No, Noah Gallagher Shannon, Your Plane Was Not Going to Crash

The New York Times magazine has been catching a lot of flak for its ‘Lives’ piece about a near-death experience—for good reason, says Clive Irving. It wasn’t a near-death experience.

06.01.13 8:45 AM ET

The last thing the world needs is a new outbreak of fear of flying. But that is the unhappy consequence of a spat between James Fallows of The Atlantic and Hugo Lindgren, editor of The New York Times magazine.

Fallows and others pounced on an essay in the magazine by Noah Gallagher Shannon with the attention-getting headline “The Plane Was About to Crash. Now What?”

Shannon’s white-knuckle prose described circling over Philadelphia for two hours to burn off gas because the pilots believed the landing gear was jammed and they would have to make a belly landing.

That description didn’t make any sense to Fallows. The crew would not normally be aware of a landing-gear problem until they were on final approach. To be exact, they wouldn’t have been aware of a malfunction when it wasn’t functioning—in midflight. Shannon had other vivid details, including the pilots opening the cockpit door and yelling safety instructions to terrified passengers. But Fallows was so incredulous that he clearly doubted the incident had happened at all: “…the NYT Magazine has good fact checkers. But a lot of the details sound very unlikely to me.”

Fallows is a journalist with authority in many fields, and one of them is aviation. So the Times had to answer.

In doing so, Lindgren did dispel the idea that the whole thing might have been fiction. He established that Shannon was on Frontier Airlines flight 727 on June 30, 2011, from Washington to Denver. He was in seat 12A on an Airbus A320, and he explained that the pilot had declared an emergency because of a warning light indicating low hydraulics pressure.

OK, but none of that was included in Shannon’s piece. The information instantly would have defanged Fallows’s attack and also would have been useful to readers. And why did the piece appear nearly two years after the event? Moreover, there is a distinct whiff of weasel wording in the editor’s defense: “While some of the author’s language may have been imprecise…” May have been? This piece was singularly lacking in factual precision.

Then there’s that headline. “The Plane Was About to Crash”? There was never any chance of that. For sure, if hydraulic pressure was low—and the warning light could have been false, they sometimes are—it was prudent to return. Hydraulic pressure is involved not only in lowering the landing gear but in controlling the airplane. The author’s overwrought tone was just abetted by the headline.

Anyway, that’s not really the point. The point is the effect of the piece, the headline and the nerve-jangling hysteria of the prose. As Fallows noted, some of it seemed lifted straight from the wonderful but scary Airplane movie parody.

As someone who writes about aviation safety frequently, I wish Shannon’s piece had never been published.

It’s a trite and oft-repeated fact that you could fly every day for an average of 123,000 years before being in a fatal crash, and I guess most of us won’t live long enough to know if that’s true.

But the statistic cannot overpower the emotional response to flying. It’s absolutely human and natural to fuss about entering a machine over which you will never have any control and which will hurtle across the sky at close to the speed of sound. From the moment you leave the gate there is a sequence of strange noises, hisses, clunks, roars, juddering, and sudden levitation. If God had intended us to fly…etc., etc.

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Moreover, though flying in the United States has never been safer—despite traffic that is often as thick as on the Long Island Expressway on a summer Friday and the cabins are jammed full of people, some of whom will never relax—the people who regulate our airlines are not up to the job.

Don’t take my word for it. Check out the April 26 edition of The New York Times for an op-ed by James E. Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. He detailed the lamentable performance of the FAA’s so-called oversight of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner as the agency certified it as safe to fly. That was before the batteries burned up and the whole fleet was grounded for more than three months.

The Times should spend more time following up on Jim Hall’s vital red flag and less time publishing pieces like Shannon’s, which simply feed and stimulate the most irrational terror known to a civilized society.