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Aircraft accidents, the news and money

May 2, 2013

There was a plane crash in a foreign country earlier this week.  A big plane crash.  I’m talking Boeing 747-400 big.  Plane crashes don’t get much bigger than this, folks.  (Thank God for that.)  Maybe you heard about it.  Likely you didn’t.

The accident was captured on video by a motorist passing near the airport it had just departed.  Stunning, horrifying, calamitous video.  Seven people died in the crash–all apparently crew members aboard the plane.  But other than a brief mention on the blizzard of news that streams through our myriad electronic displays, you would be hard pressed to find out any more from these ‘usual’ news sources.

The reason?  Only seven people died.

Now, this is just my opinion, my hypothesis.  I don’t have a degree in broadcast journalism or internet media content.  But I am a pilot, an airline pilot–so I’ve seen this before.  The aircraft that crashed was a cargo aircraft.  It was owned and operated by a US-based company with orders to fly freight all over the world.  Not quite a household name, but still a reputable, dependable carrier.  They oftentimes fly in and out of dubious airports with questionable security in countries sketchy enough that you probably wouldn’t want to visit them on vacation.  But for these types of “non-sked” cargo operators, that’s where the money is.  So that’s where they fly.

So…seven people dead.  Do you care?  I know, I know…the death toll from the wars fought in this region of the world far exceed the casualties from this crash. What’s seven more?

Apparently, if you live in the US, you don’t care.  At least the Lords of News Content (the news editors) think you don’t.  Surprising, too, because as I mentioned, the video of the doomed airliner during its’ final seconds is so shocking and clear, it’s sickening.  We seem not to be sickened by other images of violence in this country.  Why not this?

Because there’s no money in it.  Why, you ask?  Simple.  The plane was only a cargo plane.  Only seven people died.  As far as I know, no puppy orphanage on the ground was obliterated.  No Hollywood starlet or bloated political figure went down with the ship.  And the smoking hole that was once a glorious Boeing 747-400 was only in some far away land that the average American can’t spell correctly, or even point to on a globe.  Go ahead and shrug your shoulders.  You’re not alone if you entirely missed this story.

For us airline pilots, we are conflicted on this.  As professionals, we typically view the immediate, microscopic dissection of an airliner crash by the news media as a shameless, gratuitous exaggeration of a horrible tragedy.  Other than the rightful justification in the wake of the 9/11 crashes, airplane accidents are chewy grist that news departments love to go all Pavlovian over.  In their zeal to be the first with the scoop, they’ll throw any nearby reporter at the story, regardless the individual’s knowledge or familiarity with the complexities of these tragedies.  The breathless news coverage of any little grain of information is practically screamed through a megaphone into our ears.  “The plane was reported to have departed ON TIME!!!”  Even prosaic crashes of small general aviation aircraft get the same treatment.  “The pilot had not filed a flight plan!!!”  For most career pilots, we just sigh a little and mutter under our breath, “But there’s so much more to the story…”

Which makes crashes like what happened on Monday all the more heartbreaking.  The video from the event shows the crew attempting to recover from what appears to be an unnaturally high nose-up attitude that was possibly caused by an accidental shift of cargo being carried in the plane.  If enough weight shifts in this manner, the aircraft is doomed once it lifts off the runway.  The finest pilot in the world would not be able to recover.  The immutable laws of physics are not held at bay in real life.  But these guys (they were all men) probably tried to do what they could have.

To me, their actions were heroic.  Captain “Sully” Sullenberger (miracle on the Hudson) heroic.  But, unlike Sully, they will not be lauded for saving the day.  No Rose Bowl parade floats from which to wave.  No baseball opening day first pitches to throw.  Their families and friends will exalt them, though.  I hope.  They might not understand, but they will accept the messy, complicated truth.  And hope that no other family has to watch those gruesome final few seconds of their loved ones’ lives in some preventable aircraft accident.

In a year or two, the National Transportation Safety Board will issue their final ruling on probable cause of this accident.  A press release will be published, carried by the AP, Reuters and all the other news outlets.  And after an hour or two, the story will disappear.  Not shocking, not titillating enough.  No money in this story, those editors will say.  No passengers fly on these freight airplanes.  Usually, when the loss of life is ultimately fingered to be not due to pilot error and instead some mumbo jumbo about cargo shifting or fire suppression, the spotlight will fade and people will return to their preoccupation with what scrawny nymphette can sing or get bitten by vampires or whatever the hell seems to infatuate the American public these days.  Will the FAA change the rules associated with cargo airplanes so this type of accident doesn’t happen again?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But one thing is certain, money will be involved.

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4 Comments
  1. I hadn’t heard about it. Very interesting.

  2. paula permalink

    great commentary

  3. This aircraft was a fairly new Boeing 747-400 operated by National Airlines on contract to the U.S. Military transporting 5 military vehicles from Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan. My son flies in and out of their on a regular basis on Boeing 767 aircraft and called me right away when this accident occurred.

    Apparently they had a cargo shift that placed the aircraft into a stall/spin at 1200 feet.

    I just published a post about some of the more common airline accidents at my blog at http://all-things-aviation.com.

  4. Brian permalink

    Well thought out and sadly true. For you, and your readers, who would like to have the information… a support/donation site for the crew (read: their families) has been established:

    http://www.ncr102.org

    May they truly rest in peace.

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