The New York Times carried a correction today for an August 9 story that essentially revises a key component of John McCain's military career -- that he was a "fighter pilot":
An article on Sunday about Senator John McCain's campaign management style described his role as a Navy pilot in Vietnam incorrectly. He flew bombing missions as an attack aircraft pilot, but he was not a "fighter pilot." (The error has appeared in numerous other Times articles the past dozen years, most recently on April 9 and on Dec. 15, 2007.)
It would seem like an important matter, given the fact that the paper of record was going so far to cop to a decade-long litany of error. But it appears that the Times is really splitting a hair here. Providing the vital "More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About Fighter Planes" research today is Gawker's Ryan Tate, who reckons the Times needs to be told, "Negative Ghostrider, the pattern is full of tortured reasoning!"
When McCain was famously shot down over Vietnam, he was flying his usual plane, a small jet aircraft known as the A-4 Skyhawk, which the Times now refers to as an "attack aircraft." That's a safe and widely-agreed upon label for the plane pilots dubbed "Scooter" (heh), but the newspaper needn't have apologized for calling it a "fighter." Many in the aviation community regard it as precisely that, starting with the military's most famous training program, Top Gun.
Top Gun, the nickname for the Navy fighter pilot school made famous in the Tom Cruise movie of the same name, originally used the A-4 to simulate Russian MiGs. The key attribute for a "fighter," according to widely recognized definitions, is high speed and maneuverability and weapons designed to shoot down enemy aircraft.
All versions of the aircraft can carry Sidewinder air-to-air missiles for self defense, according to Bill Gunston and Mike Spick's excellent "Modern Air Combat." And they often did, for example in the service of the Israeli Air Force, where an A-4 shot down a Syrian MiG-17 during the Yom Kippur war. Boom, fighter!
Tate goes on to point out that while the A-4's purpose is often interpreted as an "attack bomber," at least one authoritative source, The World's Great Attack Aircraft, "refers to the plane as a 'versatile little fighter-bomber.'"
Naturally, I have to wonder why the Times is committing themselves to a wordy future of referring to McCain as "an attack aircraft pilot who flew bombing missions" when their audience is not primarily made up of military experts and "fighter pilot" is a simple and accurate enough way of describing McCain's military service. In keeping with the need to correct decade-long assumptions (and the Top Gun theme in general!), the Times might be better advised to reconsider whether it's accurate to call McCain a "maverick."
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