USA Today Gets an F on Aviation Reporting

Journalist Thomas Frank chose a worthy topic by focusing on general aviation safety in his recent series of articles, but his reporting, sadly, misses the mark.



In 2012, USA Today reporter Thomas Frank was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He didn't win. Maybe coming so close to claiming journalism's top accolade and missing out ate at him. And so he set his sights on a tantalizing new subject – the miserable safety record of little airplanes – that could finally win him the recognition he so richly deserves.

As a 20-year journalist, normally I would never comment publicly on the work of another reporter. But Mr. Frank chose as a topic for his special report "Unfit for Flight" my area of expertise. With his high-profile series of articles he denigrates pilots, accident investigators, aircraft manufacturers and, in a way, aviation journalists, too.

After all, we in the aviation press should have realized a crisis of such epic magnitude exists. By failing to report on these flying "death traps," we at Flying magazine deserve some of the blame for the "decades of manufacturing cover ups" that USA Today's projects reporter claims to have exposed.

In other words, Mr. Frank picked this fight, not me.

If I were a journalism professor assigning my class a “long form” writing assignment and Mr. Frank turned in “Unfit for Flight” at the end of the semester, I’d give him a C- for effort and an F for accuracy and fairness.

The article series is unnecessarily sensationalistic. It crosses the line into what in the business used to be called “Yellow Journalism” – articles that lack much legitimate news and are backed by shocking headlines and graphics meant to grab readers’ attention.

The reporting, unsurprisingly, is riddled with errors and distortions. I’ll focus on just one example out of many, because it has to do with a crash investigation I have followed closely.

In the article, under a heading with the sensationalist title “What Is a Human Life Worth?” Mr. Frank writes:

“On Thanksgiving eve in 2011, Russel Hardy had no warning of the sheer cliff ahead of him as he flew a Rockwell Aero Commander in the darkness toward Arizona's Superstition Mountains. The airplane owner had removed one seat belt to avoid installing a warning system, investigators found, although the NTSB said the change had not been properly approved.”

The crash into the mountain, in which the pilot, a mechanic and a father and his three young children were tragically killed, supposedly highlights the NTSB’s flawed logic of blaming pilot error for most accidents and the FAA's malfeasance for providing loopholes in safety regulations – in this case the requirement that turbine-powered airplanes with six or more passenger seats carry terrain warning systems.

What Mr. Frank failed to say – possibly out of ignorance of the specifics of the crash, as reported by the NTSB – is this:

1. The father who was killed was also a pilot and co-owner of the airplane who was well aware of the FAA's TAWS requirements.

2. Pilot Russel Hardy should have been looking at the sectional chart on his iPad as he maneuvered at low altitude on a dark night flying VFR near mountains.

3. That the seatbelt which was removed to skirt the TAWS rule was done illegally without FAA approval.

4. That the FAA redesigned the airspace in the area of the crash to put the floor of the Phoenix Class B airspace very close to the mountain the Aero Commander hit.

5. Even lacking proper pre-flight planning on the part of the pilot and a terrain warning system as required by regulation, what could have broken the accident chain (as pointed out in Flying last month in an article by Peter Garrison) would have been the common-sense placement of a flashing red beacon light atop that threatening mountain.

Had Mr. Frank included details such as these in his article, we would be applauding him today and possibly congratulating him in the future for his Pulitzer. It’s unfortunate, because he actually chose a subject matter that is worth having an open and honest discussion about, yet he fell short by leaving out key details and getting the facts wrong.

As I noted earlier, there are many other problems with this article. If you're intereted, former White House senior policy analyst and ATP-rated pilot Jeff Schweitzer gives a good summation over at the Huffington Post.