The Times published two amazing corrections this morning, starting with one stating that the newspaper had erroneously called Republican presidential candidate John McCain a "fighter pilot" on Sunday and in "numerous other Times articles the past dozen years." Wow, a correction that spans more than a decade! When McCain was famously shot down over Vietnam, he was flying his usual plane, a small jet aircraft known as the A-4 Skyhawk, which the Times now refers to as an "attack aircraft." That's a safe and widely-agreed upon label for the plane pilots dubbed "Scooter" (heh), but the newspaper needn't have apologized for calling it a "fighter." Many in the aviation community regard it as precisely that, starting with the military's most famous training program, Top Gun.
Top Gun, the nickname for the Navy fighter pilot school made famous in the Tom Cruise movie of the same name, originally used the A-4 to simulate Russian MiGs. The key attribute for a "fighter," according to widely recognized definitions, is high speed and maneuverability and weapons designed to shoot down enemy aircraft.
The A-4 proved itself fast and maneuverable at Top Gun, as well as in the service of the Navy's Blue Angels precision-flying team, but in neither of those cases did the aircraft carry any weapons. But it was built to do so. All versions of the aircraft can carry Sidewinder air-to-air missiles for self defense, according to Bill Gunston and Mike Spick's excellent "Modern Air Combat." And they often did, for example in the service of the Israeli Air Force, where an A-4 shot down a Syrian MiG-17 during the Yom Kippur war. Boom, fighter!
The authoritative Jane's military book series calls the A-4 an "attack bomber" in its "Encyclopedia Of Aviation" while Gunston and Spick call it a "versatile little attack bomber."
But! "The World's Great Attack Aircraft," a nifty guide published by W. H. Smith's Gallery imprint, refers to the plane as a "versatile little fighter-bomber."
The Times should not be so easily cowed, particularly when 12 years worth of coverage is at stake. The newspaper no doubt did its own investigation, and "attack aircraft" is a more appropriate term for the A-4 than "fighter" — it's not the "F-4" after all — but there's no need to backtrack from using a perfectly accurate alternative name.
Oh, right, the other amazing correction. That would be one to a review of West Side Story published in 1960:
A listing of credits on April 28, 1960, with a theater review of "West Side Story" on its return to the Winter Garden theater, misstated the surname of the actor who played Action. He is George Liker, not Johnson. (Mr. Liker, who hopes to audition for a role in a Broadway revival of the show planned for February, brought the error to The Times's attention last month. )
That one is just a bit more cut-and-dried.