Thank you for sending the October issue for review. Regardless of how relatively large a percentage of members read that section, I still don't believe that the "Letters" section is an appropriate venue for substantive corrections dealing with serious safety matters. An incident this weekend reinforced that conviction.
A friend called to tell me about a group of pilots in his CAP squadron that were discussing the matter and decided, on the basis of Horne's article, that in case of an emergency they would forgo ditching in a lake and instead take their chances with extremely rough rocky terrain or Ponderosa pine forest, neither of which are near as forgiving as the water. None had read my original edited letter in your Letters section, although three are AOPA members. If my friend had not been there to point them to the ETS Web site (and only one of the pilots has online access), they would have continued believing that the water was far more dangerous than the alternative, which may not be the case. That belief, prompted by Horne's article and uncorrected in their experience, could have someday proved deadly.
What I find so incredibly ironic about this entire affair is that you have responded in exactly the same manner as the FAA does so often. The kind of response for which AOPA and Phil have time and again chastised the FAA, the Administrator, and her minions. The kind of response that AOPA has railed against for years. Circle the wagons, support the field guy (in this case Horne), no matter how much in error they are, take punitive action against anyone you can that presents opposition or doesn't toe the line, and try to muscle your way through it because you can generally out-resource the opposition and they eventually either go away or give up. If forced to admit an error, do so in a manner that allows saving face or will be least noticed. Reminds me of Hoover all over again. Congratulations, you've become the much reviled FAA.
Except, just like Hoover, whom AOPA supported to the hilt you'll recall, I didn't go away and I didn't give up. I had, via Equipped To Survive, AVweb, and media contacts, a way to present my case--to present the facts and my opinion on this matter, to the public and the members.
While I sincerely appreciate that you have finally admitted in print that you erred with regards to the frequency of fatal ditchings, that is only one of a number of errors in Horne's article, only some of which have been corrected in the revised article. Nor are even those corrections accessible to a significant number of AOPA Pilot readers who do not have online capabilities. I believe I have adequately outlined my concerns with the ethics of this approach on the Equipped To Survive Web site, so I won't belabor the point here.
I have been a staunch and very vocal supporter of AOPA for years, and a member since I was a student pilot. I believe you have done an excellent job in the past few years improving the look of, and content in AOPA Pilot. I took pride in being an AOPA Pilot contributor. When I was asked to contribute slides to illustrate Horne's ditching article, I didn't hesitate, nor did I insist on being paid, which would have been entirely appropriate. We can save a discussion about the loss of those valuable slides for another day.
As such, it was never my intention to discredit AOPA Pilot, or damage its reputation. However, I am also not prepared to allow AOPA members to continue on with bad information that could adversely affect their safety. Their safety and that of all pilots is of concern to me. Despite your contention that I have "gone overboard" regarding this matter, it is clear that had I not acted to shine a very bright light on this matter, nothing further would have been done.
You tell me that you believe that I am trivializing ditching, sending "the wrong message" about ditching, that I am saying "it's no big deal." That comes as a surprise to me and everyone I've asked about your contention. The truth is that I have never, publicly or privately, ever written, said, or suggested that ditching isn't a serious emergency maneuver and that preparation isn't an important part of success (even though Paul Bertorelli's analysis suggests that may not even be the case, that student pilots manage to do quite well ditching). If I have ever said or suggested that ditching isn't something to take seriously, please show me where I did so. Insisting pilots have the true facts and understand the risks so that they can make a rational decision is not trivializing the matter. Despite having finally admitted that you made some errors, including the fact that ditching was not nearly as dangerous as your portrayed it, when we spoke you still insisted it was "very dangerous" and that "the water is never a good choice," a statement that is simply not supported by the facts.
I'm pleased that you finally called. When I write a letter to the editor of a publication that doesn't know me from Adam, I'm not surprised to have it shuffled off to the writer involved or some other low-level functionary for a response. When I write a letter to my editor at a publication I have written for and who has previously treated me as a professional, who has recently called me to ask questions about technology with which I have experience and he doesn't, essentially picking my brain for free, I would expect that editor to answer me directly either via email or a phone call, if for no other reason than professional and common courtesy. I'd expect that even more so when the issues raised by an expert in the field, myself, suggest that the article's author screwed up big time. Not only did you not respond personally, but you also obviously didn't pursue the matter of the obvious lack of research with Horne until pressured.
While I sincerely appreciate your admitting that the "hard time" I have given AOPA Pilot is "in some ways deserved," you are still obviously upset with me for doing so. Yet, despite being "in some ways deserved," and despite the fact that I tried to make the point privately without success before going public, you withdrew that assignment from me; which I discovered only by asking about its status. Perhaps you were waiting until after I purchased the non-refundable ticket to tell me? When I asked about your punitive action against me, the best you could come up with was a rationalization that you didn't want to give me "another platform to continue my attack on AOPA," and you also accused me of "bashing AOPA."
Nothing I have done has involved "bashing AOPA," my comments and concerns have been expressly and purposely aimed only at Horne and AOPA Pilot. If AOPA is feeling some manner of collateral damage to its image as a result of this controversy, it is certainly not my fault for pointing out the errors in Horne's article. Nor can I be faulted for expressing my honest opinion, well researched and backed up by others with far more experience than me in this business I might add, about what you should do to correct the error. I have gone out of my way to proceed in a measured and sensitive manner, considering the seriousness of the safety issues involved. If my goal had been to either discredit AOPA Pilot or "bash" AOPA, I can assure you I could do a far more effective job of that, were I so inclined. I remain, at least for the moment, a strong AOPA supporter.
When I pointed out that argument didn't wash, you then said that you didn't want to "raise my visibility" by my byline appearing in AOPA Pilot. Actually, I think I've managed to do quite well in the visibility department, which is exactly the problem, isn't it? All things considered, some might argue that my byline enhances your image. The fact is, that is irrelevant and not the real issue here.
This has been a painful personal experience for both of us. It appears that whatever the pain to you and AOPA Pilot so far, you've no inclination to do anything substantive about it. At this point I would guess you are not going to. I remain seriously disappointed in your reaction, both professionally and personally. I am disappointed also for the readers, who deserve better, and for the rest of AOPA, who also deserve better.
As for my own pains, I have few regrets. I have done the right thing and will continue to put the safety of my readers and all pilots first. I will also continue to work diligently, by whatever means at my disposal, at getting the truth about ditching to pilots everywhere in an effort to undo the damage done by Horne's article and your failure to issue an effective, responsible correction.
It's unfortunate that the controversy over this article casts a pall on the predominately accurate and useful content of the magazine, and the accomplishments of the affiliated entities of the Association. While safety is only one aspect of what AOPA and AOPA Pilot do, it is my professional emphasis. A misleading safety article has potentially serious consequences. Failure to correct it in a manner that is fully as effective as the initial misleading article has potentially serious consequences. To date you have not made any attempt to refute either my facts or views on the matter, other than to express your displeasure with my presenting both. If you have some rational arguments for me to consider, I'd welcome them. If you can show me I have erred in either, I will admit it and apologize.
I trust pilots to make a decision based on all the facts and it is my responsibility, both professionally and otherwise, to ensure they get the most accurate possible information that I can provide. I believe that safety of flight is paramount. If standing up for these principles means estrangement from AOPA Pilot is the price I pay, so be it. Ultimately, I am not the loser.
Cc: Mr. Phil Boyer
Tom Haines responds:
There is a printer's axiom: Everyone makes mistakes. We publish ours.
We made an error. We corrected it according to the policies of this magazine. We publish some 900 editorial pages a year in PILOT alone and from time to time an error creeps in, despite our diligence. This time the error dealt with a subject about which you obviously feel passionately. I admire your dedication to your cause.
Commentary by Doug Ritter:
Errors do "creep in," but the arrival of these errors wasn't so insidious. They blew in with all the subtlety of a hurricane as the result of the author's failure to perform the most basic research--a journalistic miscarriage that the editor failed to catch. Nor was it a single minor error, it was numerous significant errors with serious potential safety consequences. As for my "cause," it is not ditching, per se, rather it is to ensure that the safety information received by AOPA Pilot's readers, my fellow pilots, is correct. That is the issue about which I feel passionately. In my opinion, safety is of far greater concern than some policy that ill-fits the situation.
To quote the respected Barbara Mikkelson of Urban Legends fame, who knows quite a bit about myths and their perpetuation, "...initial...stories do a fair deal of damage for bits of them stay in the average person's memory whereas retractions or follow-ups do not. Since they lend apparent credence to a myth that's already believed, these "facts" don't get discarded when new information comes along."
It is only right then that every possible effort must be made to correct such errors in as effective a manner as possible, especially when they are so dangerous. Anything less is irresponsible. Excuses are no substitute for doing the right thing.
-- Doug Ritter
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