Aeronautical Randomness
The San Francisco accident and the media
July 15, 2013
34

“You are cleared for the visual to 28R.”  While the captain read back the clearance, I started the left turn towards the San Francisco Airport.  We were flying the base leg southeast of the field.  I dialed the altitude selector to cross the San Mateo bridge at 1,800′.  After joining the localizer, I switched the flight director to flight path angle.  With the glide-slope out of service, I dialed and pulled the proper knob to start the aircraft down a three degree glide-path.   The Airbus A319 was in the precise state I wanted… on course, on speed and stable.

That was Friday afternoon.  Six days earlier, a Boeing 777 operated by a foreign carrier descended through the airspace just off our left side.  You already know how that flight ended.  This was my first flight into SFO since the accident. Runway 28L was still closed.

I left the autopilot engaged a little longer than usual.  While monitoring everything, I was also surveying the situation at the field.  Although there were still numerous vehicles and structures to the side of 28L, the wreckage of the 777 had been removed.  Pilots who had been through SFO on Thursday told me the fuselage was still on the grass.  I’m glad it was gone… I really didn’t need to see it.

After clicking the autopilot off, I finished the approach and landed the jet.  I got the touchdown I expected after being off for eighteen days.

From the jet bridge steps, I snapped a photo.  I knew we were in the final hours of this event.  It reminded me of a catastrophic, life altering automobile wreck.  The vehicles and surrounding area are all cleaned up leaving not a hint of evidence that an accident occurred.  Those involved are affected forever… those of us who drive by an hour or two later have no idea it even happened.

By Saturday, all debris had been removed.  This photo was taken just hours before 28L re-opened.

By Saturday, all debris had been removed. This photo was taken just hours before 28L re-opened.

That evening, at the hotel in Dallas, I saw a Facebook post from a friend: “Just landed on 28L in SFO.”  Six days after the accident, the runway was open.  San Francisco was back to normal operations. (Delays caused by clouds, visibility, wind and construction.)

On Saturday, I flew another visual approach to 28R.  My captain went home and his replacement gave me the option to fly the next leg.  A few hours later, I flew another localizer/visual approach into runway 27 in San Diego.

Sunday morning, I watched the captain fly a visual to 28L.  As suspected, due to an incredible clean-up, I saw no evidence of the crash.

I have purposely remained quiet about this accident.  Although I have a very clear picture in my head of what I think happened, I will not publicly speculate.  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) does a remarkable job preparing a detailed accident report that identifies the probable cause of an accident.  It usually takes six months to a year for them to reveal their findings.

The experts need a year… But, if you’re uninformed, you can announce your findings just minutes after the accident.

While I choose to remain silent about a probable cause, I was fairly vocal in my criticism of the talking heads on television.  A few of you told me to “calm down” on Twitter.  At least you didn’t have to listen to me scream at the television.  While watching, my frustrations were split between the reporters AND the so-called “experts” they were interviewing.

Runway numbers

There is a proper way to pronounce runway numbers.  Runway 28L is spoken “Two Eight Left.” It is not “Twenty Eight L.”  If there’s an R or C, then it’s right or center respectively.

For those of you who don’t know, runways are not randomly numbered.  They are named for their magnetic heading minus the ending zero.  Think of a compass rose: 360 degree = north, 90 = east, 180 = south, 270 = west.  When landing on 28L, the aircraft is pointed somewhere close to 280 degrees.  The same piece of concrete heading the opposite direction is 180 degrees different.  That’s why the other end of 28L is labeled 10R. (100 degrees and the “right” runway when heading east. 28R is 10L on the other end.)

Going around

An aborted approach is a go-around.  If the engines are out of idle (“spooled up”), the throttles can be advanced to instantly start climbing up away from the runway.  This is not referred to as “hitting the gas” by even the most amateur pilot.  So, please don’t say it on television.

That glide-slope issue

Again, I’m not speculating on any probable cause.  I just want to comment on a few things I heard…

I listened to one anchor ask her guest, “Reports say the glide-slope was not working… HOW CAN THAT BE?!”  Her tone indicated that it was some sort of essential equipment that some ignoramus decided to switch off for the day.

The glide-slope for 28L and 28R has been out of service since June.  Despite thousands of safe landings, some in the media treated it as if this caused an unforeseen failure.

The glide-slope for 28L and 28R has been out of service since June. Some in the media treated it as if this guy caused an unforeseen equipment failure.

The glide-slope provides vertical guidance to pilots for landing.  It is only required if needed to descend below clouds or in low visibility.  It is not essential for visual approaches.  I wish reporters would educate themselves about equipment before acting indignant about it being inoperative.

That same segment became even more puzzling a few minutes later.  The “expert” adequately explained the function of a glide-slope.  Then, the reporter tossed a follow-up question: “Well, what would they have done if there were instrument conditions?”

The expert answered, “They would have had to land on a different runway or divert to another airport.”

Apparently, the twenty five year Naval Aviator has never flown a localizer, VOR or RNAV/GPS approach in instrument conditions.  If the weather was very low, his answer would have been correct.  But, he was asked about “instrument conditions” versus a visual.

There were several other answers he provided that led me to believe he’d never actually flown an airliner.

Next time there’s a big rig accident on the freeway, perhaps they will call in Danica Patrick or Dale Earnhardt Jr for analysis.

Auto-land

In another segment, I listened to a reporter and expert mention the glide-slope inoperative and question whether or not an “auto-land” was performed.  While it is true that the 777 can land itself, all auto-lands require a fully functioning glide-slope.  The glide-slope is so important to an auto-land that the controllers “protect” the antenna area during very low visibility.  While aircraft are landing, taxiing jets are held back from this area to ensure the signal is not disturbed.  For more information, search for “ILS Critical Area.”

Visual illusion

I listened to several experts say there may have been a visual illusion “coming in over water.”

In several places, terrain slopes or water around an airport can create the illusion of being high or low on the approach.  I’ve seen this illusion in Las Vegas, Albuquerque and San Jose, Costa Rica.

I have never experienced any visual illusion on the 28s in San Francisco.

Are you even watching the video?

Immediately after the accident, a reporter was speaking with an expert on the telephone.  The expert asked, “Since I cannot see the video, is the entire plane intact?”  The reporter answered, “Yes, miraculously, it is!”

The entire tail was missing.

I went back later and watched a few raw news clips on YouTube.  In one, the reporter stated that they weren’t sure if the slides were deployed and whether people were evacuating.  While she was speaking, I could see the slides deployed and people evacuating.

How did they get out so fast?

One knowledgeable expert was explaining to a reporter that manufacturers must demonstrate the ability to evacuate all passengers in ninety seconds.  The confused reporter said, “How can that be?  When I sit in the back of the plane, it takes fifteen minutes before I get off!”

Before the expert could answer, my twelve year old soon blurted out, “Well, isn’t that because nobody takes their luggage and there are several exits for them to jump out?”  That’s my boy.  Good job, son.

Microbursts

I listened to several reporters question whether a microburst could have pushed the aircraft low.  While it is true that microbursts create severe downdrafts that could cause an airliner to plummet, the weather pattern around SFO couldn’t have been any more opposite than required to create a microburst.

NTSB press conferences

I publicly mentioned that the NTSB Chair performed remarkably well during all her press conferences.  While debatable whether or not she released too much information, she was calm, methodical and knowledgeable.

Everyone knows that the NTSB doesn’t speculate on anything.  So, why would a reporter blurt out “Do you think it was pilot error?” just hours after the accident?  They will never, ever answer that question.

The granddaddy of them all

Finally, when the “fake pilot names” report aired, even those with no aeronautical knowledge started to realize that television news may not be the best source of information about the accident.  When I first saw the clip, I was convinced it was fake.  I’d post the video, but it has been removed from YouTube.

My thoughts and prayers go out to everyone affected by this accident.

When bad things happen, we need to slow down and let the real experts do their jobs.  It is more important that we learn lessons from mishaps instead of beating out the other networks with erroneous facts and misguided theories.

We need more Captain Sully type commentators and less Type-As trying to steal the spotlight.

If you know your stuff, I welcome you into my home during a crisis.

If not, get off my television.


Readers wanted!

I appreciate each and every one of the few hundred of you who read this on a regular basis.

Could you please do me a favor?  If you like what you read here, please take a moment to use one of the social media buttons below.  If people keep reading this blog, I’ll keep writing.

Also, are you following on Twitter?  If not, please follow @RenewedPilot.  I tweet out blog updates and mostly random nonsense on a regular basis.

Thanks!

About author

Renewed Pilot

I've endured a roller coaster career in the U.S. Aviation Industry. Currently flying the 737 on my third try with the same legacy carrier, I have also flown for a regional, fractional and start-up carrier. My piloting experience includes the 737, A320, 727, Citation Excel, Citation Bravo, Saab 340 and many light singles and twin engine aircraft. I reside in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee.

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There are 34 comments

  • Mark Demshock says:

    Unfortunately Brian, we know longer have real ‘news’ available on television, but rather sensationalized, ratings-hungry, shock jocks masquerading as news. It sickens me!
    As I watched the coverage about the crash, I too was disgusted by the ‘experts’. More recently, with the incident of the 787 catching fire last Friday, those same ‘experts’ and ‘news’ anchors…strike that, let’s call the ‘media anchors’…began to report more battery problems for the ‘troubled airliner’. As someone who knows a little about the ’87, I can tell you that a battery meltdown causing a fire on the modified 787 is virtually an impossibility. Yet all I heard is ‘battery’, ‘battery’, ‘battery’ while the on screen images show fire damage in the crown over door 4 left.
    One thing I really wish is that Congress would mandate ‘news’ organizations must provide one hour of advertisement-free, unbiased news heralding back to the days Morrow and Cronkite.

    • Thanks for the comment, Mark. I considered bringing the 787 coverage into this post. But, considering I left out several tidbits on the 777 coverage, there wasn’t room for it.

      For the others… Mark works on the 787 for Boeing. I can picture him screaming at the TV during the coverage of the recent fire.

  • Cedarglen says:

    Thanks for another great post. I share your thoughts and I believe your 12-YO son is a genius. And yes, The “Granddaddy of them all” the pilot’s names as broadcast by KTVU and many others. The Talking Heads got their chains yanked Big Time with that one, proof again that Talking Heads and not journalists. (Sum Ting Wong? Get a grip) That’s one of many reasons that I tossed my TV >15 years ago. Please, keep on posting! Your material IS EASILY worth my reading time. Thanks. -C.

  • ProfPaul says:

    Your view is correct as is your son’s and I thank you both for that. However its unlikely to cause a change in the “Talking Heads” problem. I must have watched 50 or more aircraft accidents/events on TV and find most of the reporters are the nearest to the accident and are ordered by whoever pays them to get over there and report. They often have no idea whats happening or how it may have happened. They know nothing about aviation, but their boss says talk continuously. Don’t pause for any reason. The end result is lots of noise and little information at the accident site. I think we all, [I hope], take that into consideration when something happens.
    Fly Safe.

    • I know it won’t change the way the media covers the accidents. But, I may be able to educate a few people about our business and the way it is portrayed on television.

      Sometimes it just feels good to vent.

  • Cathy Blessing says:

    Well written Brian and very true. All these talking heads want is to sensationalize everything and they want to be the first with the answer as to what went wrong. Unfortunately, it takes time to decipher all the elements that go into an accident. I have to admit how I’m also tired of listening to non-aviators (news media and regular folk alike) talk about how few hours the pilot had in that airplane and how it was his first approach into SFO in it. As though they must be the reason this went wrong. Not so simple. The NTSB will likely develop a list of contributing factors that is a lot longer than those two!

    • Thanks, Cathy. You are correct… time and meticulous investigating.

      Personally, I think our government wastes a lot of money on bloated agencies. However, the NTSB is worth every penny.

  • Brian, good post. I remember our exchanges via twitter during the early coverage of the incident and I know we share the same frustrations. Thanks for setting the record straight for those without the knowlege that some of us Aviation Geeks and Pilots have.

    JC

  • Eric says:

    Great post, Brian!

    I could have written that post–I wanted to wring so many Talking Heads’ necks, LOL!

    Definitely going to FB n Tweet your blog post, lotsa good analysis in there about the whole shebang. And, with the “Som Ting Wong” TV Punk, the entire public is now finally getting a clue that the media…is CLUELESS! You’re right: stop sensationalizing and get REAL news with REAL experts on the air!

    Eric

  • Eric says:

    PS: Another pet peeve. When the TV reporter ends the story about a small plane crash by saying, in as acusatory a tone as possible, “A flight plane was NOT filed…”

    • Eric,

      Thanks for the comments and the nice words. I appreciate you promoting the post.

      I had a professor in college who had the same pet peeve as you. He would often complain that the media made it sound like the lack of flight plan contributed to the crash.

      He was also, however, a huge proponent of always filing a flight plan… even for a local VFR flight.

      Soon after I graduated, he was killed in a seaplane accident.

      When the newscaster covered the story, she mentioned that investigators knew to start searching because he was overdue on his VFR flight plan.

      In the midst of the tragedy, it made me smile.

      • Mark Demshock says:

        I remember passing a flatbed the night they were carrying the wreckage of the Buccaneer. The image still haunts me today.

  • Jonathan Weber says:

    Lots of media did a fine job on this, read a paper (or a real news Website) instead of watching TV if you want journalism as opposed to infotainment. Pointless to pick out the stupidest coverage or press conference questions and make that into an indictment of “the media.” Many pilots seem to be quite the know-it-alls and think everyone should us their jargon and adopt their perspective. That is hardly journalism either.

    • Unfortunately, for the time period I was interested in capturing in this post, the next day’s newspaper wasn’t available.

      By your statement, I’m assuming you’re not a pilot? If you don’t know the jargon, how can you assess if the articles were well written?

  • Austin says:

    Excellent article. I’ve got your blog bookmarked! Keep writing!

  • Jonathan Weber says:

    All newspapers are online these days and had very up-to-the-minute reporting. A journalist’s job is to understand the jargon but communicate it to readers in a jargon-free form that non-experts can understand. Experts often dislike the perceived lack of precision that sometimes comes with that, but it’s essential. For most people, a pilot’s technical explanation of an airplane crash would be meaningless. No one particularly cares that pilots call the runway 28 Left instead of 28L, for example, nor should they. Journalists have the task of explaining the technical to the layman, which is sometimes done well and sometimes done poorly, but it’s harder than it looks, and very different from an expert writing for other experts.

    • I agree that is the role of a journalist.

      The overall point of this post was to educate readers on some of the inaccuracies I heard in the early hours after the crash. If you find any of my material to be inaccurate, please point it out.

      Also, please notice I have praise dispersed through this post. I mention knowledgeable experts, Captain Sully, and Chairman Hersman.

      Many of the articles written days after the accident were very informative. As you mentioned, you have to consider the source.

      So, the next time there’s an auto wreck on a freeway, would it bother you if the reporter said it was a back woods, dirt road? That’s the level of error I saw in the immediate reporting.

    • Mark Demshock says:

      One fact you might not be aware of, JW, is the fact the most professional pilots are, in fact, flight instructors and have spent many hours, perhaps 1,000 or more, translating the complex pilot jargon to simple terms for the lay person striving to become a pilot. I am a pilot myself as well as an aircraft mechanic at Boeing.
      I did read several articles about the blogged event, as well as the recent incident of the 787 in Heathrow. In both instances, the online articles were very short on facts, included much speculation and provided no truly informative insight. Whether it’s in print or on TV, today’s media is all about sensationalizm and ratings. Ratings drive advertising dollars.

  • Jonathan Weber says:

    Oh, and you are correct, I am not a pilot. Or rather, I have done some flying but I am not a licensed pilot. So you could probably say that I am a pilot in the same way that you are a journalist 😉

  • Wendy N says:

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge in a way anyone could understand. Anyone with common sense knows that the media rushes to get something, anything on the air. Thanks for clearing up the confusion

  • Amy C says:

    So Jonathon Weeber, if you are not a pilot, then are you a journalist? I think the point here is, if one considers him or herself a journalist, then it should go without saying that it is the RESPONSIBILITY of that “professional” person to report events in a factual manner. I don’t care if the person is reporting to a kindergarten class, or to a panel of MIT professors, the fact remains that a GREAT journalist (and communicator) can figure out a way to convey all information in a factual, responsible manner to all audiences, while using the best resources possible– and NOT make excuses why the information wasn’t reported accurately the first time. Oh, excuse me. I see your name is J-O-H-N-A-T-H-A-N W-E-B-E-R…my mistake…..

  • Cheri G says:

    I learned more from that one blog than any media reports I have heard. Also being just a regular person I understood the jargon you used because you explained it. It would not have taken much time for the media to do the same instead of repeating the same info over and over again. Very well written.

  • Bruce M says:

    My wife will not even let me watch the news immediately after an aviation accident…. She says my entire head turns red after listening to the “talking heads”. I’m anxious to hear the NTSB report – I have my suspicions as to what happened and want to see if I’m right.

    BTW – I enjoy the blog! I just discovered it a couple of months ago and spent a couple of pleasant days going back and starting at the beginning.

    • Thanks for the comment. I am also curious to see if my theory matches the final report. But, like you, I am perfectly content to wait for the professionals do their job.

      Glad you enjoy the blog!

  • Joe Z says:

    I thought the same things the other day when watching the Southwest incident coverage. The reporters made it seem as though every 737 was unsafe to fly. I can’t stand when these “experts” are given the spotlight to misinform the public about aviation, or any other topic for that matter.

  • […] The San Francisco Accident and the media […]

  • I find it amazing that 873 people can leave the A380 in under 90 seconds. I didn’t even know safety standards are that tough. I guess the 90 second rule will prevent future planes from packing in too many passengers. Thanks for the blog post, I like that you’re posting more often now. Keep the posts coming!

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