One of the many hazards of this job (we do it all for you, gentle readers) is reading accident investigation reports. The chief danger is the inevitable realization is that there are so many truly dumb ways to crash an airplane that it can give you pause every time you call “Prop clear” or step from the jetway. New methods of creating smoking holes are being discovered every day. 

A second danger of scanning those reports is in using the NTSB’s hopelessly complicated and counterintuitive database to find what you’re looking for. If you’ve encountered Carol, the perplexing name for this morass of frustratingly confusing dataspeak, you know of which we speak and it’s a topic for another day.

When you finally crack Carol’s code or somehow stumble into the information you seek in the volumes of reports, you’ll be amazed at how complicated seemingly straightforward accidents can be. Investigators look at an amazing range of factors and evidence in determining probable cause. It takes months of interviews and analysis and it shows how the slightest inconsistency, the tiniest slip-up and the most minor malfunction can blow up into full-fledged disaster in the blink of an eye.

So that’s why I get a little frustrated with the rush to judgment by armchair pundits who pontificate on the “possible cause” of crashes literally before the smoke clears. And the more mysterious the accident, the more numerous the theories become. When they’re transmitted at the speed of social media, they become fact before anyone has actually determined their truth.

Even the most diligent media can get caught repeating false information that has trended through the social media ranks to become a false fact. A lot of well respected media organizations and bloggers were tricked by several flight simulator videos of other crashes that got passed off as a shot of the China Eastern Boeing 737-800 that crashed in southern China last week. Despite all the corrections and retractions by the many who were mortified by their mistake, the damage was done and those screen grabs from simulations will live on forever as an actual picture of the crashing airplane.

It’s human nature to wonder about how such tragedies occur and it’s largely up to us as the media to find answers to those questions but boy, do we have to be careful. The paucity of details available about the unusual crash in China has, as is often the case, fuelled rampant speculation and led to a disturbing “theory” that is gaining traction all over the forums and on social media groups.

The fact that there is so far no evidence that suggests it’s correct not only muddies the waters for those trying determine what actually occurred, it shows immense disrespect for crew members who were among the 132 people killed in the crash.

So, we get that you’re curious. So are we. But spreading unsubstantiated or downright false innuendo based on wholly uninformed opinion gets in the way of us finally being able to get you the truth. 

When you finally discover the keys to Carol’s vault chronicling the missteps, failures and occasional treachery that brings down airplanes, there is much to be learned and it’s all factual.  But like all good things, there’s some effort—and patience—required to properly use it.

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