Real News from Real Sources

Want to know where to get facts?

Forbes ArticleThe other day, one of my Facebook friends shared a link to an article on Forbes that discussed the difficulty of finding reliable news sources in a world where so many sources are labeled “fake.” The article listed, with objective descriptions, what the author considered honest and reliable news sources. I’ll run down the list quickly here; I urge you to read the article to get additional information about each source:

  1. The New York Times
  2. The Wall Street Journal
  3. The Washington Post
  4. BBC
  5. The Economist
  6. The New Yorker
  7. Wire Services: The Associated Press, Reuters, Bloomberg News
  8. Foreign Affairs
  9. The Atlantic
  10. Politico

There are runners up and financial resources, too. Again, I urge you to read the article to get those lists. (Spoiler alert: CNN is on a list; Fox News, Brietbart, Huffington Post, and Mother Jones are not.)

As I added on Facebook when I shared a link to the article, the real trick is convincing the people who already turn to less reliable news outlets that these news outlets are better and more truthful. Another challenge is getting people to understand the difference between fact-based articles produced by journalists and opinion pieces produced by pundits.

If you’re interested in doing the right thing during these difficult times — and don’t don’t fool yourself: these are difficult times — start by informing yourself about an issue by turning to reliable news sources. (Note the plural there; try to learn from at least two good sources.) Be careful to get information from journalists and not pundits. (In other words, skip the OpEd and political commentary pages/columns.) Go beyond the headlines! Think about what you’ve learned. Discuss it with other people you know and trust who have done the same thing. Then form your own opinions and act accordingly. Acting means calling your congressperson or senators when an issue comes up to vote. These days, it also means showing up for peaceful protests and doing what you can to help convince those sitting on the fence to see things your way and also act.

It’s sad to me that so many people are falling for “alternative facts” fed to them by unreliable news sources, many of which are playing political games for ratings or other gains. What’s even worse is that the “fake news” label is being applied to what are truly reliable news sources.

Stop the ignorance. Get your information from reliable sources and make your own decisions.

Learning about Milk Fat

I learned something new today, thanks to a debate with a friend.

The other day, a friend and I were discussing milk.

I told her I preferred 2% milk but was trying to get to like 1% milk. To me, it was about reducing unnecessary fat and calories in my diet. I’ve been drinking 2% milk for years and actually now prefer its flavor and consistency over whole milk. Whole milk, to me, had become too rich, almost like a light cream. I wanted to start liking 1% milk in an effort to further reduce fat and calories for a healthy diet. I already enjoy fat-free yogurt; indeed, I don’t think I’ve had whole milk yogurt in years, if ever. (Do they even make it? I guess I could make my own.)

My friend was adamantly opposed to reduced fat milk. I gathered from our conversation that she thought they added things to the milk that made it less healthy when they removed the fat. Or that something about the actual process of making reduced fat milk caused it to be less healthy. In any case, she thought reduced fat milk was bad and didn’t want to hear anything else about it.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, especially in the past three or four years, is that when someone is stuck with an idea in their head it’s no use debating the point. At least not without facts. And although I suspected there was nothing unhealthy about reduced fat milk, I had no evidence to prove my point. So I let the subject drop and we chatted about other things.

But this morning, when I sat down with my coffee and some time to kill before dawn, I set about finding some evidence to support my point of view.

How Reduced Fat Milk is Made

I Googled “How do they make reduced fat milk?” I got a number of search results. The first, from The Kitchn website, had the answer I was looking for: “How is Skim Milk Made?“. Here’s the pertinent info:

So how is skim milk made? Traditionally, the fat was removed naturally from milk due to gravity. If fresh milk is left to sit and settle, the cream — which is where most of the fat is — rises to the top, leaving behind milk with much less fat.

The quicker, modernized way of making low-fat and skim milks is to place the whole milk into a machine called a centrifugal separator, which spins some or all of the fat globules out of the milk. This occurs before the milk is homogenized, a process which reduces all the milk particles to the same size so that natural separation doesn’t occur anymore.

The article goes on to provide some other interesting information about milk and fat free milk. Among that information was a note about additives:

Federal law mandates that most skim milk has to be fortified with vitamin A and sometimes vitamin D. This is due to the fact that even though whole milk naturally has a fair amount of both, the vitamins are fat soluble and thus lost when the milk fat is removed during the skimming process.

Milk solids in the form of dried milk are also added since they contain proteins that help thicken the watery consistency of skim milk.

Not only was this likely the additives that worried my friend, but it also explained how some brands of skim milk were far more palatable than others: they likely added back more dried milk to thicken it up.

2% Milk
The only thing that creeps me out about Shamrock Foods milk is its extraordinarily long shelf life: the quart I bought last week is supposedly good until March. Could it be the plastic packaging?

Now I don’t know if the 2% milk I normally consume has a lot of vitamins or any milk fat added back in. The milk in my camper’s refrigerator now — remember, I’m on the road this winter — is from Shamrock Farms and says it contains “reduced fat milk, Vitamins A & D.” Nothing about milk solids.

So nothing I learned about the production of reduced fat milk has scared me away from drinking it.

Benefits of Whole vs. Reduced Fat Milk

Scrolling down in the same search results, however, brought up links to two different articles in TIME Magazine. I read them both. After all, I wanted to learn the truth — a truth that would either support or even change my own opinions.

  • The Case Against Low-fat Milk Is Stronger Than Ever from April 4, 2016 cites a study of people whose health had been tracked for 15 years. The conclusion was that, if anything, people who consumed whole fat dairy products were less likely to be obese or suffer from type 2 diabetes.
  • Why Full-Fat Dairy May Be Healthier Than Low-Fat from March 5, 2015 cites the results of over 25 studies that concluded that “people who eat full-fat dairy are no more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes than people who stick to low-fat dairy. When it comes to weight gain, full-fat dairy may actually be better for you.”

Huh.

Both articles suggested that there might be something special about the fat in dairy that works with our bodies to help them process the foods we eat and help us feel full. Dairy fat could actually be preventing us from eating less healthy sugars and carbs to feel sated. And these articles maintained that it was foolhardy for diets to recommend cutting (or eating) just one kind of nutrient — for example, low fat or fat-free diets — when the body naturally works with all consumed nutrients together.

I understand how these studies could have gotten these results. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the fat-free diet craze was in full swing, stores were full of fat-free processed foods. I know because I still lived at home (or at least visited regularly) and saw that my mother bought them. She, like so many other people, thought that the answer to keeping weight under control was to keep as much fat out of their diets as possible. But rather than do this by eating naturally low fat foods like fruits and vegetables and whole grains, they did it by buying processed foods labeled “fat free.” They then consumed as much as they wanted, not paying attention to the ingredients that made this food taste good despite the lack of fat: mostly sugar. Calorie counts were sky high. It was around this time that I started reading labels and making food choices based on what I read. While I don’t have a perfect diet, I’ve learned to minimize my time in a supermarket’s middle aisles where all the processed foods reside.

The Calorie Argument

Okay, so what about calories? The articles both confirmed that one of the benefits of reduced fat dairy products was the accompanying reduction in calories. So I decided to see just how many calories I was saving by switching between whole, 2%, and 1% milk. (I really detest fat-free milk and generally only have it in lattes because I think it froths better. Fat free yogurt tastes fine to me.)

So I Googled “What is the calorie count for whole, 2%, 1%, and fat free milk?” The PopSugar website had the answer I sought: “Whole vs. Reduced vs. Low-Fat vs. Nonfat Milk.” Here’s the nutritional information that interests me for one 8-ounce cup of milk:

  Whole 2% 1% Fat-free
Calories 150 130 110 90
Total Fat (g / %) 8 / 3 5 / 2 2.5 / 1 ~0 / 0

What’s interesting when you read data in the article’s table is that they all the same fiber, carbs, and protein but 1% and fat-free milks actually have more sugar — although admittedly it isn’t much more: 11g vs. 12g.

Now I don’t drink a lot of milk, although I probably do drink more than the average adult. I’ll go through a half gallon in about a week. Every cup of 2% is saving me only 20 calories over whole milk and a switch down to 1% milk would only save another 20 calories. Is it worth it? I don’t think so.

At this point, I sort of regret getting so used to 2% milk.

An Exercise in Critical Thinking

So what did I learn?

In a way, my friend was right: reduced fat milk isn’t any better for you than whole milk. And if she believed that there were additives, she’s right — although I’m not sure those additives make reduced fat milk any less healthy.

But in a way, she was also wrong: reduced fat milk isn’t really bad for you. It just doesn’t give the health benefits we’ve been led to believe.

As for me, I was wrong. There’s no real reason to switch to reduced fat milk. I have no evidence to show her. I have nothing to stand on for pressing my original point of view.

Will I change the way I buy milk? Probably not — at least for now. I really do like 2% milk. I’m used to it. To me, drinking whole milk is almost like drinking cream. I’m not so picky, however, that I’ll turn down whole milk if that’s the only thing available. I’m not worried about 2% milk hurting my health.

But 1% and fat-free milk have definitely become a little bit less attractive. No real calorie benefit and what’s with the added sugar? And what if milk fat really is good for you? Should I really be minimizing it?

And that’s what critical thinking is all about, folks. Gathering information and forming your own opinions after thinking about what you’ve learned. Even if you begin researching with a preconceived notion, you need to be ready to change your mind when the evidence clearly tells you your notion is wrong. You shouldn’t just look for evidence that supports your view. You should look for evidence that tells the whole story, the true story, or at least the story that properly conducted research and established facts support.

I sure wish more people would learn to think critically in today’s world.

Clive Cussler Doesn’t Know Much about Helicopters

Apparently, even best-selling authors can’t be bothered to do their homework.

Atlantis Found CoverIn my never-ending quest for light reading while I sit around in Wickenburg waiting for my marriage to be terminated, I picked up a copy of Atlantis Found by Clive Cussler from the library. This book features Cussler’s protagonist, Dirk Pitt, a man so outrageously skilled and lucky that he makes James Bond look as inept as Inspector Clouseau.

Hey, I did say I wanted light reading, didn’t I? (And yes, I do realize I was bitching about a supposed Cussler book just the other day.)

But no matter how light reading is, it really bugs me when an author gets something insanely wrong. Take, for example, this passage from the book:

Purchased by Destiny Enterprises from the Messerschmitt-Bolkow Corporation, the Bo 105LS-7 helicopter was designed and built for the Federal German Army primarily for ground support and paramilitary use. The aircraft chasing the Skycar carried a crew of two, and mounted twin engines that gave it a maximum speed of two hundred and eighty miles an hour. For firepower, it relied on a ventral-mounted, swiveling twenty millimeter cannon.

My helicopter pilot brain shouted “How fast?

You see, there’s a little thing called retreating blade stall which normally limits the airspeed of a helicopter. I don’t know of any helicopter capable of going 280 miles per hour. Certainly not one with a single main rotor system.

But hell, I’m not an expert. I’m just a pilot. What do I know?

Bo 105P
German Army BO 105P photo by Joey Quan.

So I looked it up the MBB Bo 105 on Wikipedia. And I scrolled down to the Specifications Section. And I learned the following specs:

  • Never exceed speed: 270 km/h (145 knots, 167 mph)
  • Maximum speed: 242 km/h (131 knots, 150 mph)
  • Cruise speed: 204 km/h (110 knots, 127 mph)

280 miles per hour? How about 150 miles per hour? That’s more reasonable.

And, coincidentally, it’s the never exceed speed for my Robinson R44 Raven II — although, admittedly, I don’t have any ventral-mounted, swiveling twenty millimeter cannons.

Come on, guys! Do your homework! I know it’s fiction, but when you discuss the capabilities of an aircraft that actually exists, how about getting it right?

Transponders for Dummies

Get the facts straight.

One of the podcasts I listen to on my morning walk is called Stuff You Should Know. Produced by the folks responsible for the How Stuff Works website, Stuff You Should Know is a pretty thorough discussion of a specific topic by two hosts, Josh and Chuck, who base their discussion on a website article and some of their own research. It’s a great way to learn new things when you’re stuck doing something mindless — like walking, driving, flying, etc. So far, I’ve learned about revenge, diamonds, Atlantis, social security numbers, air traffic control (ATC), and bullfighting. You can find its RSS feed here.

The April 24, 2012 episode of the podcast was titled “How Air Traffic Control Works.” It was based on a How Stuff Works article of the same name by Dr. Craig Freudenrich. The article was very detailed; the podcast was based on that article and several other articles on How Stuff Works.

As a pilot, I know quite a bit about air traffic control — but not everything. The article (and podcast) was mostly concerned with ATC as it relates to airliners. After all, that’s how most people interact with aviation. But I’m involved with general aviation (as opposed to airline aviation or military aviation). And, as a helicopter pilot, I don’t interact with ATC nearly as much as, say, an instrument rated pilot flying a King Air from Phoenix to Seattle.

So I was hoping that I could learn something new. And I did.

But I also heard the podcasters misinforming listeners about transponders (among a few other things). And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s when an informational article or podcast or video — or anything else — includes errors. So I thought I’d set things straight.

What Is a Transponder?

Garmin Transponder
This is the Garmin 330 Transponder I have in my helicopter.

A transponder is a part of an aircraft’s avionics. It assists air traffic control by making it easier for ATC radar to “see” an aircraft. It basically sends out a signal that says “Here I am!” ATC radar can pick up this signal, along with any additional information encoded within it, to plot the aircraft as a “blip” on the radar display and differentiate it from other aircraft.

Transponders include a feature that enables the pilot to send a specific “squawk” code. Normally, in VFR (visual flight rules) flight, an aircraft’s transponder is set to send the code 1200 — in fact, this code is used so often that many transponder models — including mine — have a VFR button the pilot can press to quickly enter that code.

IFR (instrument flight rules) flights are assigned a discreet discrete squawk code. This code is used by ATC to identify that particular aircraft. Sometimes, when operating within tower-controlled airspace, ATC will assign a discreet discrete code to a VFR flight. Or perhaps a specific code is used by signatories to a letter of agreement between ATC and pilots — for example, 0400 is used by Sharp Alpha signatories in the Phoenix class bravo airspace.

Most transponders are equipped with automatic altitude reporting features, which is known as Mode C. Indeed, Mode C transponders are required within 30 miles of a class Bravo airport — think major airports like the kinds most airlines serve — and in a bunch of other places detailed in Part 4-1-20 of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), “Transponder Operation.” (This, by the way, is an excellent resource for learning more about transponders in general.) Mode C transponders interface with an aircraft’s altimeter to get the altitude of the aircraft and send that information to ATC.

Garmin 420 GPS
My Mode S transponder interfaces with my Garmin 420 GPS to show traffic when information is available. I blogged about this here.

A Mode S transponder, which is what I have on my helicopter, is also capable of two-way communication with ATC radar. In certain radar coverage areas — primarily near Class Bravo and Class Charlie airspaces — a Mode S transponder receives traffic information from ATC. This information can then be plotted on compatible GPS equipment to create a simple traffic information system (TIS).

There are some other things about transponders that are interesting, including the fact that there are special squawk codes a pilot can use in certain emergency situations. And although the transponders were turned off on the 9/11 airliners, that didn’t make them invisible; it just made it impossible for ATC to definitively identify what they were.

What the Stuff You Should Know Guys Said

There’s no transcript available for the podcast, so I had to create one for the part that irked me. It was related to when the transponder is turned on and what the transponder is/does.

At 22:55, Josh has just described how the tower controller hands off the airplane to a departure controller.

Chuck: All right, so now we’re in the air, we are enroute. And you have to, if you’re a pilot, activate your transponder, which will basically make you the little blip on the radar. Very important thing to do.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: That’s how they can follow you as you move across the country. Or around the world.

Josh: [laughter]

Chuck: Right?

Josh: You are covering all bases on this episode.

Chuck: Well, the little blip is going to obviously represent your plane and it’s going to have your flight number, your altitude, your airspeed, and your destination.

Josh: Uh-huh.

Chuck: And, uh, so where are we now?

Josh: It’s also how they find you if you go plummeting into the ocean or the earth.

Chuck: Sure. Is that the black box?

Josh: Uh, I think that’s probably a part of the transponder.

Chuck: Okay. Yeah.

Then they continue talking about what TRACON does.

What’s Wrong

There are a few things wrong with this.

First, a pilot usually turns on the aircraft’s transponder when he (or she, of course) powers up the rest of the avionics, including the radio. On my helicopter, in fact, the transponder turns itself on automatically when I turn on the “Master Battery” switch, which provides electrical power to the helicopter before I even start it.

Part 4-1-20 of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), “Transponder Operation,” states:

3. Civil and military transponders should be turned to the “on” or normal altitude reporting position prior to moving on the airport surface to ensure the aircraft is visible to ATC surveillance systems. IN ALL CASES, WHILE IN CONTROLLED AIRSPACE EACH PILOT OPERATING AN AIRCRAFT EQUIPPED WITH AN OPERABLE ATC TRANSPONDER MAINTAINED IN ACCORDANCE WITH 14 CFR SECTION 91.413 MUST OPERATE THE TRANSPONDER, INCLUDING MODE C IF INSTALLED, ON THE APPROPRIATE CODE OR AS ASSIGNED BY ATC. IN CLASS G AIRSPACE, THE TRANSPONDER SHOULD BE OPERATING WHILE AIRBORNE UNLESS OTHERWISE REQUESTED BY ATC.

(The FAA used those caps; I didn’t. I guess they wanted to shout about it.)

So the FAA says to turn on the transponder before you move the aircraft and keep it turned on during flight. The pilot does not wait until the flight is turned over to departure control to turn it on. It’s already on. In fact, it’s one of the ways ground control can track the airliner as it taxis between the runway and the gate.

Note: I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the Phoenix TRACON and tower back March 2012. I got to see the radar screens and their blips firsthand. It’s interesting to note that there are no windows in the TRACON facility. It’s a dark room filled with computer screens. If you’ve seen the movie Pushing Tin, which was mentioned in the podcast, you’ll get the idea.

So although the podcast guys made a big deal over the fact that ground controllers are only one of two kinds of controllers that can use binoculars, the reality is that only ground controllers and tower controllers have windows to look out of. They’re the only ones close enough to the airplanes they guide to actually see them.

To say that activating the transponder “makes you the little blip on the radar” is misleading. Radar does not need a transponder to see aircraft traffic. After all, do you think fighter planes use transponders when they’re out on patrol or attack? If a transponder was required to put an aircraft on radar, there would be no need for stealth technology. Instead, radar works by bouncing radio waves off objects. It doesn’t need a transponder signal. The transponder simply makes it easier for ATC radar equipment to find targets and provides additional information to ATC.

While it’s true that a radar blip might include an airliner’s flight number, this information is not sent by the transponder. The transponder sends the discrete squawk code assigned to the airplane from its flight plan. The ATC computer equipment looks up the code in the flight plan database and provides the information from the flight plan on the blip.

Josh is partially right when he says that the blip is how they find you if you crash. The transponder helps keep the aircraft on radar. Radar tracks where you are. But there comes a point — especially in remote or mountainous terrain — when radar coverage is limited. If you are flying too low, you can literally fly “below the radar” and not be tracked. Helicopter pilots commonly fly this low — that’s why its so difficult to get flight following in certain areas. An airliner should never be that low, but if it’s having trouble, it may disappear off radar before an actual crash. So although a transponder and the resulting radar blip can help locate a downed aircraft, it doesn’t guarantee that it’ll be found. Think about Steve Fossett. His plane likely had a transponder, yet he wasn’t found for well over a year after his crash.

Chuck and Josh are completely wrong when they suggest that the black box is part of the transponder. It’s not. They’re two completely separate devices. The transponder sends live information to ATC as an aircraft moves around on the ground and in the sky. Most aircraft have them. The black box is a virtually indestructible device that records data during an aircraft’s operation and stores it in the event of a mishap. Only aircraft providing certain air transportation services have them. For example, although I have a transponder on my helicopter, I don’t have a black box.

It’s interesting to me that the guys got this so wrong when the How Stuff Works website actually has an article called “How Black Boxes Work.” Maybe they should have read it?

Other Things

In listening again to parts of the podcast — mostly to find the passage quoted above — I heard other things that weren’t quite right. That bugs me. It calls into question the rest of the podcast — the stuff I don’t already know for sure. It also calls into question other podcasts that these guys do. How factual are they?

When I’m listening to a podcast titled “Stuff You Should Know,” I expect it to be factual, not conjectural. If these guys are guessing about something, they should make it clearer that it’s a guess. To state that a pilot activates a transponder after the aircraft is enroute and handed off to departure control is an incorrect statement of fact. To say “I think” a transponder is part of the black box helps identify it as conjecture or a guess, but is there really any place for guesses in a podcast like this?

Or am I expecting too much?

Writing Tips: Writing Accurate Descriptions

A response to a blog comment, and more.

I need to say that I really can’t thank blog commenters enough for taking the time to write. Not only do they often add useful information beyond what I know — thus adding incredible value to this blog — but they sometimes post questions or comments that get my mind going and give me fodder for new blog posts.

I received such a comment this morning and it prompted me to write a new article for my Writing Tips series.

The Importance of Accurate Descriptions

I touched upon the topic of accurate descriptions in fiction in a post I wrote last month: “Facts in Fiction.” In it, I explained why I thought it was important to get the facts about the “real” parts in fiction correct. I talked about the depth of a fictional world and how it would determine what facts and descriptions needed to be accurate.

My goal in that piece was to urge fiction writers to get the facts straight. Errors, when noticed by readers, can seriously detract from the work. For example, I believe I cited the example of a bestselling author who claimed that when a helicopter was low on fuel, it would be safer to fly lower than higher. This is downright wrong, no matter how you look at it. The author’s reasoning proved he knew nothing about the thought he was putting in a character’s head — a character that should have known better. This absolutely ruined the book for me, making me wonder what else he’d gotten wrong.

You can argue that fiction is fiction and that the writer can make up facts as he goes along. I disagree. My “Facts in Fiction” post explains why, so I won’t repeat it here.

Today’s Question

Today’s question comes from a comment on my recent blog post, “Dan Brown Doesn’t Know Much about Helicopters,” in which I painstakingly (and perhaps nitpickingly) point out a bunch of errors in Brown’s latest literary masterpiece (and yes, that is sarcasm), The Lost Symbol. The errors revolve around the inclusion of a helicopter as a repeating plot component throughout the book. Brown used his descriptive skills to make several claims about helicopters that simply were too far fetched to be believable. (But then again, isn’t that what Dan Brown’s work is all about?) I detailed them for blog readers.

One reader found the post useful. She wrote:

I just wanted to let you know I found this blog immensely helpful as I am writing a chapter in my book that involves a helicopter ride. I must say that I am striving to find new ways to describe the sound a helicopter makes. It’s rather unmistakable when you actually hear it, but to describe it to a reader is much more difficult. I recently wrote… “the deafening drill of the helicopter’s rotors made conversation impossible…” and one of my proof readers balked at the use of the word “drill.” I’d love to hear your comment on that one!

I started to respond in a comment, but the length of the comment soon bloomed into blog post length. So here’s the response.

First, I definitely agree about the word “drill.” Now here are some points to consider:

  • Have you actually heard a helicopter close up? Or at the distances you’re trying to write about? First piece of advice is to go someplace where you’re likely to hear helicopters and listen to them. Then describe what you hear.
  • Does the word “deafening” really apply? I think Dan Brown used that one, too. Deafening is a strong word. Unless the listeners were standing/sitting right outside the helicopter or inside with a door open/off, I don’t think deafening would be accurate. Helicopters are not as loud as people think — unless you’re right up next to them.
  • Lots of folks think it’s the rotors making all that noise. Close up, it’s the engine you mostly hear. Piston engine helicopters sound like airplanes; turbine engine helicopters sound like jet planes. Are you trying to describe the sound of the helicopter’s engine or spinning blades?
  • The tail rotor on many helicopters actually makes more noise than the main rotors. Why? The tail rotor blade tips are sometimes traveling near the speed of sound. Maybe it’s the sound of the tail rotor you want to describe.
  • How fast are the blades spinning? Is the helicopter just winding up? Is it at idle RPM (usually around 70%)? Is it fully spun up to 100% but still sitting on the ground? Preparing to lift off? In flight? There are differences — significant or subtle — in the sound depending on the blade speed and what the helicopter is actually doing.
  • How many blades does the helicopter have? You’re more likely to hear a rhythmic “wop-wop” sound coming out of a large helicopter with a two-bladed system — like an old Huey — than a smaller helicopter with four or five blades — like a Hughes 500C or D.

As you can see, it’s not as easy as asking someone if you can use the phrase “deafening drill” to describe a helicopter’s sound. There are too many variables. And at least three components are making that noise: engine, main rotor, and tail rotor. You need to hear the sound to describe it.

Do Your Homework

As I writer, I’m more bothered by the introduction of stereotypical descriptions — even if they’re not actually cliches — than inaccurate descriptions. Yes, it’s easy to ask a pilot whether a description you’ve written about flying rings true. But it’s lazy (for lack of a better word) to use a stereotype or cliche to describe a sound when you have the ability to hear it for yourself. And its irresponsible, as a writer, to expect a pilot or proofreader to come up with a better descriptive word for you. That’s your job.

If you want to write about the sound of a helicopter, for example, get your butt down to an airport or police helicopter base or medevac base. If you’re writing about a helicopter ride, as this commenter is, go for a helicopter ride.

Talk to the folks at the helicopter base about flying. Be straight with them — tell them you’re a writer and are doing research. (That is what you’re doing, isn’t it?) Let them read a passage or two from your manuscript if you think they can check it for authenticity. Then wait around until a helicopter operates in the area and listen. Get the permission (and possibly an escort) to stand or sit where you need to be to hear the sound as you need to hear it. Record it if you think it’ll help. Make sure you get the right sound for the right phase of flight. After experiencing this, you should be able to accurately describe it.

Do not rely on what you see/hear on television or in the movies. Many sounds are usually added after the fact. I’ve seen clips where the sound of an aircraft didn’t match the type of aircraft being shown. Movies also show helicopters departing almost straight up or landing almost straight down — a pilot will only do this if he must. (Read “The Deadman’s Curve” to learn why.)

Authenticity is Worth the Effort

There’s an added benefit to doing your homework: authenticity now and in the future.

For example, a visit to a helicopter base or ride in a helicopter will give you all kinds of additional details about the helicopter or flight operation. Do people really need to duck when getting out of/into a running helicopter? How is downwash different between an idling helicopter and a helicopter that’s just lifting off or arriving? How strong is the downwash from a hovering helicopter? What does it feel like? How does it smell? What does a turbine helicopter’s engine sound like when first starting up? (Think of your gas barbeque grill and you won’t be far off.) What are the pavement markings like on the helipad or helispot? What’s the pilot wearing? What’s he holding?

These little details will not only add authenticity to what you’re writing now, but they’ll give you plenty of useful material for the next time you need to write about helicopters.

It’s Not Just Helicopters

I’ve used the example of helicopters throughout this post because that’s one of the things I know from experience — and that’s what the question that prompted this post was all about.

But the advice in this post applies to anything that’s outside your realm of knowledge.

You know the age-old advice about writing: Write what you know. Well, you know what you experience. The more research you do — the more things you experience firsthand — the more you know. And the more you can write about accurately and authentically when you need to.

Dan Brown Doesn’t Know Much about Helicopters

I guess a best-selling author doesn’t need to check his facts.

A few weeks ago, I forced myself to slog through Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. I’m trying really hard to understand why people like this guy’s work. He’s a gawdawful writer. Have we become a nation of illiterates?

As a helicopter pilot, I’m really sensitive to errors about helicopters that appear in fiction. The Lost Symbol was chock full of them. Apparently, it’s too much to ask Dan Brown to take a peek at Wikipedia or talk to a helicopter pilot when writing passages that concern helicopters. It makes me wonder what other “facts” he got wrong.

This bugged me so much at the time that I wrote a post title “Facts in Fiction,” where I discuss the failure of novelists to check the real-life components of their fictional worlds. I wanted to include a discussion of Brown’s failures in that post, but didn’t have time to complete it. Instead, I’ll cover them here.

These are the passages that bugged me most:

Without warning, Omar felt a deafening vibration all around him, as if a tractor trailer were about to collide with his cab. He looked up, but the street was deserted. The noise increased, and suddenly a sleek black helicopter dropped down out of the night and landed hard in the middle of the plaza map.

Deafening vibration? We get it: helicopters are loud. But do they deafen with their vibrations?

Black Hawk Helicopter

Public domain image of UH-60L by SSGT Suzanne M. Jenkins, USAF from Wikipedia.

The “sleek black helicopter” he’s describing is a “Modified Sikorsky UH-60,” which is basically a Black Hawk. I’m not sure what kind of modifications Brown is talking about — there are many versions of this helicopter. I’m also not sure I’d use the adjective “sleek.”

But what bothers me more is how it “dropped down out of the night and landed hard” — if it “dropped out of the night,” it would indeed “land hard.” This poor helicopter “landed hard” three times in the book. I think the CIA should consider getting a new pilot.

CIA field agent Turner Simkins was perched on the strut of the Sikorsky helicopter as it touched down on the frosty grass. He leaped off, joined by his men, and immediately waved the chopper back up into the air to keep an eye on all the exits.

“Perched on the strut,” huh? Not perched on a skid? Oh, yeah, that’s right: A Black Hawk doesn’t have skids. It has wheels. If someone can tell me where a Black Hawk’s perchable strut is, please do.

High above the National Cathedral, the CIA pilot locked the helicopter in auto-hover mode and surveyed the perimeter of the building and the grounds. No movement. His thermal imaging couldn’t penetrate the cathedral stone, and so he couldn’t tell what the team was doing inside, but if anyone tried to slip out, the thermal would pick it up.

I honestly don’t know if there’s an auto pilot in a Black Hawk or whether it has an “auto-hover mode.” I suppose I could research this and find out. But I do know that there’s no way in hell that a CIA Black Hawk pilot (if there is such a thing) would be responsible for flying a helicopter and doing overhead surveillance using thermal imaging at the same time. Pilots fly, on-board observers observe.

As they rounded the corner at the top of the stairs, Katherine stopped short and pointed into a sitting room across the hall. Through the bay window, Langdon could see a sleek black helicopter sitting silent on the lawn. A lone pilot stood beside it, facing away from them and talking on his radio. There was also a black Escalade with tinted windows parked nearby.

Hello? Mr. Brown? A Black Hawk has a crew of two pilots. The original Black Hawk had a crew of four pilots. Yet the book consistently uses the word pilot — a singular noun — when referring to the person flying the helicopter. I guess it’s easier to write one character than two.

The modified UH-60 skimmed in low over the expansive rooftops of Kalorama Heights, thundering toward the coordinates given to them by the support team. Agent Simkins was the first to spot the black Escalade parked haphazardly on a lawn in front of one of the mansions. The driveway gate was closed, and the house was dark and quiet.

Sato gave the signal to touch down.

The aircraft landed hard on the front lawn amid several other vehicles . . . one of them a security sedan with a bubble light on top.

Google Maps shows Kalorama Heights to be a densely populated area of Washington, D.C. filled primarily with embassies. This is an especially poor location for the bad guy’s lair:

Black Hawk Dimensions

Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk dimensions public domain line drawing from Wikipedia.

  • An area filled with embassies is likely to have very, very tight security. It’s unlikely that the events Brown reports could happen at a “mansion” there without anyone noticing and calling the police.
  • Properties are not large — not in relation to the buildings on them. The fronts of buildings are generally right up on the street. It would be a stretch to park multiple vehicles on a lawn.
  • The area is heavily vegetated with lots of tall trees. This makes me wonder how a helicopter that’s almost 65 feet long and has a rotor diameter of nearly 54 feet can land on a lawn full of parked cars in this area.

So we’ve got a big helicopter and some loud activity happening in a densely populated, heavily treed embassy area of Washington, D.C.

Sato moved the group toward the dining room. Outside, the helicopter was warming up, its blades thundering louder and louder.

Warming up is a function of the engine. The blade sound would not be different. Spinning up is a function of the blades. In either case, the sound of the blades would not get louder. If the helicopter were spinning up, the sound of the blades — the rhythm of the blades — would get faster.

Sato could hear the whine of the helicopter blades at full pitch.

Pitch is a poor choice of words here. “Helicopter blades at full pitch” literally means the collective is full up. The helicopter should be flying, not on the ground (as it is in this passage). Full speed — meaning that they’re spinning at 100% RPM — is probably what Brown meant here.

Langdon felt his stomach drop as the CIA helicopter leaped off the lawn, banked hard, and accelerated faster than he ever imagined a helicopter could move.

This is a classic ignorant writer passage. If the helicopter could leap off the lawn — which it might, depending on load — Langdon’s stomach wouldn’t drop. He might feel pushed back in his seat. The only time you’re likely to feel a helicopter motion in your stomach is if the helicopter entered autorotation, which feels — especially the first time — as if you’ve crested the top hill of a kiddie roller coaster and are suddenly zipping downward.

As for accelerating fast, I don’t know much about Robert Langdon’s imagination, but helicopters generally don’t accelerate quickly. It’s not like slamming down the gas pedal in a Ferrari in first gear. (In fact, one of the challenges I face when photographing car and boat races is catching up to a high-speed car or boat that has passed us while we’re hovering.) Can’t say I’ve flown a Black Hawk lately, though.

Langdon held his breath as the helicopter dropped from the sky toward Dupont Circle. A handful of pedestrians scattered as the aircraft descended through an opening in the trees and landed hard on the lawn just south of the famous two-tiered fountain designed by the same two men who created the Lincoln Memorial.

There’s that hard-landing helicopter again. Maybe the problem is that Brown — and most of the rest of the population — doesn’t understand that helicopters don’t just “drop out of the sky” to land. There’s a thing called “settling with power” that will basically ensure a very hard landing if you descend too quickly straight down.

And don’t even get me started on the encyclopedic fact that has nothing to do with the plot, fouling up the end of that sentence.

Once everyone had jumped out, the pilot immediately lifted off, banking to the east, where he would climb to “silent altitude” and provide invisible support from above.

Silent altitude? What’s that? About 50,000 feet? I don’t know of any altitude above a point where a helicopter would be silent — especially if it still had to provide “invisible support” — whatever that is. I look forward to the day when the words silent and helicopter can be used in the same sentence as adjective describing noun.

The UH-60 pilot threw his rotors into overdrive, trying to keep his skids from touching any part of the large glass skylight. He knew the six thousand pounds of lift force that surged downward from his rotors was already straining the glass to its breaking point. Unfortunately, the incline of the pyramid beneath the helicopter was efficiently shedding the thrust sideways, robbing him of lift.

He threw his rotors into what? What the hell is that supposed to mean? And what’s with the “six thousand pounds of lift force” surging down from this rotors? Is he trying to say that rotor wash is exerting 6,000 pounds of force?

Hello? Helicopters do not work just like big fans blowing air down to fly. They have wings, just like airplanes do. Airfoils create the lift that makes a helicopter fly. Downwash just helps a bit when the helicopter is near the ground. That’s called ground effect.

And let’s look at this in real life — the helicopter had only 2 or 3 people on board. It had already discharged its passengers. Is Brown trying to say that the pilot was depending on ground effect to fly? On a winter night (cold; it landed on “frosty grass” once) in Washington DC (sea level)? How did it get off the ground with passengers on board — let alone leap into the sky — if it couldn’t even hover out of ground effect when it was nearly empty?

And what’s all this about skids? Didn’t we already establish that the Black Hawk has wheels? If you can’t read the words, Mr. Brown, at least look at the pictures.

Errors like this just prove that the writer has no understanding of how helicopters fly. Yet this and many of the other helicopter-related errors in this book could have been prevented if the passages were handed off to an experienced helicopter pilot as part of the editing process.

But I guess a bestselling author is beyond all that.

Facts in Fiction

Why fiction authors should get the facts straight in their writing.

The vast majority of people who want to be writers want to write fiction. While I don’t have the statistical sources to back up that claim, I don’t think anyone can deny it. There’s something about writing fiction that really appeals to people who want to write — including me. The only reason I don’t write fiction for publication is that I found that I could make a good living writing non-fiction. Making a living as a writer is more important to me than writing fiction.

With all that said, what many fiction writers don’t understand is the importance of getting their facts straight in what they write.

How Deep is Your Fictional World?

When you write fiction, you build a fictional world. The depth of your world — how similar it is to the real world — can vary.

Suppose, for example, that you’re writing a science fiction adventure that takes place on a distant planet that isn’t even very Earth-like. You’re making up the setting and all that goes with it. Is the sky on your planet pink? Are there four suns? Do the people have eyes where our mouths are and four arms instead of two? You’re making everything up. Your world may have nothing in common with the real world. You have license to make everything up as you go along.

Now suppose you’re writing a thriller that takes place in a Wall Street banking firm (if any are left). Wall Street is a real place in a real city. You’re not making any of that up. You might make up the firm and its customers. You’ll probably make up the characters and plot. But you’re still constrained by what’s real in your world. In New York, taxis are yellow and police cars are blue and white. (At least they were the last time I was there.) Wall Street is in Lower Manhattan and it’s crossed by Broadway. If you change any of these facts — or don’t get them straight — you’re making an error. (Of course, you could cheat by setting the plot in the distant future, thus adding a SciFi element to it. But do you really want to do that if it’s not part of the story?)

In many cases, you can ensure the accuracy of the facts in a piece of fiction by a lot of Googling or perhaps even a visit to Wikipedia. Other times, you need better resources — possibly even an “expert.”

I bring this up for two reasons:

  • I was recently asked a question by a writer about how a helicopter works. He wanted to get his facts straight.
  • I am repeatedly distracted by errors in facts in novels by authors who really should have the resources to get their facts straight.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

Question from a Writer

The other day, someone posted the following comment on my post titled “How Helicopters Fly“:

I am writing a novel in which a helicopter goes out of control and starts spinning. How would a pilot pull out of a spin? Gyrating.

This is a good question — kind of. It’s good because the person who asks does not understand the technical aspects of what he wants to include as a plot point. He realizes that he lacks this knowledge and he’s actively trying to get it. Great!

Unfortunately, it’s not a question that can be easily answered — even by someone who knows what the answer might be. (And I’m really not sure why he included the single word “Gyrating” at the end of his comment. What does he mean by that?) My response to him tries to get this point across:

It really depends on how the helicopter got into that spin. Normally, the rotor pedals will stop a spin, but if the tail rotor’s gone bad (or chopped off), the pedals probably won’t help. Sometimes flying straight at a high speed can keep you from spinning with a non-functioning tail rotor.

It’s not at all like an airplane. You don’t “pull out of a spin.” You prevent yourself from getting into one; if you start to spin, you use your pedals to stop it before it gets out of control.

A better way for him to approach this problem would be to sit down with a helicopter pilot or instructor and ask him/her what might cause a helicopter to start spinning and how a pilot might recover from each cause. He can then fit one of those causes into his plot and have the pilot stop the spin.

But he shouldn’t stop there. After writing the passage concerning the spin and recovery, he should pass over those manuscript pages to a pilot and let him read them. Does it ring true? Is it feasible? Are the correct terms used? Doing this will ensure that the passage is error-free.

Errors in Best-Selling Fiction

As a writer and a helicopter pilot, I’m especially sensitive to helicopter-related errors in popular fiction. A while back, I read a Lee Child book that included scenes with a helicopter. It was full of errors. Here are two that come to mind:

  • The helicopter was in a fuel-critical situation. The author stated that it was better to be lower than higher if the helicopter ran out of fuel. (The exact opposite is true; you want to be higher if your engine quits so you have more options for autorotative landing.)
  • The helicopter pilot is killed by a character breaking his neck. The author has the helicopter pilot land on dirt before he kills him so it looks like he broke his neck when the helicopter crashed-landed when it ran out of fuel. (But the helicopter didn’t crash. It landed upright on its skids. If it had been a “crash landing” — even on its skids — the skids would have been spread and the helicopter would have had other signs of a hard landing.)

These are absolutely glaring errors to a helicopter pilot. They ruined the book for me. How could I slip into the author’s world when its connections to the real world are so screwed up? If he got this stuff so wrong, what else did he get wrong?

I found more errors like this — although admittedly not as bad — in the latest Dan Brown book, The Lost Symbol. I’ll go through them in some detail in another post.

These Are Just Examples from My Real World

These are examples from my world, which includes helicopters. Maybe your world includes flying an airliner or managing an office building or designing computer security systems. Or anything that’s a lot more complex than it seems on the surface. When you read a piece of fiction and the author includes “facts” from your world as plot points — and gets them wrong — how do you feel? Doesn’t it bug you? Perhaps ruin the book for you?

The most commonly repeated advice to writers is to “Write what you know.” Although I agree with this and believe writers should start with what they know, there are often times when they have to stretch the boundaries and write a bit about what they don’t know. I believe they should make an extra effort to get the facts straight whenever they do this. And then go the final extra step in having an “expert” review the final written passages as a fact check before the book is published.

What do you think?