you learned about from this experience? Are you intending to make your career in reportorial-based journalism, in academic essays? What do you know now about yourself and your plans based on this last month?
Well, I would love to continue to write nonfiction--to continue to report. I guess the last month has instilled in me a greater need for careful scrutiny of my own work. It was driven home to me that it was wrong to give the impression of certainty, of fact, and the things I was a little uncertain or hazy on, I should have qualified those observations, and I think that would have been the better journalistic thing to do--or done more background research. But I didn't at the time, and I have to apologize to the readers and The New York Times for that, and I take full responsibility. Looking forward, I can only hope to do better work and use this motivation to do better work in the future.
Is there anything else you would like to say about this episode, people's comments, or anything else?
A younger writer like Noah Gallagher Shannon cannot enjoy going through one detail after another and apologizing for getting it wrong; an older writer like me cannot enjoy being cast in the role of proctor or scold for people getting their start, even when I am hardly taking a prosecutorial tone. But the country's leading newspaper published an account full of details that were plainly false. I appreciate Noah Gallagher Shannon's being willing to confront how and why that happened, and what it means for him.