Did the New York Times Magazine Publish a Fake Air Scare Story?

When writer Noah Gallagher Shannon's piece about being on a commercial plane that was "about to crash" due to a landing-gear failure came out in the New York Times Magazine two weeks ago, readers were riveted by a story of every traveler's worst fear come to life.

"You can actually feel the air holding you up when a plane’s engines power down," wrote Shannon. "Like when you’re riding a bike downhill and you stop pedaling, there’s noiselessness in its speed. Out the window, the tight geometry of row houses rose up beneath me. I could see the swirl of red-blue-red. You’ve never been to Philadelphia, I thought."

Thankfully, Shannon's plane didn't end up crashing—he landed safely in Philadelphia, at last—but his article quickly did.

The Washington Post's Gene Weingarten was one of the first to question the veracity of Shannon's essay, writing, "We are not told which airline this was, or when this incident occurred. We are presented with a scene of almost unimaginable terror, with a satisfying cast of characters ... ending with an amusingly ironic anticlimax." He added, "I am not saying this story is made up; it may well be literally true. ... But everything about how this story is presented raises red flags in my mind. I don’t know whether this is a failure of writing and editing, or something worse, but I do know it should not have been in print in this fashion, and that’s what makes me angry."

Later, the Atlantic's James Fallows aligned himself with the skeptics. "Here's the problem: why would the pilots have discovered mid-flight that the landing gear had failed?," asked Fallows. "Normally pilots would be paying attention to their landing gear exactly twice. One would be a few seconds after takeoff, when the flight crew would retract the gear into the plane's body so as to reduce drag as they climbed. ... The other time is not long before landing, when the crew would put the wheels back down. ... The rest of the time, the wheels just sit there. They don't fail mid-flight."

Others eventually joined in the chorus of criticism, and yesterday Times Magazine editor Hugo Lindgren finally felt compelled to respond with further information about Shannon's essay, including details about the flight's verified malfunctions. In a statement sent to Fallows, Lindgren essentially acknowledged that the story could contain errors while also stating that his fact checkers scrutinized the piece as best they could.

Naturally, not every detail matches everybody else's experience. Surely even people on that plane would remember it differently. The story was about the personal experience of a fearful moment. The author did not present himself as an authority in airline technology or emergency procedures. The airline, in fact, refused his request for more information about what happened after the fact. He only reported what he heard and felt, which is consistent with the magazine's Lives page, where the account was published.

In light of Lindgren's response, Fallows, the original article's most vocal critic, wrote today that the matter of Shannon's story is now "closed" to him, though he qualifies that statement with two caveats:

- I do believe that the author was aboard a flight two years ago that had an unexpected diversion to Philadelphia, and that this frightened him.

- I do not believe most of the detail, color, and sequence-of-events in the story. And it strikes me that Hugo Lindgren is not trying to convince me that I should.

The ultimate takeaway here seems to be that the great plane crash essay is still yet to be penned. Considering how the writing market is going, don't be surprised to see a million kids in Brooklyn rushing to board the next rickety puddle jumper they see.

[Image via Flickr user pranav]