Plane Crashes

Someone posted a bit of a rant on a facebook group today about how the general public views plane crashes, and how little they understand about them. This is compounded by the lack of understanding among reporters. One person responded with a link to this article. The plane had gone down between two trees that ripped the wings off. Media reported that the pilot had detatched the wings voluntarily. Laughable.

The original poster had pointed to this article, about engine reliability in small single piston engine aircraft. The author gives an example of a typical media report of a plane crash:

“A light plane crashed in an open field on Sunday, only 17 miles from a school yard where middle-school children might have been playing if it hadn’t been late July. The accident site was also only 235 miles from a nuclear powerplant that was closed in 1995. The plane, a single-engine Cherokee Skylane, made a successful landing as the pilot apparently remembered to extend the landing gear at the last second, but both propellers were nevertheless damaged. Both occupants escaped injury, and there was little other damage to the eight-seat aircraft (that wasn’t equipped with a parachute). The FAA confirmed the pilot had not received a weather briefing for his planned 78-mile flight and had not filed a flight plan, so he had no idea where he was.”

Lets run through this line by line.

A light plane crashed in an open field on Sunday, only 17 miles from a school yard where middle-school children might have been playing if it hadn’t been late July. – 17 miles is quite a ways, and whoever wrote this seems to be under the impression that the moment a plane’s engine fails, we no longer have any control over where the plane comes to the ground. The accident site was also only 235 miles from a nuclear powerplant that was closed in 1995. – Only? Really? That’s hours of flying time. This is not even relevant. The plane, a single-engine Cherokee Skylane, made a successful landing as the pilot apparently remembered to extend the landing gear at the last second, but both propellers were nevertheless damaged. – I’d like to see “last second” defined here. Also, extending landing gear creates drag – if the pilot saw he was on the edge of making his chosen landing field, it’s logical to leave the landing gear up as long as was safe, to make sure he made it to the field and over any obstacles. Both occupants escaped injury, and there was little other damage to the eight-seat aircraft (that wasn’t equipped with a parachute). – 747 passenger jets going across the pacific are not equipped with parachutes. The FAA confirmed the pilot had not received a weather briefing for his planned 78-mile flight and had not filed a flight plan, so he had no idea where he was. – Had no idea where he was? The grammar here implies that filing a flight plan provides the pilot with information on their current location, which is just not the case.

I think this report was made up, but it sounds familiar, and it’s things that have been seen in media reports of crashes. The general public is under some false impressions that the media reinforces. I’ll try and dispel a couple.

1: Small planes should be equipped with parachutes: People can rationalize that equipping a 747 with parachutes might not be practical for a number of reasons – if you’re bailing at 40 000 feet, you can’t breathe outside, and you’ll pretty much freeze to death before you hit the ground if you’re not in Gortek equipment anyway, and besides, they almost never crash, right? But small planes crash more often and their engines aren’t as reliable, so we need parachutes in them. But really, parachuting without training: dangerous. It’s really safer, unless the plane has lost a wing or something where the pilot can’t control the plane at all, to stay in your seat with your seatbelt on, and let the pilot deal with the situation. They’re trained to located the safest place to land within gliding range, and bring the plane down as safely as possible. We drill on that. It’s part of the flight test.

2: The engine stalling thing: When people hear the plane’s engine sputter and fail, they say the engine stalled. What they’re referring to is something that happens in a car. I suppose it could happen in a piston aircraft engine, but it’s very rare, because it’s most often caused by problems in gear shifting, and an aircraft engine doesn’t shift gears. It doesn’t have gears. There can be a lot of different reasons an aircraft engine might sputter and die, but there’s one reason that’s more common than any other: You done runned outta gas. Statistically speaking, the most likely reason that engine sputtered and died is the pilot failed to correctly calculate how much fuel they would need for the trip. A lot of them pilots hailed as heroes for making a successful forced landing with no damage to the plane or it’s occupants, really shouldn’t be called heroes – they’re the losers who didn’t fill the tanks before taking off. Aircraft engines, even those of small, general aviation aircraft, are phenomenally reliable. If properly cared for. That’s fuel and oil, everyone. This is why most plane crashes are chalked up to pilot error. It usually is. And this is why I constantly have “don’t be that guy” running through my head when I’m doing fuel calculations.

3: Engine fails, plane plummets from the sky: No. The physics of flight don’t automatically stop working the second the engine stops providing thrust. The plane becomes a fancy glider at that point. The pilot very much does have control over where the plane is going to touch down, though they’re limited to how far the plane can glide without power. We can no longer climb, but we can turn, and adjust our glide path with several different methods. The choice of field to land in is not random. We’ll make that choice based on what’s available, and depending on the time of year. In winter, it’s likely to be safer to land on a dirt road than in a field with an unknown amount of snow on it. We’ll avoid a situation where we’re having to overfly buildings or people, but also favour someplace that will get us walking distance from some habitation where we can go for help.

So, hopefully that helps clear some things up a bit. Or at least convinces some people that small planes are not just death traps. Or maybe convinces a reporter to get their article proofread by a pilot to make sure it, you know, makes sense, and won’t have every pilot who reads it laughing their ass off at the reporter’s lack of understanding.

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8 responses to “Plane Crashes

  1. This is just the kind of lame article that demonstrates one of the (many) reasons why I don’t like the a lot of what passes for journalism, and why I have a very low opinion of some journos.

    As you say, the “17 miles from a school and 235 miles from a disused nuclear power plant” point is a load of nonsense, I can imagine the hack squinting at google maps adjusting the scale, trying to find something, anything that will give this article a bit of shock value for the punters. I also object to “as the pilot apparently remembered to extend the landing gear at the last second” a pathetic and snide remark. I doubt the pilot just suddenly remembered, at the last minute, to extend the landing gear, again a real pilot knows why the gear goes down at the last moment.

    Sadly, this kind of journalism is probably what these guys are taught, and editors expect – press a few emotional buttons in your readers, get them a bit riled up, forget the truth or balance…

    But of course the truth is different, the truth, as is so often the case, is more nuanced, and can only really be presented by someone who knows what they are talking about (step forward one pilot, step back one journo).

    And as I’m sure you know, this sort of article will never get proofread by someone who knows what they’re talking about – an insightful and informed opinion is never what these sorts of pieces are about.

    Don’t worry pilots, more and more people recognise these sorts of articles for the lazy nonsense they .

    A

    • The problem is there’s enough people who buy into the nonsense to affect policy, and for those who stand to make money to us it to their advantage. It used to be that after you got a certain number of hours flying, life insurance policy premiums would go down. Now, not only does have anything to do with aviation make your insurance premiums go up, but many companies or policies just say if you are hurt or killed having anything at all to do with general aviation, your policy covers nothing. Thus insurance companies are validating the attitude that pilots are a bunch of foolhardy cowboys taking a ton of unnecessary risks.

  2. Interesting. Lindsay. A few thoughts occurred to me:-

    I wonder how many vehicles crashed on roads nearer that school and power plant the same day? And a car’s engine stopping on a freeway is probably more dangerous than a plane’s engine stopping at altitude.

    Equipping the whole plane with a giant parachute in its tail was tried before WW2. It didn’t catch on, mainly because most powerless planes are pretty good gliders, as you’ve already pointed out.

    Statistics have long suggested we’re actually safer on an airliner than at home.

    JTS

  3. Hahaha…the Cherokee Skylane part cracked me up. Skylane is a Cessna 182, and doesn’t have 8 seats on board (unless there’s a Cherokee Skylane I’ve never heard of)…

    The whole thing sounded like someone made it up to make fun of the media, and while exaggerated, it’s funny as hell and sadly so very true!

    • I think it was made up, to mock the reporters, just to make sure all their typical face-palms were crammed into one place.

      Maybe the Cherokee Skylane is when you strap your three kids and grandma to the wing struts? I dunno – I guess you’d have to check if it was rated for external loads.

  4. I’m commenting late on this, but here goes.

    One of the first things I was taught with dealing with reporters in general, is that they do not really care about the facts. They don’t care about you, they don’t care about who they hurt. They’re #1 concern is ratings. So if they use a bit of yellow journalism to sell their rag, all the better for them.

    It could be fake, it could be real. I wouldn’t doubt it if it was the latter. Most people, have little concept of distance and scale. Show them a scale model of our solar system and watch the eyes glaze over. Mention the distances to our neighboring galaxies, and they run. So 17 miles, and the first thought is, “OMG! The poor kids!” Or, “We could’ve had Chernobyl 2!”

    As for the landing gear, that doesn’t surprise me one bit. Again, it seems most people have little concept on the basics of flight. I know we laughed at this during the opening segments of “Revolution.” I still find people that insist an aircraft, setting on a treadmill, will not move if it is it moving an roll speed, despite the plane’s engines at full power. Or my favorite – jumping inside of a train car while moving will have you land several feet from where you were.

    For reliability, they’re probably pulling from the stories of the WWI planes. Which while not as “reliable” as today’s standards, they weren’t the rickety kites of the early 1900s. In reading the novels, “Open Cockpit” and “No Parachute” by Arthur C Gould, he’s referenced several instances where he landed with his plane shot up or had to turn around and glide several miles to reach British lines after his engine died.

    For the identification part, I have to admit I didn’t give it second thought, short of wondering what a Cherokee Skyline was, having never heard of it. But failure to research doesn’t surprise me with the media hacks. Around 8 years ago, I saw a video on one of the news sites claiming to be “newly found footage of Titanic on her maiden voyage.”

    There was one major problem. It wasn’t Titanic. It was her sister, the Olympic. Had the idiot that reported it actually taken the time to do some research, they would have found that the upper promenade deck of Titanic was partially enclosed, about half length of the upper decks. Whereas the Olympic’s upper promenade was open the entire length.

    • Good points, Josh. Supposed Titanic pics tend to be of the Olympic anyway, due to the Titanic’s short life. Most photographs of the Titanic’s brief service life were taken by the Irish Jesuit Father Brown, many in Cork, where I live. Some of Fr. Brown’s photos inspired shots in James Cameron’s Titanic movie.

      Novelists are not immune to errors in basic physics. Even the late great Alistair Maclean had an unfortunate scene in one of his novels where a hovercraft is washed helplessly down a river with its air propellers turning at full power upstream, as if it were a boat rather than the low flying aircraft hovercrafts really are.

      JTS

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