Inflammatory, infantile and inaccurate reporting on historic aviation has been the scourge of the mainstream press for years – professional journalists and influential media outlets need to do better.
Case in point was Jeremy Vine’s lunchtime show on BBC Radio 2, broadcast on 17 August 2017. New depths were plumbed as Vine and his guests, Angela Epstein and Geoff Brindle, discussed with varying degrees of accuracy the safety of operating vintage aircraft. In his opening comments, Vine mused that it is “incredible that these machines are still able to get up in the air” and suggested their safety has now been called into question. Epstein’s remarks took things further, speculating on the potential for an aircraft to “stall on take-off” and injure people in the process. She suggested grounding the aircraft in anticipation of an incident might be the best option, before drawing frankly ludicrous and ill-informed comparisons between the longevity of vintage warbirds and domestic appliances. Further comments reflected a total lack of knowledge of the subject, going as far as to speculate on chances being taken and safety being compromised by an aircraft’s continued operation. So it went on, despite Flying Display Director Geoff Brindle’s efforts to balance the debate with factual insight.
The catalyst for the discussion was the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s (BBMF) announcement that it would be grounding its Merlin-powered aeroplanes (Lancaster, Spitfires and Hurricanes) until further notice. The BBMF’s statement of 17 August read: “A routine inspection has highlighted a fault with one of the Merlin engines in a Hurricane aircraft. We are currently investigating the fault and as a precaution, flying of Merlin engine powered aircraft has been paused. We are still operating Griffon & Gypsy (sic) powered aircraft, including Spitfires and Chipmunks. We realise how disappointing this will be to our many supporters, however safety remains our paramount concern”.
That this precautionary grounding made it to national radio may be telling of the media’s insatiable appetite for the defamation of a preservation scene they have no interest in understanding or appreciating, let alone promoting in anything approaching a positive light. It presented Jeremy Vine and Angela Epstein the opportunity to dredge up the kind of ill-informed rhetoric that plagued the front pages of national newspapers in the aftermath of the August 2015 Shoreham airshow crash. Two years on, the vintage scene remains unjustly maligned by journalists who favour histrionics.
The media has traditionally failed to convey the professionalism and technical skill of those involved in aviation; juvenile descriptions such as “looping the loop” have set the bar low for years. Few other professions are dealt such a consistently poor hand by the press – it would be unthinkable to see that kind of infantile coverage afforded to other industries. At its worst, coverage of airshows and historic aviation has been litigious and, at times, libellous. It was with a sense of disappointment, if not surprise, that I listened to Jeremy Vine’s show (as recommended by a friend who was similarly irked by the comments made) and felt the discussion regarding the BBMF’s decision to ground its Merlin fleet erring towards slander.
There are glimmers of positivity to be found, but they are few and far between. The recent arrival at IWM Duxford of the Historic Aircraft Collection’s DH-9, for example, has been celebrated in the national press and a positive light drawn upon the extensive efforts of Guy Black and co. to restore this rare First World War bomber to airworthy condition. Equally, Spitfire Mk.TIX NH341’s return to flight earlier in the year and P-51B Mustang Berlin Express’ transatlantic crossing this summer made it into the broadsheets; in all of these instances, the focus has been on the tremendous expertise invested into these aeroplanes.
There are fascinating cross-generational stories to be found in all of these aircraft. In the same way that other heritage projects receive positive media coverage, the historical importance of vintage aeroplanes should also be commemorated and the efforts of those involved in keeping them flying celebrated.
Indeed, whilst the BBMF grounding is something of a non-story for those outside aviation circles, there are angles that could be taken to promote the historic scene, rather than using it as an opportunity for further denigration. Shifting the focus to the ongoing engineering regime that ensures there aeroplanes are maintained and operated in accordance with the highest standards, and the decision to curtail flying to ensure that a more widespread problem does not go unchecked, would be less inflammatory but would illustrate well the professionalism with which the BBMF approach flying safety.
The efforts of dedicated engineers and pilots working to preserve and safeguard Britain’s aviation heritage make for a far more worthy and educational story than the sensationalism concocted by Jeremy Vine, Angela Epstein and their ilk. It’s high time the mainstream media treated aviation with the respect it deserves but alas, I might be hoping for a little too much.