The Media’s Airplane Problem

The Latest Photo Blunder, and How Hollywood Gets it Wrong. Plus: Enough With the Aeronautics Professors!


This story ran originally in January, 2014

FEW THINGS mix more poorly than commercial flying and the mainstream media. Seldom is an aviation article free from some measure of distortion, exaggeration, or at times outright nonsense. If you caught my post on the AirAsia crash, you’re already aware of the pair of recent New York Times op-eds that couldn’t get it right. But that’s just for starters.

There are hardworking reporters out there who take the extra step to ensure their work is accurate, but they’re the exception. I’m not saying it’s an easy beat — aviation is a field brimming with jargon, stubborn mythology and recalcitrant sources (i.e. airline spokespeople), but sometimes it’s as if they’re not even trying. Especially when it comes to pictures. If only I had a dollar for every time an article or news segment was accompanied by incorrect or inappropriate photography. For instance a TV spot about a particular airplane type, or a particular airline, is accompanied by footage showing a totally different plane or a totally different carrier. Or newspaper article about Airbus shows a picture of a Boeing; an article about Boeing shows an Airbus. And so on.

Here’s one blooper that gets both the aircraft and the airline wrong. The story, carried last month by the Agence France-Presse (AFP), was about a US Airways Airbus A330 that diverted into Rome after several passengers became ill. Notice the caption. The problem is, that’s not an Airbus A330 and it’s not US Airways. It’s a much larger A380 in the colors of Qatar Airways. Not even the right continent.

AFP A380 photo

Have you ever noticed, too, how any and every time a flight diverts somewhere or returns to its airport of origin, be it for a mechanical problem, medical issue, or anything else, the event is described as “an emergency landing”?

In fact the vast majority of what are described as emergency landings are precautionary diversions or returns. Actual emergency landings are rare, and pilots do not employ the term nearly as loosely. The captain must specifically declare an emergency to air traffic control. Situations vary, but generally it pertains to a situation in which expedited air traffic control handling is requested, and/or aircraft status is uncertain. Even then, most emergencies aren’t anything close to the life-or-death scenarios many passengers (or reporters) are prone to imagining.

Another bad habit of reporters is describing virtually any portion of airport tarmac as a “runway.” Taxiways, terminal ramps, etc., are commonly called “runways,” when in fact they are not. I should hardly have to point this out, but a runway is a very specific thing with a very specific purpose: it’s that long and clearly defined strip of pavement that a plane takes off from and lands on.

And while I hate to pile on, allow me to pile on…

I also have a problem with the media’s reliance on aviation academics. It’s customary for reporters to cite aviation professors, aerospace researchers, etc., in their stories. I understand the temptation here, and with certain topics these individuals offer valuable insights. But what reporters don’t realize is that professors and researchers can be highly unfamiliar with the day-to-day operational aspects of commercial flying. This is not their expertise. If the topic is aerodynamics, meteorology, or something statistical, that’s one thing. But for anything that touches the nitty-gritty of airline operations and the SOPs of flying jetliners, academics are often terrible sources.

And we haven’t even gotten to Hollywood yet. Movies are the worst. The typical cockpit portrayal is beyond absurd, but half the time filmmakers can’t even get the basic stuff right. I love it when they show a regional jet when they mean to show a long-haul widebody plane. Or when two different models are pictured at different times, intended to be the same plane. For example a 737 is shown taking off. Minutes later we see footage of the same flight landing… except now it’s a 747. It’s just airplanes, nobody will notice, right? Except thousands of people do notice, and it’s baffling the way Hollywood will go to such extreme efforts and cost to get certain period details correct — automobiles, consumer products, clothing and haircuts — but it all goes out the window as soon as they get to the airport.

Movies we can forgive. The press, though, we hold to a higher standard.

Strange as it might sound, one of the better Hollywood takes was the old film “Airport ’75.” A 747 is struck near the flight deck in midair by a small propeller plane, and all three pilots are taken out (older 747s carried a third hand, the flight engineer). I almost hate to say it, but dangling Charlton Heston from a helicopter and dropping him through the hole in the fuselage wasn’t as far-fetched a solution as it might sound. It was about the only way that jumbo jet was getting onto the ground in fewer than a billion pieces. The scene where Karen Black, playing a flight attendant, coaxes the crippled jumbo over a mountain range was, if not entirely accurate from a technical standpoint, very realistic in demonstrating the difficulty any civilian would have pulling off even a simple maneuver.

I’ve always thought the best and most evocative Hollywood moments are those in which airplanes appear incidentally — as background characters, so to speak, rather than central to the story. In my book I cite the example of the Polish Tupolevs idling on the apron in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “Dekalog IV.” Best, though, is the old Convair jet that appears with Al Pacino in 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon.” One of my all-time favorite movies, its final scene unfolds at Kennedy Airport, where bankrobber Pacino is captured and handcuffed against a cop car, his accomplice shot through the head. In the background is a noisily idling jetliner, which Pacino thought would be his getaway plane. The plane is a Convair CV-990, a now-extinct, four-engine jet that was an uncommon sight even in the mid-70s. This peculiar rara avis is shown in the colors of Modern Air, a real life charter carrier at the time. (What a great name that was: Modern Air.)

Dog Day Afternoon was one of few major motion pictures to feature no music whatsoever. There’s no soundtrack, no backing score. Yet that closing scene is all about sound. Airplane sound. The earsplitting whine of the Convair’s early-generation engines, and the roar of unseen planes taking off.


Photo composite by the author.








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40 Responses to “The Media’s Airplane Problem”
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  1. Ben Marsh says:

    Thank you for your article, it was very interesting for me to read it! It seems to me that the media always inflate any events because they work for the audience and want to get more views. But I don’t like this approach, because I would like to receive only truthful information. I myself work as an aircraft design engineer and provide my services on the Engre platform. But some news negatively affects the results of my work and this is not fair.
    Read more about my work in the article:

  2. Planely Obsessed says:

    Yesterday there was a Qantas 747 that got caught in severe turbulence and the stick shaker activated. The Australian media went crazy over the “terrifying” event and ABC News broadcast a video about it. The plane in the video changes not once, not twice but FOUR times during the video (taxiing it’s a 747, taking off it’s an A380, at a gate it’s a 737, pushing back as an A330 and climbing out it’s a 767! They interview an “expert” who claims that using the autopilot is also the most common way to land a plane, when in reality more than 90% (not sure the exact percentage) are manual landings. Would be interested to know what the “expert’s” background is!

  3. Aisle075 says:

    Hi Patrick, nice to see you getting more and more comfortable with that “ugly” A380. I recently had a 12-hour flight in one in business class, and it was out of this world …

  4. Stephen R. Stapleton says:

    One of things I like about planes in the movies is how the plane seems to end at the curtain leading to economy class. Everything happens in First (and there doesn’t seem to be a Business class). Everyone, even the retired school teacher on a penny-pinching trip exotic Somewhereistan is in a big, comfy first class seat.

  5. Dan Ullman says:

    The Convair was part of the point. The movie was about a string of bad choices.

  6. Tony Killeen says:

    Much as I like Joni Mitchell, she was one of the first to get modern aviation wrong. The lyrics of “This Flight Tonight” include “Up go the flaps, down go the wheels” Now I’m a mere hobby pilot in a PA28, but I know that would never work, although the truth doesn’t scan the same.

  7. Greybeard says:

    The “expert” on tonight’s NBC news after the germanwings crash said it was “highly unusual” that the pilots didn’t call for help. Gee, you don’t suppose they were busy, you know, TRYING TO FLY THE ****ING PLANE?! I’ve never taken flight training, but even I know that much! The folks on the ground aren’t really going to be able to do much to help at that point…

  8. John Cavilia says:

    One of the charms of the “Airplane” spoofs is the way they play with these kinds of errors. I especially enjoy the shots of a jet airliner cruising, while the soundtrack plays the unmistakeable drone of piston engines and propellors.

  9. Edward Furey says:

    My favorite awful airplane scene is in “Princess O’Rourke” in which a princess played by Olivia de Havilland (of the airplane family) falls for pilot Robert Cummings. She boards a DC-3, then we see engines start on a Lockheed Electra (a shot borrowed from “Casablanca” in fact), and then a Boeing 247 takes off. By the way, many people thought “Roman Holiday” ripped off the plot “Princess.”

  10. Bewareofthevlaplayer says:

    Here in italy for newspapers ALL general aviation light airplanes with high wing are “Cessnas”… with low wing are “Pipers”


  12. Bewareofthevlaplayer says:

    About Hollywood movies, I know what you say… I have the passion of flight and I know airplanes, cockpits, manuals, procedures etc enough to hate so many movies!


    I am a MUSICIAN!!! Music is the other field of knowledge that is near always poorly treated: e.g. is so difficult to find a extra who can actually play?? terrible…

  13. Stephen Buxton says:

    It’s not all doom and gloom as far as depictions of aircraft and their opererations in fiction. The excellent comedy series BBC Radio 4 Cabin Pressure (now sadly concluded) was written by John Finnemore, who used his father (a retired commercial pilot) as aviation consultant. Yes, one or two liberties were taken, such as the occasional visit onto the flight deck by a passenger (although these were always commented on as being illegal under international terrorism law), but other than that, pretty plausible.

    For example, a bird strike occurs in one episode, taking out an engine. No panicking, no “OH MY GOD WE ARE GOING TO DIE!”, but straight into checklists. John Finnemore even wrote about it in his blog:

    The emergency drill when the goose strike happens is a little cut-down, but otherwise (I hope) accurate. In this bit:

    DOUGLAS: Engine fire check list number two engine Captain. Number two thrust lever?
    MARTIN: Yes.
    DOUGLAS: Closed. Number two fuel control switch?
    MARTIN: Yes, yes!
    DOUGLAS: Number two fuel control switch to cut off, number two fire handle check?
    MARTIN: Yes!

    … the meaning of Douglas’ questions is ‘Do you agree, Captain, that this thing I’ve got my hand on is the number two thrust lever; because if in the heat of the moment it turns out to be the number ONE thrust lever, then when I close it I’ll be shutting down our one remaining good engine, and that’s a decision we might possibly come to regret.’ And Martin’s replies mean ‘Yes, First Officer, that certainly looks like the number two thrust lever to me, so let me encourage you to pull it with no further ado. Seriously, as quick as you like.’

    I urge you all to check it out the programme, as it is hilarious and well written. And well researched, such as when he discovered that using a twin jet-engined aircraft to carry passengers who want to see polar bears would only be possible if flown in a manner not recommended by, well, anyone, he wrote it into the script as a plot point and used it to drive the plot to a brilliant conclusion.

    Honestly, this didn’t mean to come out as an advert; I just love the comedy so much!

  14. Dan Ullman says:

    In defense of the journalist when a picture is concerned. Whoever wrote the story does not have any control over the picture used, that comes from a different editor. The writer could be spot on but the fellow who selects the picture isn’t. What you are asking for here is that media outlets hire photo editors who are specialist in aircraft identification on the off chance that there is plane that goes down. Every industry has the same bitch.

    CNN and the like simply sucks. They have forever.

  15. Paul says:

    Good to know I’m not the only person bothered by the amazing movie and TV airplanes that can morph into a different model while they’re in flight! Maybe the aircraft are made of the same material that the villian robot in “Terminator 2”, and they get bored in flight. 🙂

    I’m a big fan of the reality TV show “The Amazing Race”, and the amazing morping airplanes are a constant peeve when I watch the show. Sometimes the plane changes not only models but airlines! Sad thing is that they don’t seem to be using stock footage – my guess is that the producers have film crews at teh airports contestants fly into and out of, and they’re probably told by the producers to get shots of airplanes taking off and landing, and the footage is chosen with no regard for continuity.

  16. nianbo says:

    hey patrick, what planes have you flown as a pilot?

  17. Michael says:

    In the summer of 1970 a had a memorable flight on a Modern Airliner.

    After being basically trained, 198 of us were sent to Infantry Training at Ft. Ord, CA. The Drill Sergeant, who had made the last eight weeks so much fun, told us we would be flying on a modern airplane. It was his way of telling us we would not cross the country in the web seats of a C-130. At the airport our buses pulled up to a 707 with “Modern Airlines” painted down the fuselage.

    At the time the aircraft model was the least of our worries.

  18. Eirik says:

    You see this all over the place, the media always exaggerate or just get it wrong. Not too long ago, an Airbus 320 had an issue with its landing gear and was circling outside Oslo, Norway, to get rid of fuel.
    The (Norwegian) media finally got some “breaking news” and to people unfamiliar with aviation, I bet it sounded like the plane could crash any second.

    A young female reporter from the biggest newspaper in Norway was at the airport for live reports. It was pretty clear from the second she opened her mouth that she had no clue about airplanes or anything regarding aviation. It got even more obvious when she referred to the plane as “an Avinor plane”. In the US, that would be the same as saying “a FAA plane”.
    Not that it matters, but the plane was not even from a Norwegian carrier, so to call it an Avinor plane was a double mistake.
    To her defense, it was a plane from a Swedish company, called Novair.
    Avinor, Novair…maybe she got it mixed up in the heat of the moment.

    Why do the media mess it up all the time? Besides their obvious lack of knowledge, they always want to be the first to bring us the “breaking news”, and to verify the information and double check the facts is not on the top of their list. Luckily, there are not too many “emergency” landings and accidents these days, so when it happens it is pretty sensational.
    And whats better for the media than to talk about sensations? Never mind the information is not accurate, lets get the story out there.

  19. Randall says:

    Patrick, please forgive my nitpicky question. Re Airport ’75, you said, “all three pilots.” Should that be “aircrew”, “flight crew” or something similar? Or were flight engineers commonly pilots?

    Please clarify. You stress precise use of language – just ask the copilot, er… first officer. 😉

    Keep up the good work.

  20. Max says:

    > And we haven’t even gotten to Hollywood yet. Movies are the worst.

    With the exception of the Disney’s Planes movies. Sure you had to make some leaps, such as accepting that a crop duster can cross an ocean, survive a catapult takeoff, and compete with racing planes. But, once you accept that conceit, the attention to detail was really incredible. I especially liked the scene in Fire and Rescue when the ARFF truck (FAA inspector) shuts down the airport and cite the actual FAR that they were in violation of.

    • not an anon says:

      > With the exception of the Disney’s Planes movies. Sure you had to > make some leaps, such as accepting that a crop duster can cross an > ocean, survive a catapult takeoff, and compete with racing planes. > But, once you accept that conceit, the attention to detail was
      > really incredible. I especially liked the scene in Fire and Rescue > when the ARFF truck (FAA inspector) shuts down the airport and
      > cite the actual FAR that they were in violation of.

      I find it interesting you consider the thought of a cropduster crossing an ocean a conceit, Max — ferry pilots don’t think twice about it. The catapult launch isn’t too far-fetched either — you’d need to reuse some tricks from the WWII era in order to get a taildragger hooked up to a catapult, but ag aircraft are built quite robustly to the point where some have been militarized into CAS aircraft with the addition of armor, hardpoints, and basic aiming systems.

  21. David B says:

    I can’t find the URL, but was amused to see an article on a newspaper’s web site this week on Air Asia QZ8501 showing the iconic photo of the vertical stabilizer of Air France AF447 floating in the water. Gotta put some eye candy on the page and rush the story out, even if it’s the wrong incident, airline, plane, ocean….

  22. Kevin B says:

    I won’t add to the the comments about media/movies getting things wrong because its all been said, but emergency landings, I will. I like to sit at the exit rows and always get a chuckle out of saying I have been in 6 emergency landings in my life, it freaks people out – but I add “I’m good luck, I’m still here” – BTW, Im not a pilot. I qualify the term saying I didn’t know if the pilots declared an emergency, but they did have police, fire and ambulances ready and waiting by the ” (no sense explaining to the public taxiway, tarmac, etc). My very first American Airlines flight (I have now been on 665 AA fits alone) we made an “emergency” landing en-route due to hydraulics leaking – but at least it was a 727 that had a mechanical flight control back-up, and was likely not all the systems.

    If any of these 6 had happened today Im sure my flights would have been national news. The other AA “emergency” was into PSP were we didn’t get a green light on the nose gear, had to dump fuel for 45 mins, “the equipment” was waiting, the nose gear did not collapse, and we were towed in. I was the first off the plane and a local TV station reporter stuck a mic and camera in my face asking how scary it must have been-I replied “American did a good job of getting us down safely” – he immediately turned away from me to ask someone else, no doubt hoping to get a person whose life passed in front of their eyes and who wrote a good-bye note to his by now traumatized loved ones. I have a picture in the Palm Springs paper from the day after, saying we were lucky that the gear didn’t collapse as it was not locked in place. Do you think that reporter actually knew that it wasn’t locked in place?

    I have been in many more REAL close calls and dangerous situations in cars. Give me a plane with an “emergency” landing any day.

    Keep up the good work, Patrick-It won’t be easy.

  23. Eric Auxier says:

    An enjoyable treatise on a sore subject for all us pilot types!

    CNN has made such a buffoon of itself this year regarding MH370 et al, that they have become the laughing stock of the industry. “Oh, there’s a plane crash? Let’s tune in CNN for some guffaws!”

    How ironic that, to me, the most “accurate” Hollywood movie regarding airline flying remains..”Airplane!” 40 years later, those lines are still quoted in cockpits worldwide!

  24. Chris Elberfeld says:

    Another spot on article, Patrick! Media (and movie) inaccuracy about avition is major peeve for me. Not to nitpick, but the article mentioned “U.S. Airways”; there are no periods in the carrier”s name.

    Keep up the great work!


  25. Roger Wolff says:

    You should watch the video where Neil deGrasse Tyson tells the story about him getting worked up about the sky portrayed in Titanic. That happened with Spielberg sitting at the table, apparently not interested… A few years later he gets a call from someone working on the sky in a new movie needing to get the sky right… Spielberg remembered…

    Lets hope that someone “in power” notices you getting worked up about these details. Sometimes it helps… eventually.

  26. Jon says:

    Some of the newspaper coverage of the emergency landing that a Virgin Atlantic plane (VS43) had to make at London Gatwick last week was a bit over the top.

    The plane had a problem with it’s landing gear after taking off, so it circled around for a bit and then returned to Gatwick to land (I think it’s fair that they did call this an emergency landing as there were fire engines sent out to receive the plane).

    I happened to be watching the news when the plane came in to land. It looked like there was a bit of a bump, but other than that it seems quite normal.

    I was quite surprised to see the front page of the newspapers the next day to see photographs of flames/sparks coming out of the wheels as it touched down. Live on TV, I didn’t see any of this, they must have caught a freeze frame from 1/100th of a second, and/or exaggerated the colours to make it more dramatic.

  27. Ethan says:

    Patrick – Just fyi. AFP is Agence France-Presse, a Paris based wire service. It obviously does not excuse the caption, which should have been corrected. Most likely it was done by an editor pushing out copy, trying to use a “generic” plane photo to illustrate the story. The original caption for the photo, as it was moved on the wires, is correct (it reads: Caption:Qatar Airways takes delivery of its first Airbus A380 on September 18, 2014, at Hamad International Airport in Doha. Qatar Airways expected to take delivery of the super-jumbo in May but the order has been delayed. AFP PHOTO / FAISAL AL-TAMIMI (Photo credit should read FAISAL AL-TAMIMI/AFP/Getty Images))
    That doesn’t excuse the error but at least the caption was correct the first time.

  28. Julia says:

    It’s not just aviation that the media gets wrong. I’m a scientist and I can say that they do a terrible job of relaying what’s going on in research to the general public. Also Hollywood does a terrible job at getting basic science right sometimes. Shows like CSI are absolutely terrible for that but I have strayed off topic here. Going back to the original subject I don’t understand why you never see airline pilots interviewed when something like a crash happens. Wouldn’t they be an excellent source of information as they fly these aircraft day in and day out?

  29. John LM says:

    Yep. One of the worst yet concerning QZ8501 is that of a Indonesian meteorologist claiming with almost certainty that icing of the engines is the probabable cause of the crash. How he came to this conclusion was not explained except to say that the plane flew into an extraordinary patch of weather. It’s his opinion and he has a right to it like every other armchair jockey out there, but the proliferation of his statement in the media is baffling. It spreads like unchecked wildfire. Regarding the photo i sometimes wonder if media outlets cheap out and use any plane that they previously paid and have clearances for. I imagine a couple months prior they ran a story on Qatar Airways first A380 delivery and the photo they used was an open license allowing them to place anywhere. Whatever the excuse it’s pretty egregious.

    As far as Hollywood I find it fun looking for all the inconsistencies. You could tell in the 80s and 90s directors wanted to use 747s even if the scene was a trip from LA to Las Vegas because it was probably more impressive on screen.
    I just watched Airport and Airport 77 and felt the plot aside the aviation aspect seemed well thought out. They even used the mechanical checklist switches on the AA 747 used for the film.

  30. John says:

    The culprit in a lot of the issues with movies/tv is stock footage. You’d be crazy to go to the expense and get the permits to go to an airport to film ten seconds of a plane taking off or landing.

    One I ran into recently, while re-watching the original Hawaii 5-0. Over the run of the series McGarrett had two cars, both black Mercury sedans, but one was at least five years newer. But they had all that footage in the can of him driving around Honolulu, so in later years he would often get in the newer car, drive around in the older car, and then arrive at his destination in the new car.

    The best blooper that I saw on that show was kind of aviation-related. McGarrett is standing in front of sliding glass doors to a balcony, in a highrise hotel room or condo with an oceanfront view. The only problem with the tropical scene is that over his shoulder, in the distance, in the brilliant sky, is a helicopter, frozen in time and space. The blades are not turning.

    Why rent an expensive room when you can use a backdrop in a studio. But couldn’t they find one without a helicopter frozen in time? Likewise, can’t they find stock footage of the right airplanes taking off and landing?

  31. Andy says:

    This reminded me of the first news article I came across on QZ 8501, which stated the then-missing aircraft as a A380-200. :: sigh ::

  32. Eric_G says:

    You’re learning. The media gets everything wrong, not just flight. Any time you hear a story on a subject you’re vaguely familiar with you’ll pick up on obvious errors. About the only thing that can be trusted is the sports scores, but that’s only because there’s money on the line.

    • TJ says:

      And not even the sports can be trusted. Many years ago, my alma mater won an bowl game and the newspaper credited the win to another team in the state. I called the sports desk to correct them and the response was, “Whatever.”

      I’m a mechanical engineer and the number to technical (physics, engineering) things the media gets wrong is astonishing. A few years ago, the paper ran a story about a guy who claimed to have found an unlimited supply of energy. Did they ask an expert in physics or engineering whether it was possible? No, but they did ask his neighbor who said, “I don’t see why it won’t work.”

      • Richard H says:

        Perpetual motion machines are one of the few things patent offices reject out of hand. A member of my family worked at a patent office and they take it in turns to be assigned as the one who rejects them – they get that many.

  33. Roger says:

    It is also amusing when the inside of the planes doesn’t match the outside (eg twin aisle inside, 737 or smaller outside). Or you get 747s making short domestic trips (eg SFO to LAX), and tiny planes making long ones (eg 737 doing LAX to Asia).

    I work in computers and the same problems with news and Hollywood are there too. I’m sure the same happens across other professions (eg medicine, law, oil rigs).

    People working for companies generally aren’t allowed to speak externally, and those that are follow very specific rules especially due to legal, liability, financial etc rules. That is why the talking heads in the media are academics or work independently.

    IT figured out the media a while ago. Journalists generally don’t go to extra effort unless they have to. The solution is to put out your own report suitable for the media. Then they just put their name at the top and delete any paragraphs for length.

    Try finding out about this flight from the AA/USAirways sites, in the mindset of a journalist. There *nothing* on either site, forcing you to write the whole story plus someone having to attach stock images/video. They won’t be paid much.

  34. Glenn says:

    Oh, the film makers get lots of other things wrong. Car buffs know that there are always period-incorrect cars parked on the side of the road, or even a major part of the action. Car chases are ludicrous. The same cars at intersections, for instance. Remember the 5 hubcaps lost by the Dodge Charger in Bullitt?

    Another thing that bugs me is how they will portray an orchestra conductor lazily waving his arms, not even in time with, well, any music. What, no real conductors were available? They only charge scale, for Pete’s sake!

    There’s more, but…..