Editor's Note: Al Tompkins, Poynter's Online/Broadcast group leader, was teaching a seminar at WNEP-TV in Scranton, Pa. last weekend when a charter aircraft crashed seven miles from the station. While WNEP scrambled crews into the field and broke into programming with bulletins, Tompkins helped the newsroom pursue the story online.

Al Tompkins has retraced his steps here, providing readers of Poynter.org with a guide to using the Internet for spot news. Bookmark this page. It contains links you may be glad to have at your fingertips the next time news breaks and you need help from the web.

At 11:30 Sunday morning I was munching on bagels and chatting with a team of WNEP-TV news managers and producers about getting more enterprise reporting in their newscasts. The Scranton, Pa., ABC affiliate is the nation's highest rated network-affiliated television station. On this rainy and overcast morning, in the middle of the May Nielsen ratings sweeps, the management and reporting team wanted to learn about how to tell richer stories.

The seminar had barely begun when someone broke in on the meeting with the somber announcement: "A plane is down." We adjourned the meeting and went to work. My goal was to use the Internet to find out as much about the accident as I could and to teach others, step by step, how to do the same. The objective: making the reporting as clear and comprehensive as possible.

What We Knew at the Time

About 11:25 a.m., a plane attempted to land at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport. The landing was aborted, but it was unclear why. At 11:42, the pilot reported he was having engine trouble. The tower tried to guide him to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, apparently obscured from the pilot's view by thick fog. The pilot's last transmission said both engines were dead. The airplane with 17 passengers and two crew members on board dropped from the radar screen nine miles from the airport.

What We Needed to Know

  • What kind of plane was it?
  • Where was it coming from and where was it heading?
  • Whose plane was it?
  • Did the plane crash or did it find a road to land on as the tower hoped it might?

Such questions sometimes take hours to answer. This was a Sunday morning. The Scranton airport is small. Nobody was convening news briefings or setting up media centers, as might happen at a bigger airport. Instead of waiting for hours to get information, we tapped the rich resources available to journalists online and nailed down key details within 90 minutes of the incident.

Question No. 1: Was it a commercial airliner?

We checked all websites for the airlines that serve Scranton (USAir, ComAir, Delta) and none had a flight scheduled to be near that area at that time. That information prompted us to look at other possibilities. A WNEP reporter on the scene quickly confirmed our web search by talking to ticket counter clerks who said they were not expecting flights.

Start With the Obvious

We wanted to contact the federal agencies that oversee crash investigations. The Federal Aviation Administration website guided us to the regional offices that handle Scranton. The regional office (718-553-3020) had a recording that obviously had not been updated saying "there are no incidents to report in this area at this time." A further search of the FAA website gave us the number of the national control center (202-267-3333). The duty officer promised to have a press officer call back. The National Transportation Safety Board was much more responsive. The after-hours press information line (202-314-6100) provided clear instructions on reaching the on-call press duty officer, but she had no information. It was clear we would be on our own gathering information for some time.

We turned to the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) site for quick tips about what we needed. The IRE site has a great resources site listed by specialty. We just clicked on the aviation site and got a couple of outstanding articles by LA Times computer analysis director Richard O'Reilly and Beth Marchak of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Now, we had a road map and the road map needed a starting point. If we could just learn the plane's tail number, we could unlock many mysteries. Tail numbers, which start with the letter "N" are to aircraft what license tags are to automobiles. The number may show up in record searches as appearing on more than one aircraft, so whatever information the tail number might lead us to find was not, on its own, rock solid.

Think Ahead

Since we knew that the last transmission from the pilot said the plane was 12 miles from the airport, WNEP News Director John Wessling asked the graphics department to build a map showing a 12-mile radius from the airport. Building a quick map with landmarks already inserted would allow us to quickly show where the plane went down the moment crews spotted the wreckage.

WNEP's helicopter pilot began talking to fixed base operators (FBOs) at several airports around the region to see if the plane might be privately owned. FBOs host and service small private planes and charters. One FBO operator said that it was not unusual for Caesar's casino in Atlantic City to charter planes for day trips from various points in Pennsylvania to Atlantic City. The operator knew the tail number of the plane that made the charter trips. Once we had a tail number, the Internet could help us unlock a world of information about who was involved in the crash.

The Web Holds the Key

With a possible tail number in hand, my first stop was to log on to Landings.com and click on the database section. This is a reliable (and free) online site that is dedicated to aviation. By entering the tail number (N16EJ) that the source gave us, we discovered the gambling charter was a JetStream31, built in 1988, and that the owner was listed as Millennium Jetstream holdings in Farmingdale, New York.

Since rescue crews had not yet found a crash site, WNEP could not confirm there had been a plane crash. Still, the team began pulling together background information that might prove to be useable once the crash was confirmed.

One of the things journalists need in a breaking story is a photo or sketch of the type of aircraft involved in the incident. I turned to the Internet for that too.

I tapped into Google, an efficient search engine, and entered the words "Jetstream31" into the search line. Several entries popped up including one that included six full-color photographs of the Jetstream 31 aircraft. The photographs included interiors and exteriors. We had the first real understanding of the size and vital statistics of the aircraft. We learned from that site and a couple of others that the Jetstream had a capacity of 19 people, the same number reported to be onboard the aircraft that called in with engine trouble. We confirmed the accuracy of the photographs by comparing them to some we found on other photograph and image sites. Here is one site that sells an outstanding selection of aircraft images.

We also used the Landings.com data to discover that there were 300 of these airplanes flying around the world and that most were used for charter aircraft and air ambulances. We also learned these planes have a solid safety and performance record. We double checked that by looking up all of the crashes involving Jetstream31s at the Aviation Safety Network. There was no common theme among the crashes, nothing that would point to an engine problem like the one we were dealing with.

Searchers reached the crash site by about 12:30 p.m. The searchers spotted a large plume of smoke in the wooded distance. We called Caesar's hotel to attempt to confirm that they had chartered the plane that was now missing. The casino's spokesperson confirmed that they did charter gambling trips around the northeastern US and that they did have an aircraft that was not accounted for. Finally, we were getting some reliable and detailed information. While the station had been on the air for some time reporting that a plane was missing and a search was underway, this was the first time WNEP reported where the plane most likely came from and it was the first clue about who might be on board. The casino also confirmed that they contracted with Executive Air of Farmington N.Y., the same company we had found as the owner of the aircraft whose tail number we ran a short time earlier.

Using the information from landings.com, we knew that the charter aircraft had come from a Farmington, N.Y., charter company. We turned to Assignmenteditor.com to find some white and yellow pages sites that we used to locate a phone number for Executive Air. A quick call to the company and we had the confirmation that it was their aircraft that was involved in "an incident."

A producer loaded the website pictures of the generic Jetstream31 we had found on Google into a still store display, which could be punched on the air. Within an hour of the plane's disappearance from the radar, WNEP was able to confirm where the aircraft came from, where it was going, how many people were on board, a history of who owned the aircraft, how old the plane was, the history of that model's performance, what the aircraft is normally used for, and how many were flying around the world. The station was able to show interior and exterior photographs of what the plane looked like.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton television stations and newspapers have not aggressively used their websites for breaking news coverage. But for this story, not only did the Internet prove to be a great tool for getting the story, it worked as a delivery platform, too. WNEP posted in-depth coverage and provided links to several airplane photo galleries and air safety resource sites. WNEP's normally quiet server was bombarded with hundreds of pages of requests an hour from surfers around the world. Station leaders said they were impressed by how many people used the web as a breaking news source.

Monday morning, the day after the crash, WNEP's focus turned toward two major areas: trying to learn the names of the victims and attempting to learn more about the history of the aircraft and the company that operated it. The Internet would be useful on both fronts.

NICAR and IRE Help Go Deeper

We checked the National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting website and learned that NICAR provides many FAA and NTSB databases pertaining to aircraft safety and airline crash investigations to journalists. NICAR buys huge FAA databases and makes the data useable for reporters at a low cost. NICAR's Mary Jo Sylwester (573-884-7711) said since we had a confirmed tail number she could look up performance difficulty reports for the plane. Those reports would reveal the long-term mechanical history of the plane. She estimated the search would cost about $25 dollars to run and would be ready in less than an hour via the Internet.

The record search, which arrived by Excel spreadsheet format, was available online, in 45 minutes. The sizeable report showed this aircraft had 10 aborted takeoffs and a handful of unscheduled landings between 1989 and 1994. Nothing had been reported since then. None of the discrepancy reports indicated a history of engine problems, only a history of problems with warning lights and a gauge that measures torque in the right engine. Several aviation experts told us that the PDRs, as they are known in the business, didn't point to any significant problems with the plane.

When covering a complex beat like aviation, it is always a good idea to call others who deal with these stories often. I made a call to Beth Marchak, the Cleveland Plain Dealer's aviation reporter in Washington, D.C. Beth reminded me that an estimated 90% of all airline problems are never written up in PDRs since they are voluntary. Marchak also advises reporters to file Freedom of Information requests with the FAA to get the complete mechanical history of the airplane.

Oh, the Places You Could Go

Here are some other great links to sites that will enrich your reporting of aircraft crashes and aviation:

Bird publishing is a rich website of remarkable proportions. Easily searchable, the site llists every kind of aircraft flown by every fleet in the world. It also links to government (FAA) databases.

To get federal documents straight from the FAA, go to their new site.

The single most comprehensive source of documents, information, and pictures is Landings.com, a commercial site updated daily.

Here's excellent collection of databases to help you get a handle on the safety of your airport and background of accidents of specific aircraft and carriers. They use databases from NTSB, FAA incident data (which includes near misses and such operation problems as collisions with birds) and Aviation Safety Reporting System, (a great source of safety complaints filed by pilots on an anonymous basis). This is where you can learn about hidden problems at your airport.