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A Flight of Fancy (Update)

Posted by Patrick Smith  June 1, 2013 06:11 PM

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A silly story in the Times magazine got some well-deserved flak. Finally the author and the paper have fessed up and apologized.

Thumbnail image for Shannon-and-Tire.jpg

UPDATE: June 18, 2013


On June 18th, Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times' Public Editor, published a candid, if tardy mea culpa, owning up to the paper's poor response to the controversy surrounding Noah Gallagher Shannon's over-the-top account of a supposed emergency landing in Philadelphia two years ago. Separately, in an interview with James Fallows published on the 14th, Shannon himself came clean.

The story in question, written by a young, Brooklyn-based writer named Noah Gallagher Shannon, was this one.

Conde Nast's Clive Irving was among those who joined The Atlantic's James Fallows in ringing the baloney bell on Mr. Shannon's scary account.

Shoddy media coverage and overheated analysis of aviation incidents is nothing new. This particular essay, though, belonged in a category of its own. Shannon didn't give us a story about an emergency landing. He gave us an embellished tale about his own hysterical reaction to a manageable and ultimately harmless problem.

As I've written many times in my articles (there's a segment in the new book about it too), landing gear malfunctions are, from a pilot's point of view, pretty far down the list of potential nightmares, and seldom if ever do they result in injury or fatality. Mr. Shannon was either unaware of this reality, or chose to ignore it for the sake of giving his story a little more zing. I love this line especially: "A plane without landing gear is like a struck match." Total rubbish. See my articles HERE, and HERE for starters.

Then we have an obvious, perhaps intentional muddling of certain details. For instance:

"The captain came out of the cockpit and stood in the aisle. His cap dangled in one hand."

Why would the captain bring his cap?

“All electricity will remain off,” he said. Something about an open current and preventing a cabin fire. Confused noises spread through the cabin, but no one said a word."

I'd be confused as well. I cannot imagine a scenario in which the crew would would intentionally shut down a plane's electrical system because of a landing gear malfunction.

“Not going to sugarcoat it,” he said. “We’re just going to try to land it.”

If this one isn't made up, I'll eat my pilot hat. We're just going to try to land it?

The thrumming of the air-conditioning stopped.

A commercial plane's air conditioning system is not electrically powered and is unrelated in any way to the landing gear. As with the electrical system, I cannot conceive of a reason for turning it off under the circumstances described. For one thing, doing so would cause the jet to depressurize.

And so on, including the weird bits about the engines "powering down," and the plane "pitching and rolling." I have no idea what that's all about. Obviously the plane was going to pitch and roll, seeing that it was flying and would need to maneuver. And obviously the engines were going to power down if the plane was going to descend and land.

I received a letter from a person who was able to view the maintenance record of the aircraft involved. According to the information I was given, the pilots' post-flight logbook entry, which references a caution message displayed on a cockpit advisory screen of the Airbus A320, reads as follows:

"ECAM HYD Y RSVR LO LVL"

What this means, essentially, is that one of the plane's three main hydraulic systems was indicating a low level in its fluid reservoir. Airbus color-codes its hydraulic systems; this would have been the yellow (Y) system.

Per checklist instructions, the crew would've turned off this system off. This is unusual, but the loss of a single hydraulic system on a modern airliner is far from a serious emergency. All critical components have at least one alternate source of hydraulic power.

Further, the corrective action note in the logbook implies the issue was merely an indication problem. Fluid quantity was found to have been at the normal level all along.

But most importantly, Shannon's essay revolves around a landing gear problem. As I've already explained, even the most serious landing gear malfunction sits pretty far down in the hierarchy of potential disasters. Even lower, however, is a landing gear problem that does not exist: the yellow hydraulic system does not power the landing gear.

An A320 captain I spoke to says that a shut-down of the yellow system would have meant, at worst, a slightly longer-than-normal landing roll (due to loss of the right engine thrust reverser and some of the wing spoiler panels), and, in newer A320s, loss of the nose-gear steering system, requiring a tow to the gate.

There were enough red flags to begin with, but this put it over the top, tilting the entire account from one of eye-rolling embellishment toward one of outright fabrication.

In a response to James Fallows' comments in the Atlantic, the editor of the Times magazine had this to say:

"Naturally, not every detail matches everybody else's experience. Surely even people on that plane would remember it differently. The story was about the personal experience of a fearful moment....He only reported what he heard and felt, which is consistent with the magazine's Lives page, where the account was published."

Ah, there you go. So we weren't supposed to take the details and their chronology seriously. As Fallows put it, "the writer was telling us 'what he heard and felt,' not necessarily what 'happened.'" I see. And no disclaimer on this account was necessary up front?

Writerly integrity aside, the real harm here, as Clive Irving notes in his Daily Beast article, is in the way accounts like Shannon's stoke people's fears. Shannon took what was surely a minor problem and fashioned it into a near-calamity. The next time there's a problem with a landing gear door or an anti-skid system, or heaven forbid a set of tires that fails to deploy, some already nervous flyer is going to remember this story and be scared out of his or her wits, all for no reason.

Hysterics like this are also offensive to the people who've lived through serious aviation accidents, and they disgrace the memories of those who weren't lucky enough to survive them. For example, compare Shannon's melodrama with the New York Times columnist Joe Sharkey's first-hand account of the midair collision he survived over the Amazon in 2006 -- an accident that killed 154 people. Sharkey's narrative, about living through one of the deadliest accidents of the last 20 years, was levelheaded and calm. He didn't need to embellish it. Shannon whimpers like a schoolgirl over a malfunction so minor that the flight crew, if we could track them down, has probably forgotten about it.

I don't know if the author was trying to be sleazy, but he was doing what too many people do: taking extreme liberties with a subject that he obviously knows nothing about -- i.e. commercial flying -- under the assumption that nobody would notice or care, and spinning them into a bogus scare-story. Flying often gets a free pass when it comes to hype and fact-checking, but Shannon and his artisanal Brooklyn fiction had no place in a publication as august as the New York Times.

And while not to pile on... Apart from the technical points, the whole style and tone of Shannon's piece were annoying and immature. What was intended to sound "emotional" and reflective came across like a seventh grade composition assignment.

The mini-sentence, for example, is a tempting, often dangerous affectation for writers when they're trying to sound pithy. Shannon gave us an instant classic: "My brain felt humid."

Then, a few lines later, he drew things out: "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."

I'm sorry, what? Did you say, "noiselessness in its speed"?

Is this the stuff coming out of Brooklyn nowadays?

Okay, I know, I'm taking the low road. I do wish Shannon success on the book about Cormac McCarthy that his bio says he's working on. He and I have at least something in common, presumably, in addition to our great looks and hairlines: McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" is one of my two or three all-time favorite novels. I'd love to hear his thoughts on it.

For real. Just no more nonsense about airplanes.

 

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot and author of the new book, COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT AIR TRAVEL

 
[photo composite by Patrick Smith]
 

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, air travel columnist, author, and host of www.askthepilot.com. In his spare time, he has visited more than 80 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives in Somerville. More »

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