Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Oh, the Horror of Being an Aviation Writer

I have this image in my brain and I can't shake it. There's a man seated at a giant pipe organ, he's wearing morning coat with tails and he is pounding furiously. His fingers fly across all three levels of the keyboard. He's pumping the pedals with his feet, turning the pages on the sheet music, the music swells, the room is shaking. It's sooooo scary. 



This is what it feels like to be me. Here I sit at my keyboard and I am remembering the days when aviation news was an occasional thing. When, in between accidents or pilot strikes or fare wars, we aviation reporters would review a new airplane or write a nice little feature about what pilots and flight attendants pack when they go on vacation.

Them's the good old days.

Instead, I am living in fear. I am terrified of my inbox. The ringing of my telephone sounds like the dun-dun dun-dun soundtrack of Jaws. And can you blame me? Airplanes are going bump in the night. Wreckage is found at the bottom of the sea. Air traffic controllers are having nightmares in their sleep, I mean at work. Children are given security pat-downs. With a horrifying creak and a pffffff a not-so-old B737 gives up the ghost. And that's just the news so far this month. 

Really, what is going on here?

I have a theory. To many people the mere act of getting on an airplane starts the Jaws soundtrack in their brains, because flying seems like the riskiest thing they do; Riskier than driving in the snow, riskier than using a power tool, riskier than moving furniture in flip flops.  So its no wonder that any aviation-related event gets covered as news, even if - to insiders - it is just a quirky punctuation to the normal business of flying people around the world at thirty-thousand-plus feet.

Unusual smell in bin causes Airtran flight cancellation
There is history to this. Remember, in the early days of aviation flight attendants were nurses. What's new is the ability of every air traveler to record and transmit live, every detail along the way. See my photo from a recent trip I took on AirTran, when a mysterious smell in the overhead bin caused the cancellation of my flight. Boring eh?

How much more compelling then, when one's flight includes for your in-flight entertainment, the truly frightening addition of a hole opening up in the top of the cabin as happened to Shawna Malvini Redden on Southwest Flight 812. Or, when the perfectly positioned aviation geek photographing the ordinary comings and goings from a terminal window, just happens to record the world's largest airliner hitting and spinning like a toy, a loaded commuter jet.

"The video was key to understanding that this was more than one plane brushing against another," said Joan Lowy the aviation reporter for Associated Press in Washington, D.C.. Topping off the visual offerings is the availability of real time audio of the the actual conversation between the pilots and controllers on websites like LiveATC.net. "I think LiveATC has had a huge impact on aviation reporting." Joan says, hearing the actual radio exchange has so much more impact than what she calls (politely, of course) the "FAA's few dry statements."

Nicola Clark, who writes about aviation for the International Herald Tribune, says these event-specific dispatches from travelers-on-the-scene "can instantly send pictures, video and tweets or Facebook posts from their seats," while adding that this unfiltered news has the aviation industry responding with their own direct-to-the public communication. Whether this is a good or bad thing, Nicola doesn't say. Smart girl. That's a discussion not far different from the quicksand scene in Journey to the Center of the Earth

Patrick Smith, the airline pilot who writes the Salon column Ask the Pilot, and who is never shy about having an opinion, is equivocal. Its good and bad, Patrick says.

What it feels like to be me these days
"It's good because it has become harder for scandal and negligence to go unnoticed and problems that otherwise might be ignored are suddenly under scrutiny.  What's bad is that certain media blow almost everything out of proportion."

Well that's what a good horror movie does right? The music provides the tension while the dim lighting hides the menace. The wind knocking over a garbage can makes us jump. We know no more than what the movie director wants us to know, which is enough to be frightening.

At the risk of appearing self-serving, I'm going to agree with Mike Danko, a lawyer and aviation blogger who suggests that good or bad, all this amateur on-the-scene reporting can be beneficial.

"It has opened the door for bloggers to provide real analysis that the mainstream media can't or won't," Mike wrote to me in an email, citing this AvWeb analysis of the December 2010 American Airlines runway overrun in Wyoming.

In addition to being frantically busy, to be an aviation writer these days means being barraged by disparate facts, tidbits of videos and sound recordings, eyewitness tweets and partial impressions that when stitched together without care can create a Frankenstein-like picture of aviation.

On the other hand, with all the educated sources of information out there and the opportunity to communicate with them using this new technology, anyone truly interested, is able to separate the facts from the scare stories.

It is a good time to be an aviation writer? Frankly, it's a thriller.









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