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.