Six minutes after Asiana Airlines flight 214 crashed while attempting to land at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday, while rescue crews were frantically triaging the accident, a man with the handle "FlyDeltaJets" posted the news to Airliners.net, an online colloquium for all things aeronautic.
At present count, 471 of the world’s most dedicated online airliner enthusiasts, along with a few bozos and one defensive CNN researcher, have mounted an amateur investigation into the crash that claimed the lives of two Chinese teenagers and injured 182 other passengers. By Monday morning, they had posted a combined 1,483 times.
Twelve minutes after the thread was kicked off by "FlyDeltaJets"—who identifies himself in his Airliners.net profile as Leroy Johnson, a materials specialist in Brooklyn—user "as739x" reported that there was, in fact, an accident:
I just confirmed there is a crash on the approach end of the 28's. The plane is broken in multiple pieces. It appeared to the controller I spoke with that it was a hard landing and the tail is yards away from the body of the aircraft. It was possible a short landing or hard touchdown.
When another user pressed "as739x" on this, he or she explained that, "I got the info from Ramp Tower I use to supervise. Crash confirmed. Tragic."
While it's hard to know who is really who in an online forum, those who are highly specialized and low profile like this one tend to weed out obvious frauds. (All but the most veteran members pay a fee for the privilege of posting to the site.) In the hours following the crash, there was perhaps no larger concentration of airline knowledge than that which virtually convened on the site.
Within a few hours, users were plotting the speed and position of the flight compared with other recent arrivals to SFO. Another user posted an outside analysis of the altitude of the plane as it landed and compared it with the same flight’s landing the previous four days, which suggested that it was actually the previous day’s landing that was abnormally low, based on a data from the site FlightAware.com.
The thread, which has blossomed to five pages, has an obvious analog in the widely maligned attempt by a gang of Reddit users in April who incorrectly identified Brown University student Sunil Tripathi as one of the Boston Marathon bombers.
While there appears to be little sense on the airliner forum that the fruits of their discussions will have much immediate bearing on the official inquiry into the crash, community manager Paul McCarthy says investigative bodies do sometimes contact the site requesting the contact information of users who have posted valuable information. He says the site's policy to is to ask the user's permission to do so, and that roughly one in three people agree to be put in touch with the investigators.
Of most value, arguably, is the sense of skepticism that the anonymous experts bring to the table. While the likes of The New York Times use the data from FlightAware in its graphics, Airliners.net users are cautious not to draw too many conclusions from those figures, which are drawn from sources with a large margin of error. Many users ridiculed the errors in CNN’s live reporting, to the point that a user claiming to be a CNN researcher named Mike assured them that, “I work for CNN and we're watching this thread closely now. Keep the information coming should you have any.”
When further abused, Mike replied that, "We're all speculating. We don't confirm it."
Update, July 8, 2013, 4:56 p.m.: This post was updated with Monday afternoon's posts to Airliners.net and comments from community manager Paul McCarthy.