Another Example of the Media Screwing Up the Facts

A brief rant.

One of my Twiiter friends, @Vatsek, tweeted the following to me last night:

Have you seen this? Helicopter crashes at Texas A&M, killing one — CNN News web page

First of all, I do want to make it clear to folks that I don’t normally go out of my way to track down news stories about helicopter crashes — unless they’re local or there’s a chance I might know the pilot. But since @Vatsek tweeted it to me, I figured I’d better check it out to see why he’d flagged it. I found the article on CNN.com, “Helicopter crashes at Texas A&M, killing one.”

It was a brief piece with an overhead view of what looked like a helicopter that someone with a very large foot had stepped on. Included in the text were these sentences:

…The copter, which was heavily damaged, was attempting to take off when it crashed. A rudder apparently failed, the university statement said….

“All of the sudden, he dropped straight back down into the ground,” [a witness said]…

I have two problems with these statements:

  • A standard helicopter does not have a “rudder.” It has a tail rotor, which is controlled with anti-torque pedals. Those pedals resemble rudder pedals on an airplane, but they are not rudder pedals because a helicopter does not have a rudder.
  • If a helicopter’s tail rotor (anti-torque system) failed, the helicopter would not come “straight down.” It would be spinning like crazy. That’s because the tail rotor prevents it from spinning like crazy. If it failed, it would spin. And it’s pretty clear from the photo in the article that the helicopter was not spinning like crazy when it hit the ground.

This is yet another example of the media speculating, with absolutely no knowledge, about the cause of an accident, spreading misinformation among the public. What’s even worse about this is that if they asked any helicopter pilot — even a new student pilot — to fact check their story, they could have gotten it corrected with, at the very least, the proper terminology for the tail rotor/anti-torque system.

3 thoughts on “Another Example of the Media Screwing Up the Facts

  1. So true. We recently did a media day flight demonstration of various “air assets”, specifically our helicopters and fixed wing fire bombers in South Australia. A television crew approached me for an interview and started setting up. I declined the interview and suggested they talk to the other pilot. I was going to be talking to the Premier of the State who was waiting to climb into the cockpit with me.

    The television reporter asked me if I had an aversion to talking on television? I told her that I had never seen a single story reported on television where I had a knowledge of the facts that wasn’t inaccurate,misquoted or presented out of context to enable the news to put forth a story of their choosing rather than what was actually intended by the person being interviewed.

    The Premier and I climbed in the helicopter and he smiled at me and said, ” that was good ”

    Keith Gill´s last blog post: Flying Seismic

  2. Your point is well-taken, and I agree, CNN screwed up here. But they didn’t screw up by “speculating,” which is the sin The Media is always accused of committing. They screwed up by accepting, at face value and without skepticism or question, the assertion that this helicopter had a rudder.

    Note the attribution was to a unversity statement. Obviously, the PR person who drafted the statement for the university is dumb as a box of rocks. And the reporter in this instance was ignorant because he/she/it never bothered to ask questions about the statement. “Uh, in your statement, you blame the ‘rudder.’ Sir/Madam, how can you say that, since A) helicopters don’t have rudders and B) this crash just happened and hasn’t been investigated yet?”

    There was a time when journalists did that. Now they just do their hair so they look nice on TV…

    Yes, I’m coming to this a year late, but what the heck! Nice blog!

  3. @Jim Mathews
    This reminds me a bit of an accident back in 2005 in Scottsdale in which the pilot, faced with an engine failure, neglected to do a proper autorotation. The wreckage clearly indicated that the blades weren’t spinning much by the time the aircraft reached the ground. The owner of the aircraft stated to the media that the freewheeling unit had failed, thus causing the blades to stop when the engine did. This was the owners attempt to place blame on the manufacturer rather than any pilot or maintenance problem. The media, of course, picked it up and repeated it several times. This statement to the media was made within hours of the crash, before any examination of the wreckage had been done. It was also wrong. By the time the truth was known, the story was cold and the media had gone onto other things. The result: the general public is left with the notion that when the engine on a helicopter fails, the blades stop and it crashes.

    Do you know how that affects local helicopter charter operators?

    Anyway, thanks for stopping by the blog. Hope you come again!

What do you think?