Two views of ‘The Plane Was About to Crash’

What New York Times Magazine editor Hugo Lindgren says about Noah Gallagher Shannon’s “The Plane Was About to Crash” piece, which has been questioned by some:

Lindgren

Lindgren

While some of the author’s language may have been imprecise, his recollection of his experience was consistent with recollections of passengers in similar air incidents. …The piece was fact-checked before publication, and after questions were raised, editors reviewed it again, with the full cooperation of the writer. All the key points appear to be corroborated, and we have not found any evidence to undercut any significant elements of the narrative.

In an email to Romenesko, Ask the Pilot columnist Patrick Smith comments on the piece:

My name is Patrick Smith. I am an airline pilot and host of the www.askthepilot.com site. For ten years I was an air travel columnist for the magazine Salon, and my new book is Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel.

Smith

Smith

When I was writing for Salon, many of my columns took on the media’s routinely shoddy coverage of aviation mishaps. This particular essay, though, belongs in a category of its own. I’m not sure where to begin. Ultimately this isn’t a story about an emergency landing. It’s a story about somebody’s hysterical reaction to a manageable and ultimately harmless problem.

As I’ve written many times in my articles, and in my book, landing gear malfunctions are way, way down the list of potential nightmare scenarios, and seldom if ever result in injury or fatality. Mr. Shannon is either unaware of this reality, or chooses to ignore it for the sake of amping up his story. I love this line especially: “A plane without landing gear is like a struck match.” Total rubbish.

Then we have what sounds to me like an obvious muddling of certain details — if not outright fabrication of them. Why on earth would the crew shut off a plane’s electricity when touching down with a landing gear problem? And the bits about “powering down” the engines — I have no idea what that’s all about. Obviously the engines were going to power down if the plane was going to descend and land.

Things may indeed be as the author best remembered them through a fog of needless panic, but if you’re going to write about a supposed aviation incident, you owe it to readers to do a bit of research beforehand.

Why this piece got printed in a major paper like the NY Times is beyond me. It’s not just the airplane aspects, but the whole style and tone of the piece. What’s intended to sound “emotional” and reflective comes across like something a seventh grader would write in a junior high composition class.

* Hugo Lindgren: The author only reported what he heard and felt, which is consistent with the magazine’s Lives page (theatlantic.com)
* James Fallows: I don’t believe most of the detail and sequence-of-events in the story (theatlantic.com)

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