The ‘terror in the skies’ story revisited

On 5×8 this week, I pointed to a Washington Post columnist who questioned whether an overly-dramatic account by a reporter on a plane that had landing gear problems is an incident that actually happened. The original account left out the date, airline and flight number, and featured an account of the pilot coming out of the cockpit to tell the passengers, “Not going to sugarcoat it,” he said. “We’re just going to try to land it,” a quote that likely made any decent pilot spit the morning coffee.

But apparently it actually happened.

The editor of the New York Times Magazine, Hugo Lindgren, provided the official proof to James Fallows of The Atlantic:

Some commenters have seized on certain details of “The Plane Was About to Crash. Now What?” by Noah Gallagher Shannon in order to question whether this emergency landing happened (and perhaps even whether the author was on the flight). But there is simply no question. The author was on Frontier Airlines flight #727 on June 30, 2011, from Washington to Denver. It was an Airbus 320. The author sat in seat 12A. This flight was diverted to Philadelphia. The FAA reports that the pilot declared an emergency due to a low hydraulics indicator light and that upon landing the plane needed to be towed to the gate. Frontier airlines confirms that an Airbus A320 experienced “a maintenance issue on departure from Washington DCA. The flight diverted to Philadelphia due to easier access. The aircraft and all passengers landed safely.”

Did the author’s personal recollection represent an accurate picture of what he experienced on that flight? Well, only he can attest to his own experience. But the author did provide receipts and took notes after the flight to back up his account. And his recollection, when run by an aviation specialist, did seem entirely plausible to him. While some of the author’s language may have been imprecise, his recollection of his experience was consistent with recollections of passengers in similar air incidents. Naturally, not every detail matches everybody else’s experience. Surely even people on that plane would remember it differently. The story was about the personal experience of a fearful moment. The author did not present himself as an authority in airline technology or emergency procedures. The airline, in fact, refused his request for more information about what happened after the fact. He only reported what he heard and felt, which is consistent with the magazine’s Lives page, where the account was published.

The basic fact that no one can dispute is that the author of the column was on a flight to Denver that was diverted after the pilot reported a problem. Details like whether the crew followed standard procedure — or varied from it — or whether the lights were dimmed or how that looked to him, cannot be credibly contested by people who were not on the plane, even if their own experience of an emergency situation might have been different.

The piece was fact-checked before publication, and after questions were raised, editors reviewed it again, with the full cooperation of the writer. All the key points appear to be corroborated, and we have not found any evidence to undercut any significant elements of the narrative.

Fallows gives the writer a pass even though he notes that the entire account of what happened on the plane might not be what actually happened:

So if you went to the trouble (as I have not done) of finding other passengers on that plane and asking them whether, in fact, a rattled-sounding pilot had left the cockpit during the emergency to yell instructions down the aisle, meanwhile dangling a cap in his hand; or if you found the radar tracks to see whether an airliner had actually circled for two hours over Philadelphia; or if you heard from an Airbus electrical engineer (as I have) that it would have been impossible for the cabin lighting or public-address system to have behaved in the way the story claims; or if you went to the FAA or NTSB and found that their records for that date didn’t match this story; or if you did anything else of the sort — it wouldn’t matter. The writer was telling us “what he heard and felt,” not necessarily what “happened.”

If I’m wrong about something I write today, it’s only because I’m writing about what I felt happened.