When there is ‘trouble’ in the sky, there tends to be ‘trouble’ with the reporting as well.
Many news agencies, in their rush to get an aviation-related story out, tend to generalize some of the facts to the point where they are just blatantly wrong. Let’s look at some of the more recurring themes, which can easily be correctly with a little bit of Googling.
“The plane is on the tarmac”
Of all the points in this article, I will not stress too much about it. For those who choose to be pedantic though, what we think is the ‘tarmac’ really is not. In the earlier days of aviation, airport runways, taxiways, and aprons (or ramps) were paved with a material called tarmacadam or tarmac for short.
Tarmacadam refers to the method of “macadamizing” in which crushed stone is placed and compacted on top the layer of tar. However, today’s major airports typically use a combination of asphalt-based and/or concrete paving material instead (for different sections of the airport).
The phrase has still stuck with many in the public domain though, just like how people still say cockpit instead of flight deck.
The second ‘tarmac’ issue stems from the fact that the media tends to generalize different sections of the airport under the same umbrella. For those who care for details, it’s necessary to be more specific. At airports, there are aprons, taxiways, and runways.
Planes parked at gates or remote stands are parked in the area called the apron. You might also be familiar with the ‘ramp’ which is an older term for the same area. When planes want to takeoff, they taxi from the ramp to the runway via connecting routes called taxiways. Finally, planes landing or departing use a stretch of ground called the runway.
Assuming we let reporters slide on the use of the definition of tarmac, I personally do not make a big deal about the generalization as I see it as a them basically saying the aircraft is on the ground versus in the air.
“The Jumbo Jet…”
As I mentioned in my intro, finding information about passenger jets has become incredibly easy. With tracking sites like FlightRadar24, FlightAware, Airfleets, and others, anyone can find details about an active flight including the flight number, destination, flying time, aircraft type and registration, routing, and much more.
However, journalists still tend of generalize different aircraft sizes into a few categories when the details are ‘sketchy’. They are as follows:
- Jumbo Jet – Any widebody with 4 engines
- 737 – Any narrowbody
- Private plane – Anything that’s smaller
The term “Jumbo Jet” really belongs to the Boeing 747. There are other widebodies with 4 engines such as the Airbus A340, A380, and Ilyushin Il-96, among many others, so it’s always a good idea to actually specify the model name instead. The same applies for the other broad categories.
Nothing bothers me more than using a photo of an aircraft type that does not match the specific description of the story. For instance, I came across this New Year’s story on Mashable. The Hawaiian Airlines flight in question was actually operated with an Airbus A330-200, yet the reporter used a photo of a Boeing 767-300ER instead.
That’s not too bad an example compared to other instances where the story reflects one aircraft brand and type versus something completed different in the photo being used. A story about a Qantas 737, should show a Qantas 737, not an Emirates A380.
Many media outlets tend to jump on the age of an aircraft when a disaster occurs. Unlike cars, commercial airplanes go through a much more thorough service regime than your mom’s Pontiac Aztek. Airplanes go through rigorous maintenance procedures over the course of their lifetime, and those that are properly maintained are just as airworthy as if they were just pushed out of the factory.
Two shining examples are the VC-25As (military spec Boeing 747-200s) which serve as Air Force One (and its backup). Both are around 27 years of age, but receive top of the line treatment so that they perform to the best of their capabilities when needed to.
Many major airlines operate a combination of equipment that range from brand new to as old as 25+ years. Many 767s still in service today are pushing past 20 years of age, yet major brands like American Airlines, Delta, LATAM, Air Canada, and Condor (among others) still use them.
On a positive note though, we currently live in a time where many major airlines are engaging in refleeting exercises as the air travel market becomes more competitive.
Terrifying “sideways” lands
That “scary sideways” landing is actually known as a crosswind landing, and it’s an extremely common practice at any airport where the prevailing wind happens to be blowing in a perpendicular direction to the runway.
Crosswind landing may not be easy to spot from inside the cabin, but it’s much more recognizable from an observer’s point of view on the ground.
As airplanes near the airport, they would line up with the runway’s center line during the approach. However, crosswinds cause the plane to drift off course. To compensate for this, the pilots can use either or a combination of ailerons and rudders to angle the aircraft in the direction of the crosswind so that they maintain a center line approach even though the plane itself would be pointed slightly to the left or right (depending on where the wind is coming from).
Crosswind landings may appear dangerous to the untrained eye, but the procedure is a safe one once conducted under acceptable parameters. If the crosswinds are too strong, pilots may have no other choice but to divert to an alternate airport for a safer landing.
I think of the the biggest problem comes from how camera lenses sometime exaggerate the crosswind landing angle because of the depth of field.
Here is an example of that.
“It’s amazing how the co-pilot landed the plane by him/herself”
There have been many cases where the captain on an aircraft becomes incapacitated for whatever reason, resulting in the first officer taking control of the aircraft. Unfortunately reporters tend to forget that first officers/co-pilots are just as qualified to fly whatever aircraft they are in control of.
Also, the captain is not always the one doing the actual flying half the times as the roles between controlling the aircraft versus manning the radio and other supporting functions are generally rotated on a very regular basis between the captain and first officer.
If there is a situation where the captain is unable to fly, the first officer can easily take over. He/she would also seek assistance from a crew member to help with smaller tasks such as checklist procedures so that they could focus on controlling the aircraft and communicating with the air traffic controller.
Most emergency landings are way less dramatic than the media make them out to be
How many times have you seen media houses freak out when pilots declare an emergency while in flight?
The thing is, many emergency landings are done as a precautionary measure to prevent a small problem from quickly escalating into a major and life threatening issue.
Whether it be an issue with a false landing gear reading, a cracked windscreen, or smoke in the cabin, the pilots usually return if they think the situation could spiral out of control.
There have been notable events like the Hudson River crash landing, the JetBlue landing in which the front landing gear was locked at a 90 degree angle, and the LOT Polish Airlines 767 belly landing, in which the media and others captured incredible footage during the process. As a result of these one-off events, media houses go into a frenzy whenever they hear about any emergency, hoping that something dramatic happens, when in reality, most emergency landings have an almost nominal appearance from an outsider’s perspective.