Friday, December 26, 2008

Airline Connections

I know I'm on blogcation, but this story will be stale in two weeks, and it's bugging me.

Last week, a pilot flying own airplane for fun with a couple of his friends attempted a touch-and-go landing on a glacier north of Vancouver. As he brought the airplane down to test the landing surface, it caught in the deep snow and flipped over. There were no injuries, the party had plenty of survival equipment, and the pilot and his two passengers were winched off the glacier by a rescue helicopter that same night. This would be a happy little Christmas story, were it not for the name of the pilot's employer.

According to the news report the pilot flies for Pacific Coastal Airlines, the same BC company that has suffered two fatal crashes in four months, attracting continuing media and TSB scrutiny, and turning this from a story about good preparation and competent rescue services to one about PCA screwing up again. My question is, who tipped off the press to the pilot's affiliation?

The media presumably finds out through regular channels that a SAR aircraft has been dispatched and three people rescued. How do you get from there to the fact that the pilot is a PCA pilot? The names of the three have not been released. But say the reporter gets a name, anyway, off the record, or perhaps flies by the site in daylight, reads the registration visible on the wing of the overturned aircraft, and looks up the name of the owner of the airplane. Now he's got a name. Maybe it's identical to the distinctive and unusual name of the man who captained the reporter's last flight. So did the reporter call PCA and ask them to confirm it's him? Did the reporter look the name up in the phone book and get some member of the family to confirm that the man was both the accident pilot and a PCA pilot? This is getting far-fetched. I'm not saying the pilot has an unusual name. It could be Smith -- which happens to be the name of the family that runs PCA.

Pacific Coastal VP Spencer Smith is quoted saying “It’s his airplane and he’s welcome to do whatever the heck he wants to do." That's true in a way. It's not illegal to land on a glacier, and I expect the pilot had flown few enough hours in the month that duty time was not an issue. I'll bet Spencer Smith would like to strangle him. Smith told the media the pilot did not wish to speak to them, so it doesn't appear the media received any information from the pilot. The TSB wouldn't release that sort of information: they just give age and licence type. The fact that the pilot held a commercial licence wouldn't be much of a tip off, because a lot of Canadians who have never worked commercially hold commercial licences.

The pilot's friends and co-workers would hear about this pretty quickly, and thus every working pilot on the west coast. But every working pilot on the west coast probably knows who the guy is sleeping with and what bar he was in when he almost got arrested that time in Calgary. But these things don't turn up in the newspapers. The pilot was probably smart enough to tell his employer to give the employer an opportunity to do damage control, but that doesn't add up to the media knowing It seems more likely that someone told the reporter this juicy piece of gossip. I'm sure it was shared at many a table this week, along with the gravy and mashed potatoes, but that's not the same as putting it out where it is going to reflect poorly on the company. It's not like the guy went out and got a DUI. It's more like he tried to turn around in a parking lot and skidded across the ice into a lamppost. Wrong place, wrong time, tough luck.

I know I have reporters reading this blog, and I don't mean to insult them by insinuating that they couldn't find out a thing like where a guy worked. I admit that it does make this story more interesting to know the connection, and the fact that Smith commented on it for the record very legitimately connects the two parts. It just seems that there's an even more interesting part missing if I don't know just how the connection was made.

So New Year's resolutions on the 28th and then I really do take a blogging break.

9 comments:

jinksto said...

As a guess and without looking to see how many FBO's are in easy range of the crash sight I'd guess it could have been any number of people.

Fuel person, counter person, anyone that knew the guy. Based on my (admittedly poor) experience with journalists the conversation probably went something like:

Journalist: Did you hear about the crash on the glacier?
FBO person: Oh, yeah, everybody's talking about that
J: Do you know the pilot
F: yeah, he flies out of here sometimes. Good guy.
J: So he's not a heavy drinker or anything?
F: Oh no! Real straight up guy! I've only seen him drink probably once at a Christmas party 3 years ago.
J: Did he drink a lot?
F: Oh, yeah... everybody did.. that was some par... umm ahem... it wasn't much.
J: Ah, cool... so would you say that he's a pretty good pilot usually?
F: Oh absolutely! I mean, he flies for PCA... real tight about keeping his airplane in shape.
J: Ok, well, he sounds like good people. Thank you.

Headline:
PCA Crash Pilot Seen Drinking to Excess at Christmas Blowout!!!

Just a twist here and a tweak there and you have good news.

Colin Summers said...

It could also be an easier connection. During the reporting for the first PCA crash and during the reporting for the second PCA crash (reporting which one would assume was a little more intense), many reporters probably tried to talk to many PCA pilots.

If I were one of those (fairly local) reporters and I saw this name pop up... I'd hurry to connect the dots. A shot-in-the-dark call to PCA would be rewarded with Spencer's statement.

Anonymous said...

Finding out who he is can be as simple as googling him, up comes a result that says he's on facebook, maybe his facebook isn't private and then there it is for all the world to see. I also agree with jinksto, there could have been a conversation similar to what he wrote.
It reminds me a little bit when a guy wrecked a rented airplane (completely his fault). The boss of the aviation company that he worked for saw it and boy was he p*ssed. That guy left shortly after.

Ed said...

...and I expect the pilot had flown few enough hours in the month that duty time was not an issue.

Does private, non-commercial, flying count as duty time in Canada? I'm pretty sure it doesn't in Britain.

Rob said...

The so call "news companies" have very little interest in reporting the news, they are much more interested in getting the headlines that make money...

Aviatrix said...

Does private, non-commercial, flying count as duty time in Canada?

Turn a prop or a rotor for any reason and you'd better believe it goes on your duty time in Canada. I have to report it to my employer and it goes on my duty time record.

The so call "news companies" have very little interest in reporting the news.

That's part of why I'm surprised that this one did get this news. While admittedly if the guy kept his C172 at the same airport where he worked, or talked about his day job at the FBO that serviced the Cessna, inquiries like those Jinksto suggested could be effective, I wouldn't expect that kind of investigative journalism for a private airplane oops over Christmas.

Sarah said...

Ah, a "blogcation vacation". And why not?

There are many ways (in other comments) for an enterprising reporter to dig up connections, and after all that is their job in a slow news period like Christmas. I'm sure the pilot & his employer would rather the connection & unfortunate publicity remain unpublicized, but I doubt it matters all that much. I do wish it weren't printed, especially given the troubles PCA has had recently. It doesn't seem fair.

Maybe more caution with assumed risk is advisable for the pros, for whom an unfortunate headline could limit career advancement.

To the general public ( that's me ), landing on a glacier sounds risky. I am nervous just landing on a snowy runway. An interesting aside in the news for me was that the airplane was a C172 taildragger conversion. Huh. I knew about the "Texas Taildragger" 152 conversion, but not that. I hope they can get the airplane off the glacier.

Anonymous said...

Re: Duty time

it is important to note that as a private pilot, you can't duty out. Your private hours still count towards commercial duty time limits though.

Thus, if I fly my private cessna for 120 hours in a month, I can no longer fly commercially until duty limits allow. However, if I fly commercially for 120 hours in a month, I can go out and continue flying my private aircraft to my heart's content...

Anonymous said...

Re: Duty time

it is important to note that as a private pilot, you can't duty out. Your private hours still count towards commercial duty time limits though.

Thus, if I fly my private cessna for 120 hours in a month, I can no longer fly commercially until duty limits allow. However, if I fly commercially for 120 hours in a month, I can go out and continue flying my private aircraft to my heart's content...