Choose Your Words Carefully

Your public response to high profile accidents has an impact.

Whether it involves a national TV news reporter or simply a friend looking for fast answers, all of us pilots become designated experts when a high profile accident occurs. And we need to recognize some priorities. Today's news "industry" is extremely competitive, and there is a strong motivation to seek out headlines and quotes that jump off the front page; or the home page of a Web news source. If you can't grab the readers' attention, you're not going to record 'clicks' to your stories. And for better or worse, writers are judged, and promoted, by how many people read their stuff. (Present company included.)

As pilots, we are wrapped in a unique culture of safety. That's good and bad. Good because we subject ourselves, other pilots and our entire industry to constant review. Bad when we are publicly critical of issues that are not readily understood by those not familiar with what it takes to fly a light airplane safely. When we relate a relatively minor lapse in judgment -- say, forgetting to close the cowl flaps in cruise (my favorite gaffe), it might sound as though the flight was seconds from a violent, sudden end.

A neighbor of mine is a long-time helicopter reporter for a New York television station. He's also heavily involved in issues of operating within the complex airspace surrounding Manhattan. When I spoke with him about the Hudson River collision, he had just been on the phone with a reporter for a national news agency, and he told me, "They were pressing for anything I would say that would lead to a smoking gun." I'm confident that my neighbor was measured and correct in his off-the-record conversation. And his professionalism and influence was an important element in the accuracy of his own station's marathon coverage of the tragedy. But even with that, the on-air reports were spiked with innuendo that played heavily to shock value. Reporters led with terminology such as, "The airspace has been called, 'chaotic' and 'an accident waiting to happen.'" Reporters paused to stretch out provocative sounding words such as "uncontrolled" and; [the pilot may have] -- "strayed" -- into the -- "exclusion zone" (an ominous sounding term used to describe the VFR corridor, to distinguish it from the surrounding Class B airspace). When a local politician publicly referred to the VFR corridor as "the Wild West," the cameras were rolling. It's why he said it.

While we can be justifiably angry over this political opportunism and news sensationalism, we really should expect it. Like it or not, it's how they do their jobs. What we should all do, as pilots, is to choose our words carefully when we respond to questions about highly emotional events such as this one. And it extends to our responses to colleagues around the water cooler, friends and family as well. Consider their next conversation on the topic: "[Your name here] is a pilot, and he said, [fill in the blank]." They will repeat your most extreme words as if it were a matter of record.

A more public case in point is the colleague of the accident helicopter pilot who told a reporter the fixed-wing airplane looked "like a missile." It's understandable that a friend of a victim would respond to a reporter with some emotion -- especially if his words only a small part of an extensive interview, and perhaps taken out of context. But those unfortunate words became a headline.

We're all passionate about flying, and we all have strong opinions and feelings. But we need to think carefully about how we express those opinions -- and to whom. Few non-pilots understand exactly what we do, and most are inclined to believe flying "small planes" is risky, at best. Let's be sure we don't inadvertently render their misperceptions that much worse.

Call to action: If you have any tips of your own you'd like to share, or have any questions about flying technique you'd like answered, send me a note at enewsletter@flyingmagazine.com. We'd love to hear from you.