For better or worse, mostly worse, we live in a world today where many people take every snippet of news to extremes. Much of this is driven by the 24 hour news cycle, and the obsessive need of every media outlet to be the first to break any news that might be even remotely relevant without checking for confirmation, or even the facts. Sensationalism is the name of the game in the media these days, and it is causing many problems that really should not be issues at all.
There may be no sector of the world where this is more true than aviation. Some of this comes from the relative ignorance of the public, the potential for major tragedies in flight, and the complex nature of what we do. Unfortunately, many media outlets don’t even take the time to find real experts to support their stories, because, let’s be honest, the truth wouldn’t sell nearly as well as the sensationalism they opt to offer. Instead they prefer to scare the public into thinking a situation is worse than it actually is. That is exactly what happened with two recent emergencies that garnered a fair amount of attention.
The first was the engine fire of British Airways Flight 2276 in Las Vegas. In short, there was an engine fire on the ground that caused the crew to abort their departure, and evacuate the aircraft. They did a beautiful job of getting everyone to safety, and the aircraft was taken care of about as well as could be expected.
In this instance much of the extremism came from Twitter and other social media outlets where people completely shredded passengers who had taken their bags with them while evacuating. While I agree that it was not the smartest move by these passengers, they certainly do not deserve much of the vitriol that has been thrown at them from the masses. Rather than explaining further I would direct you to a piece written on the Airline Reporter website that does a far better job of conveying my feelings than I probably could. Again, taking your bag in an evacuation is generally not the best idea, but there are certainly scenarios I could see that taking your bag could be justified, and you never know how you will respond in an emergency.
The second emergency that took place recently was the in-flight death of an American Airlines pilot. While this is a terribly sad situation, the plane and the rest of the people on board were in no real danger just because one of the pilots was incapacitated. For some reason the media is making a huge deal about the “co-pilot” having to land the plane by himself. This is where ignorance and aviation colloquialisms come into play. Again, I have been beaten to the punch by a much more qualified expert than myself so I would direct you to the writings of Cap’n Eric Auxier who very clearly and simply explains how the media has screwed up the reporting on this story.
Now I didn’t write this post just to direct you to other writers and their opinions, I have a point of my own to make.
As I alluded to in the title, there is no such thing as black and white in an emergency, nor do any of us know how we will respond in an actual emergency. Because every emergency is incredibly unique there are always variables that will tweak the response of those involved. The interesting thing about many of the extreme responses to this story is that not a single person I have seen respond has ever been in an actual emergency themselves. They are surely out there, but I have not come across them.
In the military, as well as with the airlines, there are very clearly delineated emergency procedures and how to respond to them. We refer to the first few steps of some of these emergency procedures as boldface in the military because they are written in bold and all capitals in our regulations. All of these steps must be memorized because they are so important that there is no time to go looking through books for the procedure that you are supposed to follow. Even with that being said, there are still situations where the best decision is to hold off on the boldface steps to return the plane, and its crew, safely home.
During my time in the C-130 I have been on board a handful of times when we had to shut down an engine, or perform some other emergency procedure. Admittedly, shutting down one engine when you have three other good ones is not nearly as stressful as shutting down one of only two engines, but it is an uncomfortable situation nonetheless. While each of these emergencies called for the same procedure to shut down an engine, not one of them was carried out in exactly the same way.
There is no black and white in an emergency, there is only an opportunity for a well-trained crew to make educated decisions that will ultimately lead to a safe outcome. The safety record of the vast majority of aviation is a credit to the crews that have been well-prepared and have prevented many of these potential emergencies, and when they do happen, they have been mostly well handled saving many people a lot of heartache. It is easy for armchair quarterbacks to question the decisions from the ground in the safety of their homes sitting behind their computer, but until you have been in an emergency you really have little room to talk.
Emergencies exist in every part of life in one way or another. No matter how hard you try to prevent them they will eventually happen because that is just part of living. We can mitigate them, and we can prepare like crazy so that we can respond appropriately when they do happen, but no matter how well we prepare we can never know how we will respond until an actual emergency is placed before us.
It is also important to keep faith in the pilots that safely transport us all over the world everyday. If you don’t understand the terms we use in aviation and you are worried about what you hear on the news, ask someone who actually works in aviation and they can explain it better than the media.
The term co-pilot is merely in reference to the person sitting in the right seat of the flight deck. It is incredibly common for us to fly with the most experienced pilot in the right seat, so that the less experienced pilot can gain experience in the left seat. The reality is that no matter who is sitting in which seat, they are both qualified pilots that are perfectly capable of getting the plane safely to its destination.
So the next time the media or social media try to tell you that an emergency situation was handled wrong, or that someone in particular is at fault, take the time to do a little extra research and gather some more information. The real information is out there if you will only take the time to find it. No matter what you do find, never forget that no emergency situation is ever totally black and white.