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Severe Turbulence! Airliner Plunges Out of the Sky!

Fact or fake news?

Passengers aboard a Delta flight from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale experienced a horrifying seven minutes when the plane plunged almost 30,000 feet, according to reports . . . . The plane sat Wednesday night at Tampa International, where mechanics worked to figure out what went wrong.

"Horrifying seven minutes." That's how the New York Post sensationalized an incident in which an airliner, completely under control of the pilots, descended from high altitude where pressurization is required to an altitude at which pressurization is not required. In addition to claiming "The plane plunged," the article implies the mechanics don't understand what went wrong with the plane.

Newsweek - a media outlet we expect to be reliable - chimed in saying the plane "plunged nearly 30,000 feet." Let's get it straight. Plunge implies out of control. Fly implies in control. The plane was flown under complete control from its cruise altitude to a lower altitude where pressurization of the cabin is not needed.

Newsweek ends its headline with "Life Is Fragile." Excuse me, Mr. Editor, but what does that have to do with the use of a well-established standard procedure that ensures safety? Is it appropriate to apply that phrase to the use of a procedure that is specified by the manufacturer, certified by the FAA, and that every airline pilot is tested on?

Every airline pilot is trained to descend from cruise altitude to 14,000 feet in four minutes. This procedure is used if the system that pressurizes the plane - keeping the cabin air thick enough for passengers to breathe normally - fails to maintain proper pressurization. This four-minute descent is so easy to do that it can be done using the autopilot.

If the pressurization system fails to maintain proper pressurization, four things happen.

  1. In the cockpit, a warning horn sounds to alert the pilots.
  2. In the cabin, passenger oxygen masks automatically drop down from the overhead compartment.
  3. The captain makes an announcement, "Pull down and use your oxygen mask" as he or she lowers the nose, reduces the throttles to idle, extends the speed brakes (extends the landing gear on some planes) to increase drag (wind resistance) so that the plane's speed holds steady as the pilots fly the plane downhill more steeply than in a normal descent.
  4. The pilot levels off the descent at 14,000 feet or below where the air is thick enough that neither pressurization or oxygen masks are needed. The reason the descent is done in four minutes is so that if a passenger is unable to use their oxygen mask they will not be harmed. After the descent, the pilots have the option to continue to the destination or to divert.

Oh, yes. There is a fifth thing. The media victimizes the public and I get emails from my fear of flying clients like this one. "This is always my biggest fear when flying. Just when I thought I was getting over my fear." The person who wrote that email sent this version:

Passengers Describe Panic As Delta Airlines Plane Plunges Nearly 30,000ft
September 19, 2019 Five Injured as 'Severe Turbulence' Forces Delta Flight to Make Emergency Landing Passengers aboard a Delta Airlines flight that rapidly plunged nearly 30,000 feet have spoken of their terrifying ordeal. Flight 2352 was midway through its journey from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale when the plane descended from an altitude of 39,000 feet to 10,000 feet in under seven minutes, WSB-TV reported.

This account adds another reason for terror: severe turbulence. Did you guess it? The descent was unrelated to turbulence.

Yellow journalism and fake news are nothing new. Back when I was in high school, I did free-lance photography. I remember handing a photograph to the City Editor of the Raleigh, North Carolina daily newspaper, The News and Observer. The Editor said, "Thanks," and turned away. I said, "Don't you want to know the story?" He said, "No. We'll make it up."

No wonder we locals dubbed the paper, "The News and Disturber." If you need an antidote to panic-inducing news coverage, click on the cover of my new book and read a bit to see if it helps.

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