The Sky is Falling!February 27, 2009
“Beware the fallacies into which undisciplined thinkers most easily fall–they are the real distorting prisms of human nature.”
Recently, CNN decided to cut their science department. Apparently they got rid of their sound argument and research departments as well. They seem much more interested in presenting shocking, often misleading details than in providing fact or sound reason. Speculation about the cause of an accident is certainly common, but for a news network to do so live, on-air while the fires still burn (as in the Buffalo crash) is irresponsible and approaches blatant yellow journalism.
The reality is that more people will watch a story about a plane crash, than one that points out how and why aviation is safer than driving. For an example, look no further than this article. Though in the beginning it is written to sound like the focus is on the good news / bad news that yes, there have been some crashes recently, but the crashes are survivable, they just don’t do a good job of explaining why. They cite fewer casualties, specifically the “Miracle on The Hudson” USAir (Cactus) flight 1549 and the Turkish Airline crash in a muddy field near Amsterdam as evidence in itself. Again, why? Though they really attempt to provide no direct argument as to why 1549’s unscheduled swim produced no fatalities, the reason for so few deaths in Amsterdam is found in the sharp observation that “the impact had been severe but it could have been survivable because of the lack of fire.”
As My Somewhat Personal Acquaintance Phil PlaitTM would probably say, “DUH!”
(Note: The phrase My Somewhat Personal Acquaintance Phil PlaitTM in no way borrows from, makes use of or infringes upon My Somewhat Personal Acquaintance Phil PlaitTM‘s adage for Mythbuster Adam Savage)
The pictures from Amsterdam show a plane in a muddy field broken into at least three pieces – severe damage by any definition. It is possible that the fuel tanks remained intact, but unlikely. So why was there no fire? There are several reports that fuel starvation is to blame. The FAA has put higher flammability standards in place, but they wouldn’t be a factor in this case. No fuel, means no fire. unconfirmed
Update: Now it sounds as if this crash was a result of the pilots failing to add power once they had leveled off. It is normal and in fact very efficient (and safe) to reduce power on the engines to idle when descending. The aircraft essentially glides to a lower altitude (converting gravitational potential energy into lift in the process). Normally, once the plane levels off, power is added to maintain speed and altitude.
So what were the factors contributing to this “Miracle in The Mud”? CNN doesn’t help much here as they don’t really point out the most likely reason. For that, you have to dig just a little. There is a link to a video where it appears that moments after the crash an expert was hastily summoned for discussion. He points out what probably saved lives in this crash – stronger seats. In 2002 the FAA mandated stronger flooring, rails and seats capable of withstanding 16g’s. The prior standard was 9g’s. Though the rule does not require retrofit of existing aircraft and only applies to ones built after October of 2009, many manufacturers have voluntarily put the stronger seats in place on new planes in anticipation of the rule. Considering the photographic evidence of just how badly this plane in Amsterdam was damaged, it seems to be a no-brainer to say that stronger seats at least played a role in saving lives. Though a reference is made to this fact in the last sentence, it is too bad this wasn’t included in or explored in the main body of the article. Instead, they made sure to include such useful details like the fact that the Turkish Airlines logo was “split in two”. Crucial information.
But what about “The Miracle in the Hudson”?
As long as sensational reports such as the aircraft “hitting the water at 150 MPH” confuse how fast the plane was moving through the air with how fast it contacted the water (less than 5 MPH) it is no wonder people think supernatural intervention was required. In fact, reports from the pilots and the flight attendants indicate that other than where they landed, it wasn’t that rough. An off-duty pilot on board described it as “no worse than [an aircraft] carrier landing” – certainly much, much less than 9g’s, the old standard for seats. This was a controlled, though zero-thrust landing that just happened to be in the water.
Look, even though they are exceedingly rare, airline accidents have been on our collective mind lately. In the past 6 weeks at least four high profile incidents have been all over the news. Newspapers (does anyone still read the newspaper for news?), CNN and now even twitter give us shocking images of twisted, broken machines lying on the ground (Cue James Taylor). After watching such reports, I can’t blame anyone for being a little apprehensive about getting on an airplane. I’m not going to try and change your mind.
You’re either going to fly or you’re not. But that’s another issue. Just remember, disproportional news coverage of aviation accidents that focus on the sensational aspects leave out one very important thing:
Airline accidents don’t happen very often.