Reflections on a Bad Day - Airplanista Aviation Magazine Monthly Column

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This aviation magazine article was originally published in the October, 2011 issue of Airplanista Magazine. You can view the original story in our digital aviation magazine here.

By Dick Knapinski,
EAA Communications Director

The original intent for this month’s column was to outline some of the early attractions coming to Oshkosh in 2012, along with some of the fall maintenance chores and other things that are going on throughout the AirVenture grounds.

That can wait, though.

All of us in aviation have been following the events and aftermath of the tragedy at the National Championship Air Races in Reno that took place on Sept. 16. Your heart breaks for the families of those lost or injured in the accident, and some of us recall friends that may have been lost that day.

The ripples from that event spread farther than just the boundaries of Reno-Stead Airport. It affects everyone one of us who flies or watches those who fly high or fast or on the edge. It also leaves an indelible mark on those who devote themselves to organizing the events that bring us together in aviation, whose toil and effort are focused on allowing the rest of us show up and have a great time.

Right after the Reno accident, and the initial thoughts of those involved and the safety of the EAA personnel on the scene, my reflections were about those who would have to stand in front of the media and describe the day and what happened. Even though the people who faced that chore are more than passing acquaintances, and I’ve never met most of them, I felt an instant connection. I’ve been there in similar circumstances. Those in that role know what it’s like to go from everything humming along smoothly to what could become your worst day ever.

When accidents occur at larger events, the plan is typically in place and the assignments are designated. Just please don’t call it a routine, because there’s nothing routine about it. There is an instant chaos factor – what happened, what’s happening now, who’s on the scene – followed by an enormous wave of requests and demands (use the appropriate word here of your choosing) of media, staff, volunteers and countless others who want information immediately.

Tidbits of information are flying everywhere at a time like this. Some of it is credible; some is nothing more than the vapor of a rumor. Part of the job in a communications role is sorting through those things by quickly verifying facts or trying to reach people who are frantically trying to do their job as well. Chaos is part of the moment. The best plan in the world designed at a calm meeting will be stressed because of human emotion and adrenaline.

Answering the first round of media questions might be the toughest time for those in that situation. I’m friends with hundreds of media people; I came up through that profession myself. I realize they have a job to do. Many are fine, sensitive people; some are in a hurry for a story and others are, well, the seamy underbelly of the media business. Replying to the questions as honestly as one can with the confirmed information available is all one can do, even as the rumors and frenzy may offer something else.

There’s another element that complicates a response at times like this: the explosion of social media. There a good likelihood that a photo or video from an accident will be on the Internet even before most people organizing an event know about it.

Here’s where sometimes we as aviators get in our own way of media coverage of flying. There’s a human nature to show people that something that you might be able to make available to the world. Thus, we’ll post that photo or video of an accident or its aftermath on our YouTube, Twitter or Facebook page or, even further, hawk it to the local media.

While it’s not fair to get up on a soapbox and say “don’t do that,” it’s important to remember the impact of that posting. How many non-aviators will see it and build their own perceptions about flying from it? Is that what you, as a flying enthusiast, want to show people as you talk about the fun and attraction of aviation? Is it the impression you want the media to have of what we do and enjoy? Those are questions that we each must answer individually.

Within flying there is joy and risk, there’s freedom and responsibility. We accept it a part of being involved. It’s also why we share the sadness when tragedies happen and share the enthusiasm and happiness when we see flying accomplishments, great and small.

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