Armchair Airplane Analysts


In the wake of the Asiana 214 accident, it’s been interesting to observe the differences in how the government media response, mainly through the NTSB, has changed since the last large-scale aviation accident in the United States, the Colgan 3407 crash.

In short: the NTSB, largely via its Twitter feed, has been communicating directly with the public about the facts they’re finding, seemingly as they discover them. This is in stark contrast to previous investigations, where information was more curated and polished and released in batches on a schedule. And none of it was considered “finalized” until the full report came out, a process which can take years to complete.

There is little question which model the public1 prefers.

But I do worry that the end result is not the more-informed public we’d assume. In fact, if the coverage of the Asiana 214 incident is any indication , we’re seeing more rampant2 speculation, not less.

In this situation, the NTSB has done an incredible job of presenting the facts in a near realtime manner to the media and the public at large; however, you’ll notice that they’ve refrained from much, if any, judgment3.

This is not the case with the media or the public.

Some anecdotes in point:

  • CNN headlined an article claiming the pilot-in-command-flying of the craft was “in training.” (He wasn’t, by any definition used in aviation.)
  • A Facebook-acquaintance said they thought it should be required for all airlines to post which navigation aids are unavailable at the gate, so the flying public may decide whether or not to take the flight. (As a pilot, there are so many things wrong with this idea, I don’t even know where to start.)
  • A response to the above post agreed, saying he’d fly into other area airports—Oakland—if he’d known the KSFO ILS was out of service. (Except… the ILS for Oakland’s main commercial runway? Also out of service right now.)

These are but a few examples, and I’m sure readers have seen more4.

As much as I like feeling like a part of a privileged group who gets access to information as soon as it’s available, I’m not convinced that we, as a public, are mature enough to handle that responsibility, especially when it comes volatile (Boston bomber manhunt), technical (aviation crashes), or nuanced (Middle East geopolitics) topics.

I hope it’s a skill we, as a society, will evolve. And I think we, as a group, are capable of that.

But right now the abundance of undigested information is muddying the picture, not clarifying it. And the media adding their own, often underinformed and incendiary findings of judgment only fan the flames of disinformation.

As a pilot who’s been asked numerous times since the crash occurred, “Why did it happen,” I’m always careful to say “If we’re lucky, the final NTSB report will eventually give us answers; but until then I can’t explain why.”

No one can. Not yet.

  1. Especially us Millennials!
  2. And potentially dangerous
  3. I went on a long treatise on the distinction between findings of fact and findings of judgment in episode 18 of The Ship Show, starting at about 31 minutes in; check it out if you’ve never heard the distinction before.
  4. I’d love to see them!