USA TODAY—Unfit to Write?

June 18, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg
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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“Get your facts first, then distort them as much as you like.” So said Mark Twain. But sometimes a reporter distorts a crusade in search of something nefarious that just isn’t there or is a small part of the whole truth.

USA Today reporter Thomas Frank in a recent article interviewed families of general aviation aircraft accident victims and took carefully edited video clips to create a “compelling must-view” narrative on how unsafe GA flight is. The premise is that GA poses a huge threat that hasn’t improved over the years because manufacturers and the FAA have blocked safety improvements.

The aircraft or improper maintenance represents a small part of the accident picture, accounting for 10 to 25 percent depending on the year. Generally, it’s pilots who cause a crash. It’s the same, by the way, for all other forms of human-machine interaction. Mechanical faults—in cars, boats, motorcycles, and bathtubs—represent a very small proportion of accidents.

When Mr. Frank interviewed AOPA he asked about the accident rate and number of fatalities: They have dropped by 55% and 75%, respectively, over the last 40 years. It seems odd to exclude those salient facts from a balanced piece.

The Cessna seat slip problem, which might cause a pilot to lose control, was mentioned extensively. There was a design issue, but it was also very much a maintenance issue. In 30-year-old aircraft, or anything mechanical, parts (including seat tracks) wear out and they have to be maintained. If owners fail to heed guidance from the manufacturer on product changes and fixes even when warned in the direst of terms that it’s important, I fail to see how that is the company’s fault. In some cases an Airworthiness Directive is issued but there has to be solid statistical evidence, not isolated incidents.

Frank notes the 1994 General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA) as being inappropriately rammed through an unsuspecting Congress to protect manufacturers from product liability. The act says that plaintiffs cannot sue manufacturers for airframes or any installed parts once they are more than 18 years old. If an aircraft has been flying safely for nearly two decades it’s highly unlikely that a systemic design problem would remain undiscovered. I’m not aware of any personal transportation product that is held to a comparable standard or judged retroactively by new standards. GARA also does not protect manufacturers from withheld, concealed, or misrepresented information—that wasn’t noted.

Frank cites several anecdotes in his article. But somehow he misses one of the most egregious product liability cases of all time: In 1983, a 1970 Piper Super Cub, with a sailplane in tow, collided with a van driven onto the runway to block the takeoff. A crude (and illegal) camera mount replaced the Cub’s front seat and there were no installed rear-seat shoulder harnesses where the pilot sat. They were not required, although the pilot could have chosen to add them. The pilot suffered massive head injuries from the camera mount and Piper was sued for lack of non-required shoulder harnesses—you can read more in this case study.

Comparing a new 2012 Cessna Skyhawk to an early 1970’s vintage would see substantial improvements: Fuel injected engines to eliminate carb icing, re-engineered seat tracks, better door latches, a full annunciator panel, dual vacuum pumps, airbags, shoulder harnesses, etc. Somehow none of that made the cut either.

Using an automotive metaphor, if you drove a 1957 Chevy (a great year) there would be no seatbelts, no airbags, no crush zones, a solid metal dash instead of padded, etc. The public, the NTSB, the NHTSA, and presumably Mr. Frank would have no expectation of similar safety to a late model Chevy.

Likewise, comparing airline operations to GA is absurd. No one would think to compare the safety record of intercity busses to personal vehicles. Frank used NTSB former chair Debbie Hersman’s non-sequitur comparing GA operations to the airlines—I’m disappointed. She knows that’s jumbling the fruit basket.

NTSB investigations do sometimes leave something to be desired, and in some cases they don’t even send an investigator to the scene. But in many cases the investigation is spot on, but the probable cause findings are not allowed in court—merely a quirk in our justice system to let an unbiased third party present its findings?

The general aviation community takes safety very seriously, which is proven almost daily in print and online. The Air Safety Institute conducts 200 free safety seminars annually and has the largest GA safety website in the world. None of that was mentioned.

So, with apologies to the many responsible video journalists, writers, and editors who strive for accuracy, this particular writer and editorial team deserve three Pinocchio’s for deliberately distorting the facts. They don’t get four because there are a few truths contained in the story, but to finish with another Twain quote,“When in doubt tell the truth. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends.” I am neither confounded nor astounded. Perhaps we’re expecting too much from USA Today.

Bruce Landsberg
President, AOPA Foundation

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18 Responses to “USA TODAY—Unfit to Write?”

  1. Kevin Riley Says:

    Every 5 years or so some news organization comes out with w story like this. They rarely garner much attention and quickly blow away. It’s just terrible that some reporters think they need to do pieces like this to make a name for themselves. Sad really.

  2. Everett A Rockwood Says:

    Hmm. Taking on the GA manufacturers was probably overdue, considering the that some try to weasel out of manufacturing liability claims. However, pilots have the final of whether to fly or not. Pre-Flight inspections, annual and 100 hour, maintenance, engine and airframe advisories are all designed to keep the crate in the air. When the above are overlooked then the chances of disaster increase. I feel that the AOPA should ask for the sources of the data and rebut the claims if patently untrue or officially agree if true. (I am rooting for the claims being untrue.) USA Today must have vetted the data, or did they?

  3. Bruce Landsberg Says:

    Everette….

    Great question. When we were interviewed by Mr. Frank, we asked some of those questions. Specifically which cases, who at the FAA confirmed the data, etc. When we asked for sources or hard data – we were rebuffed.

    As I noted, the industry isn’t perfect – I can’t think of one who doesn’t have some responsibilities but GA is the most highly regulated and reviewed personal transportation system on the planet. It’s not perfect but it’s pretty good if people will exercise a modicum of judgment.

    There was so much information that we provided that should have given Mr. Franks pause but USA Today is more interested in selling space than accuracy

  4. Bruce Ziegler Says:

    A great rebuttal. I hope this blog entry, or similar document is sent to the USA Today as a Letter To The Editor. GA needs to make a strong, thoughful, factual response to the original article that hopefully is available to all their readers and not just the editorial staff.

  5. Avi Weiss Says:

    Hey Bruce;

    It is unfortunate that this is the perspective USA today and Mr Frank have chosen to take, but given USA Today’s publishing proclivities, this should not be wholly surprising. I have found there to be a significant difference in content quality production between JOURNALISTS and the media properties that employ them (WSJ, NYT, WP, etc), and REPORTERS and the properties that employ them (NYP, USA Today, Enquirer, etc).

    Bottom feeders like Frank aren’t interested in facts, balanced perspective, or even reporting a story per se. They are interested in DRAMA, and as such, angle stories and material they are provided to further enhance “the drama”, which in turns sells more papers. Nothing is more dramatic than innocent public “Davids” being “hurt and killed” by evil corporate and government henchmen “Goliaths”, and stories of innocent pilots flying “death traps” is a perfect vehicle to engender and enflame the fire that is “drama”.

    While it is counter-intuitive, I have learned from experience that the best tactic to employee with such troglodytes is actually NOT TO ENGAGE. If you don’t, at most they can say is “AOPA did not answer or request for comment”. But if you DO engage, then they can cherry-pick their way through the information you provide to put any spin they want on that material, often being diametrically opposed to what the actual information says, thus making the contributor an unwitting accomplice in the falsehoods and misrepresentations.

    Another tactic is to take out an ad in the USA Today presenting the rebuttal in a less personalized way to aim more squarely at the editors who allow such pap to pass as vetted content, which at least provides a direct forum for the facts to be seen, regardless if they are actually read or internalized.

    I’ll leave it to AOPA to decide the best course to take going forward.

  6. Avi Weiss Says:

    PS. This was in yesterdays HuffPo…http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeff-schweitzer/unfit-for-publication-how_b_5509253.html

  7. David Eberhardt Says:

    One of the reasons I enjoy flying so much is that the outcome of any flight is pretty much dependent on me fullflling my repsonsibilities to safely conduct the flight. I never worry about airplane or powerplant reliability ( I do a careful preflight). Flying might be the safest thing I do compared to all other activities including sleeping! I worry more about driving home from the airport or having some criminal attack my family or home. And Of course, the federal gov’t is a concern to me as well.

  8. Jon Kettles Says:

    THE “AOPA” response read like it was written by a lobbyist for aircraft manufacturers instead of a group supporting owners and pilots. Somehow the AOPA morphed from being the Aircraft OWNERS and PILOT Association to being the AMA (Aircraft MANUFACTURERS Association).

    The AOPA appears more concerned about the public perception of GA rather than cleaning up GA.

    Does the NTSB’s reliance on manufacturer reps and exclusion of pilot reps makes sense? Since NTSB conclusions are not admissible in court, what is wrong with allowing a pilot representative to participate in the investigation?

    The current NTSB process sure sounds like asking the fox to investigate a death at the henhouse.

  9. David Ringsmuth Says:

    If the “Thomas Frank” who wrote this article is the same person who used to write articles for the Wall Street Journal Opinion page, I was always disgusted with his articles. I notified the WSJ that I would cancel my subscription if they kept him. He seems to have disappeared from the WSJ.

    Those who cause strife and discord should be noted and excluded.

  10. Ivan Petrzelka Says:

    The terms “USA Today” and “journalism” should not be used in the same sentence. This piece is yet another example of meritless attacks on selected group or industry that lacks the basic elements of real journalism, i.e., truth and accuracy. Of course, accurate reporting was never the objective of USA Today and Mr. Frank.

  11. Barry Says:

    You have to admit there is some truth to the story as well. The fact that the grand father clause exists is crazy. And that the NTSB even allows a representative from a manufacturer at an accident scene is unbelievable. As with every story written, there is a tone with some truth. There is clearly work to do for sure. There needs to be less expense involved in the development of new designs for aircraft in order to promote newer aircraft designs and to lower the cost of the aircraft. Although I thing a skyhawk is probably one of the safest plane out there, and that lycoming engines are very much safe as well, the fact that they were designed in the 50′s is incredible. I think we need to promote the development of new products, not make the certification process so expensive that its easier to just grandfather something in. There are many things that don’t make sense to me about our current aircraft in regards to safety that I don’t understand.

    I would also like to know how the figures were calculated comparing GA to the boating and motorcycle fatalities? Are those 30% of boating and only 10% of motorcycle fatalities figured with hours of operation? Because there are clearly more hours of boating and motorcycling being done every year than ga hours. But those numbers are interesting none the less.

  12. Frank de la Puente Says:

    Bruce:

    When it comes to whining about shoddy journalism, I am on the same page as AOPA. Generally speaking, journalists don’t do the homework, they just sensationalize, distort, misinform and disinform. But, you have to avoid getting sucked into the sensationalizing by not characterizing statistics as you have done. For example, 10 – 15% is not a small proportion, nor a very small proportion, nor a very very small proportion: it is just 10-15%. Period. Don’t characterize, stick with the numbers.

    When you use words such as “substantial improvements” instead of just writing “improvements” and listing the improvements as you did, you are hyping just like journalists hype. Stay away from the hype. Do as Sgt. Friday would do, “just the facts, ma’am.” You’ll come off more credible in fending off shoddy journalism.

  13. Paul D. Young Says:

    Like TV network news which I stopped watching years ago, so-called mainstream (liberal) media rags like USA today were also dismissed from my reading library. I rely almost entirely on selected information outlets of the Internet and “conservative” talk radio. It should come as no surprise to anyone that a “reporter” (very loose term these days) would intentionally slant an article to support his/her preconceived conclusion before a single word is written. That’s not difficult to do, in fact it’s the easiest form of reporting (lying) that can be done. It’s become epidemic in journalism circles these days.

    The difficulty for such a reporter comes when confronted with the indisputable facts and trying to stick to his/her story. They usually can’t leaving the editor in a very precarious position of standing firm or caving and either firing the reporter (quietly if possible) or demoting him/her to sorting the mail and/or running the coffee mess, etc. It’s usually the former.

  14. Spider Says:

    I guess the settings on the carburetor that failed killing and maiming the victims, decided after 9 years of faithful service and hundred or thousands of hops, to adjust themselves on this tragic day.

  15. Bruce Landsberg Says:

    As noted in the blog , it was admitted there ARE some systemic problems that are not the pilot’s fault. The Part 23 rewrite is a core part of addressing a vast over-reach on the part of FAA on light aircraft certification and retro-fit. The perfect is the enemy of the good!

    I’ve been a leading proponent of AOA retrofit and a number of others for years. The GA Joint Steering Committee, which I co-chair with FAA, was instrumental in getting installation of AOAs reduced to a minor modification – and that’s only the beginning. It always takes longer than we would like.

    The NTSB’s GA investigative process is one-sided with no pilot representation. We just have to figure out the logistics and how to pay for it. Not insurmountable, but resources are in short supply in case you hadn’t noticed.

  16. BarfyJ Says:

    The Image, courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net, along with the thinly disguised vitriol, do not help Mr. Landsberg’s case or further his argument.

    The general aviation community would be better served by a calm, surgical, line by line comparison of Mr. Frank’s article with the facts and evidence. The reader will decide the truth.

    A very real issue is the mandate of the NTSB versus the mandate of the FAA. The NTSB has no teeth and the FAA has no requirement to follow NTSB recommendations. For comic relief, dig into the inter-agency correspondence over the Most Wanted List between the FAA and NTSB during the last 20 years. Their dysfunctional relationship is where the real story lies. Do not be fooled by the public faces.

    Both agencies are criminally understaffed and underfunded. Look at how many times the FAA Administrator has changed during the last 20 years and how many “acting” Administrators have warmed the seat. Few important initiatives can survive the game of musical chairs.

    Lacking appropriate technical expertise, the NTSB invites aircraft manufacturer representatives to accidents. Those reps cannot avoid directing the NTSB away from any evidence or relationship that puts their employers in a negative light; they are only human and need their jobs.

    The NTSB delegates almost all non-fatal accident investigations to the FAA, whose only responsibility is to ensure the FAA nine responsibilities were met; they are not charged with determining causal factors.

    The evidence will show that more than 70% of mishaps involving a human-machine interface are attributable to the fallibility of the human. Henry Petroski made an eloquent and entertaining case for this reality in his book, “To Engineer is Human.” We cannot escape the fact that a human designed it, a human built it and a human operated it.

    We need to stop using the term accident and shift our focus to investigating how the result did not meet expectations; how the event “mis-happened.”

  17. Cary Alburn Says:

    Years ago when I chaired the local airport board, I cultivated relationships with the local media. I toured them around the airport facilities, I took them for rides in my airplane, I showed them “the system” from our small perspective. At least from a local standpoint, it paid huge dividends. The reporting was accurate, and the free and frequent PR was valuable when it came time to persuade the City and County governments to do their annual transfusions.

    I also spent a lot of my own time, speaking at service clubs and other organizations, basically pushing the benefits of the airport and general aviation. When local business “leaders”, complained that the airport had no way for pilots to land if the weather was bad, reasoning that’s why no new businesses were relocating to town, I photographed an approach in my airplane and created a slide show to show that they were wrongly blaming the airport and should look elsewhere for something to blame for the lack of new blood in the business community.

    That’s fundamentally what AOPA, EAA, NBAA, and others should always do on a larger scale. Pointing fingers at journalistic excess only works for a short time, and it comes across as false. It’s better to counter it with the positives, admit the negatives, and most importantly, cultivate the necessary relationships so that yellow journalism is ignored by those who count.

  18. Bruce Landsberg Says:

    Cary…..

    Appreciate your thoughts and couldn’t agree more. AOPA Communications department spends many hours every month working on the cultivation aspect. Obviously we can’t get to everybody’s locale and that’s where the Airport Support Network and local pilots can help. We invite the national media to come flying with us and make every effort to let them see how the aviation system works. But we can’t do it alone.

    As noted above, we spent considerable time with Mr. Frank explaining why his statistics were either skewed or downright wrong. I’m sorry to say that it appears that his story was already written and there was nothing we could say to get him to explore a little farther into the data.

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