As an aviation specialist journalist and the wife of an airline pilot, I’ve become a bit of a nerd when it comes to aeroplanes. Which is great – it gets me lots of #avgeek friends on Twitter, and my husband and I have thrilling conversations using lots of acronyms.
That is, until there’s an awful aviation tragedy, and I become embarrassed (and not a little infuriated) at the inaccurate reporting I see, hear and read. Not that you can always blame the journalists themselves. In an age where there’s a pressure to be first with a story rather than 100% right, and 24-hour news channels have rolling hours of time to fill, speculation and sensationalism win the day. Furthermore, not every news organisation has the money to maintain specialist journalists who have the time to learn about their area and grow their fact-checking contacts.
Before I moved to Doha, I was the BBC’s Transport Producer, working with the Transport Correspondent, who at that point was Tom Symonds. Aviation stories were something we dealt with regularly, and when something terrible happened, we were consulted on scripts, facts and quotes, making sure that what the BBC put out was both fair and factually correct.
Unfortunately, my move to Qatar meant I had to resign (very reluctantly) from that role, so after recent tragedies like the San Francisco Asiana crash, you’ll find me either bashing my head against a wall or bashing out multiple angry “public service announcement” tweets which I’m sure most people ignore. And I don’t blame them – who wants to read the rants of a broken record?
So, I thought I’d try another approach. I’ve decided to write a post laying out some basic aviation facts, which I’ll update as and when necessary, which journalists can use as a reference when they’re writing stories. I’d also like to invite any journalists reading this to drop me a line (my email address is on the right on this site) with any specific questions they have.
I firmly believe that getting our facts right is vitally important if we’re to gain and retain the trust of readers, listeners and viewers, and furthermore, that we as a media community have a responsibility to prevent the spread of panic and misinformation.
Here’s what I have so far. If you have other questions you’d like me to answer, please leave me a comment on this post.
Captain vs First Officer vs Co-Pilot. What’s the difference?
There are two pilots at the controls of any commercial jet – the Captain and the First Officer. The First Officer is often referred to as the co-pilot in the USA. Both are qualified pilots who have gone through the same professional training. All Captains will have been First Officers for many years before they were promoted. Both of them fly the plane, and both can also take-off and land it – they typically take turns. When one of them is physically handling the controls, the other one is monitoring and handling radio calls, and also keeping an eye on the other pilot’s flying. Flying is team work – one would not be able to function properly without the other. This means that when you say “the pilot” in a story, it’s misleading. Ask yourself – which pilot do I mean? If you mean the Captain (who is ultimately in charge, of course), then write the Captain. If you mean both, you can write “the pilots” or “the flight crew.”
Prime example of getting it wrong: Following the “Miracle on the Hudson,” there was barely any mention in the media of Jeff Skiles, the experienced First Officer sitting right next to Captain Chesley Sullenberger when they landed the plane in the river. It was simply as if the other guy just wasn’t there. Sullenberger has since commented that he couldn’t have managed that landing without Skiles by his side.
What is a “low hours” pilot, and should we be worried about them flying passenger jets?
The jury is out on this one, but I’d say a low hours pilot is one with a total time on all aircraft of less than 1000 hours – about three years’ flying, depending on the airline. Some airlines, particularly low-cost operators in Europe, hire pilots directly from flight school (note: this is very rare in the USA). This means that their first ever flight on a jet may well have passengers on it.
Having said that, even if their experience is low, all commercial pilots are well trained, and constantly being assessed and re-trained. They go through a rigorous process to gain a commercial pilot’s license (a CPL, later converted to an ATPL – an Air Transport Pilot’s Licence.) Once they’ve got the qualification, they then have to get a type rating (a licence to fly a particular plane) which involves yet more study, simulator time and exams. And every six months, pilots must undergo recurrent sim training, where they practice emergencies like engine fires and the other pilot dying, to check they are still proficient. They also have an in-flight test called a Line Check regularly too. Not to mention the fact that given there are always two pilots in a flight deck, a low hours First Officer always has a Captain by his side monitoring him. During a pilot’s initial training, they’ll also have a “safety” pilot, another First Officer, sitting behind them in the flight deck keeping an eye on things.
So, in short – you don’t need to worry – too much.
A go-around is when the flight crew assess that it’s unsafe to land – either because their approach is unstable, or if there’s something up at the airfield – another aircraft still on the runway, for example. These are very common, and usually nothing to worry about. Flight crews don’t ask air traffic control for permission to do these – they decide to do them, and then notify ATC afterwards. Sometimes, if time is short, the other pilot will not be notified of the go-around before it happens.
Just a word to the wise – eyewitnesses and passengers come up with some incredibly moving, compelling soundbites about accidents – but many also turn out to be very inaccurate. Although it’s fine to use these quotes as examples of how the passengers felt, relying on them for facts will only lead to error. Unless the passenger or eyewitness in question is a commercial airline pilot (and no, not even a private pilot – a single engine plane is a very different beast) I’d have healthy scepticism about someone who told me confidently that “we were too low”, “the plane almost spun out of control” “the wings were going to fall off”, etc. You get the picture.
Finding pictures to use
Talking of pictures… Pilots go mental when a story is written about, say, a Boeing 747, and the TV news digs out a picture of an A380 belonging to the same airline and uses that instead. This may seem a minor point to you, but I believe it makes us look shoddy. Instead, you can actually often find pictures online of the exact plane involved in an incident. If you know the registration number of the aircraft, try searching on Airliners.net or Jetphotos.net for the plane in question (note: always get permission to use the picture first). Not only will you be accurate, but the picture will actually have meaning attached to it. Your editor will be impressed.
A former cargo pilot contacted me to point out his particular bugbear: “People often ask “do you fly commercially, or cargo?” he writes. “Cargo operations ARE commercial operations. What they’re really trying to ask is “do you fly passenger, or cargo?”"
Some specific pointers on the San Francisco Asiana crash:
Was the pilot at the controls of the Asiana flight inexperienced on the 777?
The pilot who was flying the approach, Lee Kang-kuk, was a Captain who had just transferred from the Boeing 737 to the Boeing 777. He had 35 hours on his new type, which the airline said amounted to ten flights. This is not a lot of experience on the specific type (he would be under supervision for another 10 flights before being released to fly a 777 unsupervised). However, he had around 10,000 total flying hours on other jets (amounting to at least 12 years of flying) and he’d flown into San Francisco lots of times in other planes.
As he was new on the 777, he had a Training Captain (also known in the US as a Check Airman) called Lee Jung-min flying next to him, who was experienced on the aircraft and would have been paying very close attention to what he was doing. However, he’s told investigators that this was the first time he’d acted as a Training Captain, so he didn’t have any experience in this role.
Sitting behind them was another First Officer, who was part of the relief crew (his Captain was sitting in the passenger cabin.) This FO had around 1000 hours on the 777, although we don’t know his total hours.
Why were there four pilots on board the Asiana flight?
On ultra-long haul flights, there are two crews on board, so that one can rest while the other flies. This is because there are limitations on the amount of time a pilot can spend at the controls, due to obvious concerns about the effects of fatigue. Depending on the aircraft, the resting crew will either use a special rest area on board equipped with bunks, or occupy seats in the cabin during their break. It’s interesting to note that the two extra pilots were also in the flight deck during the approach into San Francisco, meaning that four pilots were watching the same approach. Why didn’t the two other pilots do something? We will find out eventually, but it’s baffling right now.
On some long haul (but not ultra long haul) flights, there are three pilots, with one resting at any time. When the Captain is resting, an experienced First Officer will take on the role of Captain. These pilots are usually called Cruise Captains or in-flight relief pilots, and they undergo special training before they are promoted.
Is a broken glide slope (ILS) a big problem?
In good weather, not really. Pilots are given printouts of NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen) before they depart, which tell them important things about their route and the airfield they’re flying into. These would have told the Asiana crew that the ILS was broken, meaning they’d have to do a visual (manual) approach, which is far from a rare occurrence. A lot of US airfields regularly clear airliners for a visual approach. All pilots train for these in the simulator and practice them for real regularly, otherwise they wouldn’t be legal to fly.
Is it important that the pilot flying the approach had never flown a 777 into San Francisco before?
No. Pilots fly into unfamiliar airports all the time. Essentially, from a pilot’s point of view, the procedure is pretty much the same in all major airports, except in some tricky mountainous regions, where special training is required. In clear weather at SFO, there was no reason to worry that he’d never landed a 777 there before. It is more of a concern (although not usually a worry) that he was relatively new on the aircraft type.
There are loads more things I could cover, and I intend to, as time allows. Post a comment if there’s anything in particular you’d like answered.
And if you’d like me to contribute to your programme, newspaper or website about something aviation related, do get in touch… I’m always ready to be the voice of reason.