July’s Forgotten Crash

Last month saw four aviation incidents involving jet powered airlines. Three of those are probably familiar to most readers of this blog: first there was the crash of Asiana Airlines flight HL7742 at San Francisco. Second there was the fire aboard an Ethiopian Airlines 787 parked at London Heathrow. The third incident was Southwest Airlines flight SWA345, which suffered a collapse of the nose gear while landing at La Guardia airport near New York.

The fourth incident was the belly landing of a Superjet 100-95 with registration 97005, during a test flight at Keflavik airport, near Reykjavik. If you’ve heard of this last one, you probably follow the specialised aviation news. Although it got some coverage there, it almost completely seemed to have escaped the mainstream news media.

To check whether my feeling on the matter was correct I performed a small survey, searching both on Google News (news.google.com) and Newslibrary.com, a database of print newspaper articles. On both sites I searched for ‘Asiana airlines crash San Francisco’, ‘Dreamliner Heathrow fire’, ‘Superjet Reykjavik’ and ‘Southwest crash La Guardia’. I limited the search to the range 1 July – 11 August.

Unsurprisingly (as it was the only accident resulting in fatalities) flight HL7742 scored highest with 27,800 hits on Google News and 2592 on Newslibrary. The Superjet managed just 54 hits on Google (adding the word ‘crash’ to the search makes the results even worse, probably because non-English publications are then not found) and a measly 2 on Newslibrary. One hit was an article from the website newsmax.com and the other was a transcript of a Russian news broadcast. A comparison with the other incidents is shown below.


Hits on Google News and Newslibrary for the four major incidents of July, relative to the total combined number of hits.


The Superjet accident is a nice reminder that the news media forms our window on the world, and like all windows, unless you look really closely, it cuts your view off at the edges. Our view of what is going on is shaped by the media. How important we think certain incidents are, or if we even are aware of them at all, is determined by the editorial decisions made by journalists and editors across the world. The media colours our perception of how rare or commonplace events are, and it’s important to remember this when trusting gut feeling instead of trying to find proper statistics.


Welcome to Annex 13

Aircraft crashes are momentous, but fortunately rare, events. Because crashes can have such a big impact on many people they typically receive much media coverage. Because they are so rare, the quality of that media coverage leaves much to be desired however. In many ways an aircraft crash does not well suit the needs of modern news media. Modern news media want a clear and simple story that can be told in a time-frame of several minutes at most (preferably including some kind of villain we can hate and hero we can love). In addition this story should be ready almost immediately after the event. After several days at most the news cycle has been completed and the media seek out a new story to report on.

Aircraft crashes do not fit this mould. Crashes rarely have a simple single cause. Instead there is typically a chain of events that can be quite technically complex. Even worse, this information will only be available after the conclusion of an official investigation, which may only be several years after the crash. In the meantime (i.e. from directly after the crash until the next news story presents itself) the media is left to speculate. However, because crashes are so rare it does not make much sense for reporters (at least at a general news outlet) to specialise in the area of aviation safety. Because of this, speculation runs rampant and there is a failure to place what few facts are known into the proper context.

For example during the coverage of the recent Asiana Airlines crash  at San Francisco it was noted that the instrument landing system (ILS) was inoperative and that the pilots had to conduct a visual approach instead. The ILS is a system that uses radio beams to provide the pilots (or the autopilot) with guidance on the proper path to fly through the air to land on the runway. If the media reports that this system is broken, that might sound like a big deal right? Well, it might, but consider that the ILS is only really needed if the pilots can’t see the runway, that a visual approach is the first type of approach a pilot will learn to conduct, and that you don’t need to learn any other type of approach the hold a basic pilot’s license (a private pilot’s license [PPL]). Suddenly, the lack of an ILS may still be an important link in the chain of events, but it’s not the crucial problem the media report would have you think.

The aim of this blog is to provide the technical knowledge and context that is often missing from mainstream media reports on aircraft crashes. In addition it will contain more general musings regarding aviation incidents and public safety in general.