Nonsense from the New York Times

August 6, 2013

Did the Gray Lady not learn its lesson after the Noah Gallagher Shannon debacle?

Now comes a story in the Times‘s “Frequent Flier” column, in which reporter Joan Raymond recounts a tale from business traveler Greg Hill. Hill gives us the following….

We were supposed to be flying into Midway International and the pilot’s approach was long and slow. As we were coming in for the landing, not more than 1,000 feet off the ground, the pilot made a sharp turn to the right. The turn was so tight that he seemed to bank at a 90-degree angle. I had the window seat and was looking straight down at the ground. I could hear alarm bells going off in the cockpit. Just as I was convinced we were going to flip over on our back like a turtle, and any turtle can tell you that is not a good thing, the plane went into another 90-degree turn. But this time, it was to the left. I looked out the window again and I saw stars. It seemed the pilot confused Chicago O’Hare with Chicago Midway and was landing at the wrong airport. At the last minute either he or the control tower realized the problem and he tried to correct his mistake. When we finally did land at Midway, the pilot bolted off the plane. I have never seen anyone move that fast. I haven’t flown on that particular airline since.

I cannot say for certain why Greg Hill’s airplane may have made a pair of sharp turns on its approach to Midway, or why its approach was “long and slow.” There are several possibilities, none of which are terribly exciting: spacing vectors, for instance, or a last-minute runway change And as several emailers have pointed out, the circle-to-land approach to Midway’s runway 22L typically includes a series of low-altitude turns. This is normal, if potentially unsettling to some passengers. (The “Expressway Visual” to runway 31 at La Guardia is a similarly action-packed, and perfectly routine arrival pattern.) Hill says he hasn’t flown this airline since. That’s rich: avoiding an airline because its pilots did exactly what they were supposed to do.

Whatever was going on, I am relatively certain that the crew mixing up O’Hare and Midway airports was not it. Hill’s clever disclaimer here is the phrase, “it seemed,” which, despite his having no idea what actually happened, grants him license to indict an airline crew for making a stupid mistake.

As for those “alarm bells,” that could have been the autopilot disconnect alert, or a simple trim-in-motion alert, neither of which means anything unsafe or unusual.

And don’t get me started on Hill’s use of the term, “the pilot.” How many times have we been through this? There would have been at least two fully qualified pilots in the cockpit, either of whom, captain or first officer, may have been at the controls. And the notion that one of these pilots went dashing off the plane in a fit of embarrassment is too silly to entertain. (If one of the pilots did exit quickly, more likely it was because he was trying to catch a commuter flight home.)

I can also assure you that the angle of bank was nowhere remotely close to 90 degrees. This gets into something I call PEF or Passenger Embellishment Factor, the tendency for people to grossly exaggerate the sensations of flight (there’s more about PEF in chapter two of my book). A commercial airliner will almost never bank at more than about 25 degrees. That doesn’t sound like much, but a 25-degree turn appears awfully steep to the typical passenger, just the way a 20-degree climb or a five-degree nose-down descent appears much steeper (yes, five degrees is a fairly sharp descent angle). In a 60 degree bank, never mind 90 degrees, the G-forces would be so powerful that a passenger would barely be able to lift his or her feet from the floor.

Over and over we see this in the media: when it comes to flying, anything goes, no matter how ignorant, untrue, or ill-informed. Call me uptight, but it angers me that passengers are routinely taken at their word. In this case, Greg Hill clearly knows nothing about flying, yet the most prestigious newspaper in the world will go ahead and print an account in which, despite having no credible evidence, he accuses airline pilots of being lost and making reckless maneuvers. He couches it with the likes of “it seemed,” and surely the paper will say that his subjective observations are just that, and fair game. (For the record, I’m not a Times-basher the way some people are; if I didn’t think so highly of the paper to begin with, I wouldn’t be so offended.) But of course this story will be quoted and passed along as fact. And it’s precisely this kind of thing that helps perpetuate the many myths and fallacies of commercial air travel.


Related story: A Flight of Fancy


Composite artwork by Patrick Smith
Photo of Greg Hill by Ian Gutzmer for the New York Times


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52 Responses to “Nonsense from the New York Times”
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  1. Geoff G. says:

    I few weeks ago I flew from YAZ to YVR on an Orca Air Piper Navajo Chieftain. As we came into YVR we were heading north, perpendicular to 26L. Two women facing me were chatting, oblivious to our approach as I leaned over to my colleague and said “Hold on, this is going to be fun!” We then suddenly banked into what appeared to be a hard left turn, lined up to the west, slid into traffic, and landed. Perfectly safe, of course but the women let our squeals as we suddenly turned. I can only imagine what they would have written had they been writers for the New York Times.

  2. Ross Aimer says:

    Patrick and a few readers correctly point out that some airports require more than your usual stick and rudder to navigate in and out of.
    This is normally because of topography, noise, wind, congestion or weather conditions. The “Checkerboard” approach into the old Hong Kong Airport in the monsoon season was even scary for the pilots doing them, let alone their passengers! I may have snagged a few pieces of laundry myself, from the roof tops of Kowloon with the HF Antenna of my 747! 🙂

    Living creatures measure movement and imbalance in space by their inner ears, eyes and sensation of G forces. Unfortunately those senses are not exact science and therefore the need for aircraft instrumentation. The passenger in 4C may have all the sensations but he does not have the instruments in front of him that the pilot has.
    This is where Patrick’s “PEF” theory makes perfect sense!

    I also understand the frustration of my fellow professional pilots with the folks trying to fly their aircraft from 4C with Microsoft Flight Simulator or a PPL. My advice is to laugh it off and don’t let that ruin your day.

    Capt. Ross “Rusty” Aimer
    (UAL Ret.)
    CEO, Aero Consulting Experts
    Los Angeles

  3. Johnny Panic says:

    I suppose I can forgive the author a little bit for the disconcerting low turns thing -In August of 2004, I was on an Icelandair 757 coming in on final to JFK, and I noticed that, when we seemed to be at about 1000 feet, the airport was to the right of the aircraft. As we were about to land, the plane took what seemed (to this -at the time- somewhat unexperienced and mildly fearful flier), a sharp right. It was so sharp and what I thought was so low, that I thought the wingtips were going to take out chimneys skim the tops of the pools in the Queens backyards that we were flying over. I joked to my seatmate something about being glad that the pilots knew exactly what they were doing, and looked over at some of the other passengers and flight attendants, who didn’t seem bothered at all. On my way out of the airport, I saw the line of flights coming in on the same pattern, doing the same turn, but at much higher than it looked from up there, and no, the wings came nowhere skimming the surfaces of the swimming pools below.

  4. Carole says:

    And don’t get me started on Hill’s use of the term, “the pilot.” How many times have we been through this? There would have been at least two fully qualified pilots in the cockpit, either of whom, captain or first officer, may have been at the controls.

    You’re my favorite pilot, ever. And yes, we do go through this quite a bit. So it with all due respect and only a little snuffle that I point out the title “Ask the Pilot”. Not “Ask the Pilots” or “Ask 1 of the 2 Pilots”, just “Ask the Pilot”. I tend to think it was something that Salon hung on you … but, still, there we are. 🙂

  5. Martin Stephenson says:

    Surely the most famous “turn” in the approach to a major airport was at Kai Tak, Hong Kong’s former airport. As a passenger I loved swooping over the washing lines & mess on top of the low rent buildings bordering Kai Tak. Personally I am all for tightly banked turns on commercial flights. After all, flying is supposed to be a thrilling activity.

  6. Lizzy says:

    I have a question for Patrick. In both this NYT story and the one by Mr. Shannon they both claim to hear alarms and bells. I fly frequently +100k miles/yr and wonder how these passengers could hear anything from the cockpit. aren’t they all sealed off except for maybe the smallest regional planes?

    • Patrick says:

      I’m not necessarily buying that Shannon or Hill actually heard anything, but on some planes, usually smaller ones, yes, you can hear certain alerts and whatnot from the first row or two.

  7. Johnny Boy says:

    Well, this gentleman’s secret airport vice being “mini bottles of Tequila”, that can explain a lot of things.

  8. Mort Young says:

    I mean ‘knows” not “news” — but see how that proves the old saying is still usable!

  9. Mort Young says:

    A journalist is someone who news everything about something but nothing about anything.
    Bear this in mind when reading anything in a newspaper or online. it’s an old but still appropriate definition. Alas.
    And now for my two almost crashed but didn’t reveries….

    • Stephan Wilkinson says:

      That’s in a sense true, Mort, but what newspaper even during the 1960s could have afforded a medical reporter, an aviation reporter, a crime reporter, a dance critic, am automotive writer, an architecture expert, a political pro, a restaurant writer, a…well, I could go on, but in defense of journalists, they need to cover a whole lot of bases and do it on deadline. One minute they’re at the school board meeting, the next at an airplane crash. Not defending them, just saying that’s the way it is.

      Once upon a time, the New York Times did have all those people and then some, but they were pretty much one of a kind, and it was a different era.

      • Guy Cocoa says:

        As Coach Bob Knight used to tell reporters, we all learned to write by the third grade, but most of us went on to better things. There is/was no need for a newspaper to have a medical, aviation, crime, or automotive reporter. What they could have had were medical professionals, aviation professionals, criminologists and automotive experts who they could call on for reporting or interpretation of a story. All of those professionals presumably know how to write. If they don’t know how to write for a newspaper (get the story within the required number of column-inches, group the facts appropriately), then that’s what editors are for.

  10. Derek says:

    I am a surgeon and can appreciate the disgust pilots feel that an account like this gets published. I often feel the same about reports of “botched” operations in the press or social reports of how bad dr. X treated someone. Certainly there are some cases that are truly errors that can be deadly, just like there are in flying (as noted above re: recent US airline crashes), but most of the time the facts are exaggerated or just plain false.

  11. Simon says:

    The video posted above
    demonstrates the actual bank angle quite nicely.

    If you take a protractor and measure the horizon’s angle when the bank’s the steepest (about 2 min into the video) you’ll see it’s never more than 25 degrees. Exactly what Patrick mentioned in his article.

  12. crella says:

    You missed the point, I’m afraid, Andrew. The point is that the newspaper was irresponsible to publish and unfounded and inaccurate account of a flight that made it out to be a near-disaster when it was a normal approach.

    The actual quote is “it infuriates me that passengers are taken at their word when it comes to things like this”. In other words, that a passenger’s mistaken assumption was taken at face value and published as an ‘incident’.

  13. Tod Davis says:

    Recently on a flight with Virgin Australia from Canberra to Adelaide. The captain did his pre flight introduction including introducing the first officer who he stated would be at the controls for that leg.
    I was very impressed by that statement however i did see a few passengers with strange looks on their faces

  14. Andrew says:

    Well Im sorry that passengers “infuriate” you.. its too bad since they do pay your salary. If passengers don’t like tight banks, don’t do them!

    The author stated that he didn’t travel on that airline again! There you go! Way to get rid of passengers if they infuriate you so much.

    • ere says:

      And – ding ding ding! – you win the award for most dishonest, demagogic, and deliberate misreading of Patrick’s excellent post.

    • Patrick says:

      I’m confused by this comment. I did not say that passengers infuriate me — and a ludicrous statement that would have been.


  15. Stephen R. Stapleton says:

    Never let facts get in the way of a good story.

  16. Dave says:

    This was clearly the ILS 31C circle to 22L. I’ve flown it dozens of times. It’s standard procedure at MDW when the winds are out of the south/southwest. It does not require a bank angle any greater than the standard 25-30 degrees. Aircraft typically start the circle at about 1000 feet above the ground (just after crossing RUNTS intersection)

  17. Got the hardcover book got th ebook. Best book on the art of flying and what’s reall important.Excellent pulses no no punches straight real and honest .
    Patrick tells it like it is how it is and why it is. Just holding the book makes flying saver. Reading it give you the impression that the people in the industry care about what they are weel trained to do. Make flying as safe and comfortable as anything can Be in the ever changing world were machine meets weather human needs and flight plans.Great thoughts and ideas delivered by a piolet who knows and doesn’t sweat the small stuff. I want to fly with Patrick next time.

  18. Jeff Latten says:

    PEF! I love it. Way to go, Patrick. You have a nice way of putting your finger right on it.

  19. elk horn says:

    For a true 90 degree bank, take a look at the write-up of the Fairchild B-52 crash:

    And a video of the crash:

    Very few (if any) planes will remain airborne for long while banking at 90 degrees…

  20. David Bunin says:

    >>which “alarm bells” would those have been, exactly?

    My guess is that he heard the autopilot disconnect tone when the crew broke off the approach for the alternate runway. If you’re seated in the first few rows, it’s not hard to hear the A/P Disc ‘alarm’.

    This is one point that I don’t necessarily see as PEF. Otherwise, I completely agree with you, Patrick.

  21. Patrick Smith (not the author) says:

    I did a quick search on youtube and found this video that seems similar to what the NYT article was describing. The description simply says:
    Final approach to runway 4R with circling to runway 13C at Midway airport Chicago

  22. JDiver says:

    90 degree turn at a low speed? Aircraft becomes a lawn dart. Never. Happened. Classic PEF!

  23. JuliaZ says:

    I agree with Patrick’s assessment of PEF, and even though I am a lowly frequent flyer, I get mad when I hear people muttering rude/stupid/just plain wrong stuff about what the pilots are doing on a flight. I sometimes correct them with info I’ve learned from Ask the Pilot over the years, and a few times, have actually handed over my Kindle with my copy of Cockpit Confidential at the “right place” for the person to learn something.

    I love flying into National and even though I love taking Metro from the airport to the hotel, doubt I will switch to Dulles once the Silver line is done. The approach to National is sometimes dramatic and one time, we thrashed around in low-altitude crosswinds enough to make me want to clap when we were on the ground, but I never for a moment felt we were in danger, and encouraged the scared woman next to me to enjoy the ride. 🙂

  24. randyw says:

    It could also have been the pilot making an S turns on final because the aircraft ahead of them was not clearing off the runway quick enough. The control tower gets handed off airplanes by approach control and sometimes the speed differences make the aircraft tighter than wanted. I if the S turns don’t buy enough time for the aircraft ahead to clear, them a go-around is required.
    S turns are no big deal.

  25. Charles Titus says:

    “I love your “PEF” term, ha. I’m about a 100-hour private pilot and it is amusing/infuriating to be on a commercial flight and hear passengers speculate and play the expert on what is going on.”

    I am an Airline Transport Pilot with thousands of hours and It is amusing/infuriating to be on a commercial flight and hear weekend warrior private pilots with only 100 hours acting like they know it all!

    • Another private pilot says:

      Wow, Charles. How rude! Private pilots are pilots too. Just because we choose not to make it a career doesn’t mean we don’t know a thing or two ourselves. You may have a ton of experience flying big planes and have a hefty responsibility, but you attitude says more about your maturity than your “thousands of hours.” Please grow up.

    • Neil says:

      OK, I missed the part where I said I knew it all, but you tell me: who knows more about flying, a hundred hour private pilot or your typical airline passenger? A good pilot is always learning and I know I have a long way to go. No question there. I’m in instrument training now and perhaps one day I can attain the apparently god-like status you’ve achieved. Geez.

    • Lynn Upeksha says:

      Wow, Charles, I hope I’m never on a flight you are piloting if your comment is any indication of your level of (un)professionalism. I am shocked by your attack on someone who’s comment is spot on – I’ve flown into MDW many times and the typical approach is often “steep” with multiple sharp turns.

    • Stephan Wilkinson says:

      I too have thousands of hours, though only on a commercial license (though I did for some time make my living flying). Interesting, though, that the last four major airline accidents–Colgan at Buffalo, Air France 447, Asiana at SFO and Southwest at LGA–all seem to have been at least in part the result of failures of basic airmanship.

      In fact one might say of all of them that a 100-hour private pilot might have done better…

  26. ere says:

    nicely done, once again, patrick! shame on the Times.

  27. Neil says:

    This sounds like the ILS 31C circle to land 22L approach. I would bet money on it, actually, as I’ve flown into Midway as a passenger on this approach several times. There are turns going on that can be alarming if you’re not expecting them, but nothing particularly outlandish or dangerous whatsoever. I love your “PEF” term, ha. I’m about a 100-hour private pilot and it is amusing/infuriating to be on a commercial flight and hear passengers speculate and play the expert on what is going on.

  28. Pete Paradis says:

    I can’t get you any “G”, but this chart graphically explains what Patrick is talking about.

    • Patrick says:

      Thanks for the graphic. As you can see, a 60 degree turn * doubles * the force of gravity. A 90 degree turn…. it’s literally off the chart.

      • George says:

        Bank-angle/G-force charts cannot accurately depict knife-edge flight loads. When the plane of the wing(s) is perpendicular to the ground it is not capable of generating lift in the vertical direction. In this flight regimen the primary effects of the elevators and rudder are swapped (relative to the earth’s surface) and the only way to maintain altitude is to yaw the plane skyward so that thrust and whatever lift the fuselage generates offset gravity. Occupants will experience the mostly-sideways (from their bodies’ perspectives) pull of 1G, plus a downward (again from their bodies’ perspectives) acceleration force proportional to the amount of elevator deflection being used to change heading. This force might be very high, or it might be very low; it’s up to the pilot to decide that one. Of course I agree that the aircraft in question did not bank even remotely close to 90 degrees–that’s just typical “wisdom” from one of the “experts” in the back–but the nerdy aerodynamic discussion is fun.

    • Dave says:

      I’ve read statements of how many g’s you’d experience from a given amount of bank several times on this blog, and the chart Pete Paradis provided similarly describes g-force as a simple function of bank angle. But it seems naively like this would depend on both speed and the amount of lift the wings produce.

      Now, high speed means you’ll go around the circle faster during the turn (which increases g-force), but it also means the radius of that circle will be larger (which decreases it). Maybe those two effects exactly balance and remove speed from the equation, but wouldn’t lift still be important?

      • Rod says:

        Except that maintaining a bank angle isn’t all that “simple”. The further the airplane banks, the further the nose has to be raised (increasing the wing’s “angle of attack”) in order to compensate for the lift lost by by banking (which means less wing lifting perpendicular to the ground). And the further you lift the nose the more drag you induce, which means you have to increase engine power to compensate for that as well. (This is why flying instructors extract such pleasure from making their students do steep turns, complaining all the while about the changes in altitude that accompany them.)

        You’re bang on about the radius of the circle. So a 60° bank in a Cessna 150 produces just as much G force as a 60° bank in an F-16.

        That, at any rate, is my understanding. Patrick will know since he’s the ex-flying instructor (hee-hee).

      • Shawn says:

        Dave, the amount of g experienced during curved flight (i.e. turns) is directly related to bank angle in constant speed level flight.

        This article might be helpful:

        • DaveM says:

          Thanks Rod and Shawn (I am calling myself DaveM this time to avoid confusion with the other Dave who posted here).

          It seems the answer to my question is that in a _level_ turn (level in altitude, not attitude), the bank angle is all that matters. Basically, a plane with less lift will need more thrust during a turn in order to avoid losing altitude than one with more lift, so both pilots end up experiencing the same number of g’s, even though one is making a bigger circle than the other. Sound right?

          • James Carlson says:

            Yes; “level” is the key word here. If you don’t mind losing altitude, a bank can be made with considerably less G-factor. In fact, you could go to zero or negative Gs while holding any bank you like.

            So, it’s true that a 60 degree bank (which is quite extreme) alone would not necessarily require you to pull 2 Gs.

            But making a level turn does require increasing Gs, up to infinity for a 90 degree bank. That vertical component of lift has to be maintained if you don’t want to descend, and it goes as the cosine of the bank. ;-}

  29. Timothy says:

    Just once I’d actually like to feel what a 60 degree turn actually feels like. I love me some G!

    • Jim Houghton says:

      Go to your nearest gliderport and get a sailplane ride. Right now, when the soaring is the best all year!

    • Rod says:

      Get somebody (who knows what he’s doing) to take you up in a small plane and make a few 60° turns. You’ll feel 2 Gs, just as you would in the extremely unlikely event that you were in an airliner turning at 60°.

    • Keith says:

      In my days working as a Flight Test Engineer on luxury biz jets, I experienced 60 degree turns in the neighborhood of 2g. This is plenty severe enough to be considered “unusual attitude”. Even with former fighter pilots at the controls, 65-70 degrees is enough for them to lighten up. I’ve also been to near zero g. It’s all very enjoyable when it is a planned part of testing, but being anywhere close to that on an airliner is unheard-of. I can assure you that the author’s term PEF is perfect. Airliners go nowhere near these kind of extremes, let alone what the passenger was describing, which would be even more severe. It truly is sad that anyone and everyone can be taken seriously when they don’t know what they’re talking about.

  30. miskidomleka says:

    There should be a law that you have to live in Washington DC area and fly to Reagan National at least ten times before you are allowed to write about airplanes making scary turns. It puts things into perspective.

    I remember my first River Visual approach, the plane making “45 degrees” turns “barely” over the Potomac, with wings “almost touching” water, and the city views going up and down “like crazy”. It looked like that from the inside. A passenger in front of me voluntarily assumed brace position and was sort-of-praying aloud (“Jesus f**king Christ” was the prayer).

    Or once there was strong NW wind so the plane I was in approached runway 1 and then, I think, did “circle to land 33”, again with “sharp” turns “barely” above water, the plane jumping up and down in wind gusts, and it ended with pretty strong braking (a 737 on a 5200 ft runway).

    But then, when you live in the area for a while, and see many approaches like those from the ground, you realize that the turns are actually pretty gentle and slow, and are made really far up in the sky.