When the media attacks

There probably isn’t an airport in the world that didn’t get a visit or a phone call from its local newspaper or television station in the wake of the crash of an SR20 in New York City on Oct. 11.

The crash killed Yankee relief pitcher Cory Lidle, 34, and Tyler Stanger, 26, a flight instructor from California. They were flying in the VFR corridor over the East River and crashed into a 50-story luxury apartment building.

The first question raised was “is this another terrorist attack?” Even after it was determined that the crash was an accident, it remained a high-profile event. Testament to how high profile it was comes from the National Transportation Safety Board website (NTSB.gov), where the preliminary report notes that Lidle was the owner of the aircraft. In other preliminary reports, the name of the pilot is never mentioned. Not even the Kennedy crash in 1999 got this kind of attention.

Although your hometown may be thousands of miles from New York, the questions asked by reporters were probably the same: “How can it be legal to fly so close to buildings?” “Why weren’t they talking to a tower or on a flight plan?” “Why did the airplane crash?”

There was speculation among the aviation community as well. Was there a malfunction of the aircraft? Did they misjudge the winds? Was the aircraft in an accelerated stall?

While it may be tempting for some pilots to share their aviation expertise with local reporters — and get their 15 minutes of fame — this can backfire, especially when pilots start theorizing about the cause of the crash. To the non-aviation media, these pilots are experts. Whatever they say becomes gospel.

“The one thing that pilots should not do is speculate about the cause of a crash,” warns Chris Dancy, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. “AOPA’s policy is that we will not comment on a specific accident until the NTSB has at least released its factual report and possibly the final report. We discuss generalities only.”

After the Lidle crash, AOPA officials did talk about the fact that the East River corridor is primarily for helicopters, but is open to fixed wing aircraft. “We did not discuss the particulars of the accident,” he says. “Our position is that the NTSB and the FAA investigators are very good at doing their jobs and determining the probable cause of an accident. We need to let them do their jobs.”

On average it takes the NTSB 10 days to file a preliminary report. The investigation and final report with the probable cause can take 18 months or more (That’s why our Accident Reports in every issue feature accidents that occurred two years ago).

A LACK OF RULES?

One of the most damning aspects of the non-aviation media’s coverage of Lidle’s crash was the suggestion that the lack of a flight plan and the fact the plane was not in touch with a control tower played a part in the crash. To the aviation-challenged, this implies a lack of rules.

Headlines from around the world played to this sensational aspect, such as one from an Australian newspaper that proclaimed “Not terror but lack of rules terrifying.”

This kind of uninformed rhetoric is why it’s a good idea to educate the media before an accident happens, says Dancy.

Pilots, flight school owners and other aviation enthusiasts should contact reporters at their local TV and radio stations, as well as newspapers, before there is an accident or incident. Take them for a flight. Explain how GA operates safely out of non-towered airports.

But also realize that most media outlets do not have reporters assigned to an aviation beat. That means these reporters are scrambling to learn about a highly technical topic just hours before they are expected to pull a story together.

“We have found that a vast majority of reporters want to get the story right but have very little time to learn what they need to,” Dancy says. “The chances of a fair story go up tremendously if you educate them about general aviation ahead of time.”

Other tips to help them get it right:

• Be careful about whom you pick for your spokesperson. Stay away from emotional pilots and those prone to paranoia and conspiracy theories.

• Escort the media at all times when they visit your airport.

• If you do not have the expertise or the authority to answer their questions, politely explain this and walk away.

Meg Godlewski is a staff reporter and a Master CFI.

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