What the Media Should Know about Aircraft Accidents


An Editorial Addressed to the Media
By Robert Baron
The Aviation Consulting Group

Another plane crash. Another deluge of phone calls from the media asking what caused the plane to crash. Speculation is immediately and unhesitatingly articulated by witnesses, passersby, and experts. "Lightning must have brought it down" says one. Another says he thought the airplane was just traveling too fast to stop." Pretty presumptuous for an eyewitness; extremely presumptuous for a non-pilot. Yet, the media, in their call to action, begin to use these very accounts as an explanation as to why the airplane crashed. Amidst rampant speculation, the media has their story; albeit lacking necessary credibility.

            Aviation crashes have had a long history of being glorified by the media. Airplane crashes themselves are highly salient events. After all, they involve a big transportation vehicle, carrying many people, at high speeds, and when they crash they are typically transformed into pictures of utter destruction, fire, billowing smoke, and thousands of pieces of airplane scattered over a large area.

            The media need to start being a little more careful in their initial and highly speculative "possible reasons" of why a "plane went down" or "overshot the runway." In fact, when Air France Flight 358 initially departed the runway on August 2nd, 2005, the media were quick to point out that the airplane "overshot the runway." In fact, if the airplane overshot the runway it would have never landed on it to begin with. It would have simply overshot it. This is drastically different from what actually happened; the aircraft departed the opposite end of the runway after landing on it. By reporting inaccurately the events that really did occur, the media face an erosion of credibility. And credibility is what it is all about. Just throwing out contrived tidbits for the sake of viewership or readership needs to stop. We owe that to the survivors, the victims, and the families.

            Air France flight 358 was fortunate in many respects. Although there were numerous injuries, there was fortunately no loss of life. It appears that all of the things that went wrong that lead up to the crash (whatever they may be) went absolutely right in terms of evacuation and cabin crew performance. As far as myself and my colleagues can see, this was a textbook evacuation and the crew should be commended. However, luck also played a role in this accident as the ensuing fire that broke out was at a time and location (outside the fuselage) that allowed the passengers to deplane the aircraft swiftly and efficiently. Shortly after the last passenger out, the plane erupted in flames. The scene was not too unlike a Hollywood movie.

            According to the Federal Aviation Administration, approximately eighty percent of aircraft accidents are due to pilot error (Source: FAA Advisory Circular 120-51E). Because of this, the media, in fact people in general, immediately and conveniently assign the blame to the pilots as the sole cause of the accident. While it might be true that pilots often have the "last say" before the crash, a crash is a complex series of events that can be initiated or traced back all the way through the organizational structure and in some cases all the way to the top. Therefore, while the pilots may not be absolved of contributing to this accident, we need to understand that it is unjust to immediately assume that the pilots were the sole contributors to the events that lead up to the crash. If in fact the pilots made a series of bad judgments or decisions that will be thoroughly investigated and pointed out in the official accident investigation report.

             In summary, I ask that media try to refrain from immediate and careless speculation on the causation of an accident. There are numerous factors that are investigated by the appropriate investigative agencies. Yes, it might take months or even years for the final official report but at least until then there are substantive and credible facts made available by these agencies. Holding out for these facts may be beneficial. Speculation should be left to supermarket tabloids.          

When the media call me for my take on "why did the airplane crash?" I am in no better position to tell you then anyone else, even with my extensive background in human factors and aviation psychology. I can guess but then I might be totally wrong. After all, I wasn't even there. I can rehash the facts of the moment, but then you might want me to use those facts (however few there might be) to explain what happened and why it happened and be as explicit as possible. It is indeed frustrating for all of us.

            Let the investigation process play its course. The agencies do a fine and thorough job. And in the end, the answer to the question "why did the plane crash?" will likely be answered, thanks to their pragmatic and meticulous fact finding, data collection, and interview processes.

Robert Baron is the president and chief consultant of The Aviation Consulting Group, a firm with a core specialization in CRM/Human Factors training and research.  It also provides expert witness support for aviation law firms. 

Mr. Baron holds an Airline Transport Pilot Rating and has over 17 years of aviation experience, including a Line Captain, Instructor and Check Airman ratings in Learjet aircraft. He's also type-rated in the Cessna Citation and holds a Flight Engineer Rating for Turbojet aircraft. His academic achievements include a Bachelor's Degree in Professional Aeronautics/Aviation Safety, a Master's Degree in Aeronautical Science with dual specializations in Aviation Safety/Human Factors.  He is currently working towards a PhD in General Psychology with an emphasis on Aviation/Aerospace Psychology. 

Mr. Baron is also an adjunct professor at Everglades University, where he teaches Graduate and Undergraduate courses in Aviation Safety and Human Factors.  He can be reached at 1-954-803-5807. Website is http://www.tacgworldwide.com.

August, 2005

Robert J. Boser    

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