A Flight of Fancy

After a silly story in the New York Times magazine gets some well-deserved flak, the author and the newspaper finally own up.

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 have 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 has likely 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.

 

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45 Responses to “A Flight of Fancy”
  1. David Sucher says:

    You might want to take a look at James Fallows’ latest which has response from NYT.

  2. Roger says:

    Has there ever been a fatality or for that matter even a serious injury from a landing gear incident on touchdown? I can’t find any (some minor injuries from propeller parts but that is it). Even wikipedia repeats the incidents without anything notable: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Undercarriage#Landing_gear_and_accidents

    And as it points out there are about 100 landing gear up incidents every year in the US, mainly small planes where the crew forgets.

    Sadly sensationalist attention grabbing ignorant articles are what get page views, so that is easy money for journalists. It happens across all topics not just aviation.

  3. Tod Davis says:

    Patrick should send him a copy of ‘cockpit confidential’ with the appropriate parts highlighted

  4. bode says:

    I totally agree with Patrick here – but I do have to point out that he is potentially wrong on the issue of the pilot never directly issuing the brace command. In the case of US Air 1549, the brace command was indeed directly issued by the pilot over the PA system. It’s in the NTSB report:

    http://www.ntsb.gov/doclib/reports/2010/AAR1003.pdf

    That said, I am positive that that flight was a truly remarkable situation. Normally, there’s advance warning, and in virtually all cases I am sure the pilots and flight attendants talk outside the PA system. But in that case, it was literally “this is the captain, brace for impact.”

    • Rod says:

      Except that in this case, “all electricity” was “remaining” off, so you’d have to shout mighty loud from the flight deck to make yourself heard. Whereas a flight attendant with a bullhorn could presumably carry out that task much more effectively.

  5. Geraint says:

    What flight number was this? Did it really happen or is it the over active mind of a wannabe writer feeding his own fantasies?

    • Stephan Wilkinson says:

      It was Frontier Flight #727, Washington to Demver, diverted to Philadelphia, according to the New York Times. And the writer was indeed aboard it, according to ticket receipts and records.

  6. Tom Hill says:

    You are right – the article reads like a not very good 7th grade English composition. Clearly fiction, it should have been labelled as such. Shall e call it “verbal self gratification”? This guy is clearly too neurotic to be riding in an airplane and not enough of a writer to be published anywhere.

    • yEDDY kAISER says:

      I BELIEVE THIS WAS A DELTA FLIGHT FROM pROVIDENCE TO Detroit JUST BEFORE NEW YEARS DAY. there WAS VERY LITTLE DRAMA ALTHOUGHT THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT TOLD ME I WOULD HAVE TO REMAIN IN MY SEAT a1 AND LET THE REST OF THE PASSENGERS OFF FIRST. THE MAN BEHIND ME SAID NOT TO WORRY, HE WOULD GET ME TO THE SLIDE -NOT SRE IF THERE ARE SLIDES ON A CR 100/200. tHEN THE WOMAN NEXT TO MESAID SHED CATCH ME AT THE BOTTOM

  7. Rod says:

    Love the “Not going to sugarcoat it” bit. I’m surprised he didn’t call for a round of “Abide with me” before striding back to the cockpit looking exactly like Charlton Heston.

  8. Glenn Baxter says:

    A number of year ago at Disneyland, the man standing next to me was wearing a button that said, “I conquered Space Mountain”. Pretty heroic.

  9. Mike Kennedy says:

    Shannon’s article has made us all a little more stupid. Shame on the New York Times for publishing this bullshit.

  10. Kevin says:

    Very self aggrandizing and overly dramatic, but at the same time people feel how they feel about an experience and that’s what guides their “factual recollections” (eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable…)

    That said, I think this recent feel-by-feel is much better:

    http://newsdesk.asia/seconds-after-the-plane-took-off-i-noticed-a-sudden-change-in-the-humming-of-the-engine/

  11. callsign says:

    “Is this the stuff coming out of Brooklyn nowadays?”

    Yes, yes it is. It’s no longer called Brooklyn either now, it’s “Nieuw Breukelen” and the NYT is routinely (and regrettably) bending over backwards to cater to the narcissist hipster contingent.

    The NYT also said they consulted an “aviation specialist” who said the story “seemed plausible”. I always wonder how one becomes a consultant/specialist, and who these people are. I’m pretty sure I could pass myself as a nuclear powerplant specialist. Any takers?

  12. Pillai says:

    I was waiting for that last line to be something like this: “Then I woke up from this nightmarish dream. Note to self: Call Mom first thing tomorrow morning.”

    Just one of the worst writing I have ever read in the NYT, and truly deserving of the shellacking it is getting.

  13. john goldfine says:

    My one experience with landing gear problems left an indelible impression. Flying from SF to Honolulu, further down my row were two little kids and a mom apparently oblivious to their noise, their rowdiness, their various meltdowns and tantrums, but what I won’t ever forget is how she had them in complete control–serious, calm, focused, quiet, even cheerful (both mom and kids)–when it was time to brace.

    There’s just no way of predicting who will show grace under pressure.

  14. The Indian Bustard says:

    “My mouth sputtered into a smile: I guess you don’t have to worry about showing up at the wedding without a present…”

    ….Then, with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last…

  15. Will McLane says:

    “Crap detector on. Check.”

    Thanks, Capt. Smith, for the credible and persuasive critique of that dubious Gallagher piece in the Times. To be fair, if it isn’t a fictional flight of imagination and hyperbole, it is at least a terribly immature and poorly written recollection. Frankly, it sounds like Facebook-type drama. “Something awful didn’t happen and I was there.”

    This just has to be made-up: “We’re just going to try to land it.” Come on!

  16. Jeff Latten says:

    Crazy. That the NYT would publish this garbage is stunning. That this writer would even put his name on it is also stunning. We seem to be in an age where people will say or do anything (see: Fear Factor) to get their name up in lights for a minute. Narcissism reigns. Yuk!

  17. Lou Sussler says:

    Stop hating on Brooklyn.

    The highly visible hipsters account for a very small fraction of the 2.5 million regular folks who live here and they have taken over only two or three of the approximately 70 separate and distinct neighborhoods which comprise the borough.

  18. Bwco says:

    The Times article read like a bad piece of fiction. Maybe the writer should have started it out with the words “It was a dark and stormy night”?

  19. Jim says:

    Such obvious fiction. Presumably this so called writer was on a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320, flying from New York to Denver. As Patrick says, the air conditioning system does not “thrum”. Also, floor lighting is not powered, it is photoluminescent, therefore it would get brighter when the cabin lights went off. Cabin lights don’t shut off “row by row”. And why would it become “dark and eerily quiet” when the engines were still running? The comments are almost as bad as the article.

    There’s no point in dwelling on this tripe. It’s just too bad Patrick, or someone, couldn’t have posted a counterpoint on the article itself.

  20. rich cohen says:

    I wanted to agree with you concerning the new exterior design of American’s planes. the commercials showing the side of the plane in- flight remind me of the attacking B-52s from “dr. Strangelove.” I cannot believe that the mad men did not consider this and wonder what you think.

  21. Mark Richards says:

    I read it.

    “Brace for impact” should have been a warning for the story.

    How dreadfully awful.

    But, at least it gives us a window into the rather empty, tool-less mind of the “I”-generation.

    “The girl next to me was flicking at her nails while she paged through a fashion magazine.”

    Noah. Go back and get her number. She deserves you.

  22. Elizabeth Matheson says:

    I read it. I’m not going to sugarcoat it — I tried not to throw up.

  23. Jeffrey says:

    Charlton Heston was the captain and Dean Martin the co-pilot.

  24. Marcio V. Pinheiro says:

    Interesting why people love to dramatize their flying experiences… Why?

    • Siegfried says:

      I think it is because they have no idea about why a plane flies. So in their head it’s all translated to “some wicked magic that can fail anytime”. That means that each and every flight is stress for them so all impressions during the flight get over exaggerated.

      A little bump becomes a severe turbulence with at least a 100ft drop, every turn becomes a steep turn, every descent a dive and every technical problem like this one a life threatening near-catastrophic event.

      The problem starts when they are allowed to post about it in a national newspaper.

  25. Simon says:

    You were right before and you’re right now. Thanks for the extra inside information. Nice to read some actual technical background on the matter from an actual expert instead of just some uninformed guy’s emotional overreaction to a non-event.

  26. Elizabeth Matheson says:

    Loved the follow-up information! It sheds light on what actually happened. The piece the passenger published was just plain icky,and passengers who fly often would know that what he wrote could not have happened. Ya don’t have to be a pilot to sniff out bad fictionalized events!

  27. Lin Sherman says:

    Years ago, I was on an American Airlines MD-11 that had just taken off from Heathrow for Miami, when the pilot got on the PA and said that there was a problem and we would have to dump fuel and return to Heathrow. So we flew around for a while and dumped fuel. A subsequent announcement explained that one of the hydraulic systems had lost pressure but that this did not affect the safety of the aircraft.

    We eventually landed at Heathrow. There was no collecting of shoes or bracing for impact or instructions on evacuation. The fire trucks were rolled out, but anyone who has flown much knows that they do this on the barest of excuses just to give the fire crews some practice.

  28. FredW says:

    I never expected to hear “Not intended to be a factual statement” from the likes of the NY Times.

  29. Aldorossi says:

    I’m wondering what Frontier Airlines makes of this story (NYT has identified the flight). If the pilot conducted himself as Shannon described, that’s some pretty unprofessional behavior. Quite frankly, that’s the least plausible part of the whole story.

    The Times magazine editor says the story allows for the author’s “personal experiences”, which I think includes some vivid hallucinations.

  30. peej01 says:

    A number of years ago, I was on a flight from Denver to Washington, DC where one of the tires blew on takeoff (apparently not an uncommon occurrence in Denver), and pieces of the rubber got sucked into one of the engines. Of course, we turned around and came back to DIA. We did the whole brace thing because they weren’t sure about the landing gear. The most we got was one of the pilots coming on over the PA system to explain what was going on. No hysterics of any kind from anyone (except for my internal ones regarding the possibility of having to go down one of the chutes…terrible fear of falling).

  31. Vinny the censored says:

    I think the latest from Patrick is more about media than aviation or air travel. It’s a disturbing trend, even allowing for the James Fallows attention.

    Mostly, I want to move to Colorado and smoke dope around the clock with my girl and my dog and let Google cars get us around to places. Next, there will be Google planes and off we go, like modern little Oswalds, to Costa Rica or some stupid humid place and wait for Google boats.

  32. Tod Davis says:

    Patrick. We need your thoughts into the new push to re open the investigation into TWA 800

  33. Alicia says:

    A little late to the party but, come on, Patrick, you’re a bigger person than that. The real issue is with Shannon’s fear-mongering and lack of facts. Don’t drag his writing style into it. It makes you sound petty. Remember, personal attacks are only for people who don’t have a real argument.

  34. [...] Did they Gray Lady not learn its lesson after the Noah Gallagher Shannon debacle? [...]

  35. […] and misinformed reporting on aviation safety (see how he and our own Clive Irving recently weighed in on an overblown scare story in the NY […]

  36. […] and misinformed reporting on aviation safety (see how he and our own Clive Irving recently weighed in on an overblown scare story in the NY […]

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