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Pilots have organized a ferocious, at times threatening, response to Quartz’s story about Instagrams in the sky

Reuters/David Gray
In formation.
  • Zachary M. Seward
By Zachary M. Seward

Editor-in-chief of Quartz

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Quartz’s investigation of commercial airline pilots taking photos and videos of their flights provoked a furious response from the aviation community. Hundreds of pilots and their fans have been harassing the reporter who wrote the story with vitriolic comments and, at times, threats of violence.

The outcry started even before the piece was published on Dec. 11. “Heads Up. D-Bag Alert,” began one thread on a message board for pilots, after Quartz sought comment from people who had posted images to Instagram that appeared to violate safety rules. After the story went online, the thread erupted with livid replies and an organized campaign to harass the reporter, David Yanofsky.

“This motherfucker needs to be put on the no fly list,” wrote the anonymous organizer of a popular Facebook page, Shit Pilots Say, which has galvanized much of the response. Thousands of comments, many of them threatening, have been left on Yanofsky’s accounts on Facebook and Instagram. Photos of him have been turned into memes. Pilots have posted cockpit photos with the hashtag #StopYanofsky2014.

“I hope some aviator (whether it’s me or not is immaterial) gets to throat-punch you for Christmas,” is a typical Facebook comment. “Hell, just thinking about it makes me feel all warm inside. Eat shit and die.”

“C’mon ladies and gentlemen of the aviation community,” reads another, “let’s teach this guy a lesson and give him what he deserves!!”

“I want to see u jump off a building and die motherfucker,” someone wrote on Instagram.

And so on.

Harassing calls have been placed to Yanofsky’s cell phone and to at least one location where he used to live. His phone number and email address have been signed up for automated calls, student loan inquiries, spam, and other annoyances. Atlantic Media, which owns Quartz, was also inundated with angry calls to its headquarters in Washington, DC. Quartz’s Facebook page has been flooded with negative reviews.

Some of the harassment has come from pilots for commercial airlines. One of the people involved appears to be a police officer. The vitriol is widespread, but hardly represents all pilots or readers of the piece.

A small sampling of comments.

Why the pilots are angry

The ferocity of the response reveals a close-knit community of aviators who already feel burdened by onerous safety regulations. Pilots on Instagram are popular for their unusual perspective on the skies. They and their fans feel there’s nothing wrong with posting photos taken in the cockpit.

Many of the people furious about the piece appear to be general aviation pilots who fly non-commercial flights in small aircraft and aren’t subject to the same strict rules. Quartz’s story focused on commercial pilots, who aren’t allowed to use most electronic devices, including phones and GoPro cameras, while flying a plane.

Their photos are beautiful, but many of them, a sample of which were included in the piece, violate rules set by American and European regulators. Some of the violations were particularly egregious: Commercial pilots posted images to Instagram that were taken during takeoff and landing, when even stricter rules are in place.

Some pilots say that no rules have been broken.

Pilots and others reacting to the piece have alleged that there is no rule against snapping a photo when the plane is at cruising altitude. It’s true that there is no FAA rule about photography. Commercial pilots are prohibited from using any personal electronic device that’s capable of wireless transmission, such as a phone or most GoPro cameras, even if the wireless functionality is turned off. There are exceptions for pilots who are off-duty or sitting in the jump seat.

The US Federal Aviation Administration confirmed Quartz’s interpretation of the rule, which was mandated by Congress to keep pilots focused on their duties during sometimes monotonous periods of flight. Photos during takeoff and landing additionally violate rules mandating a “sterile cockpit” at those times.

Despite the voluminous response, Quartz hasn’t identified any errors with the original piece.

Some pilots have argued that, whatever the rules, snapping a photo from the cockpit while the plane is on auto-pilot is hardly a safety hazard. They also feel Quartz crossed a line by naming pilots who appeared to be violating rules, effectively exposing those people to disciplinary action. It’s unclear if any has been taken.

Readers also objected to Quartz’s use of Instagram photos without permission.

Loosely organized harassment

Some journalists are accustomed to threatening messages from readers when they write about particularly charged subjects. Occasionally those responses become more organized, which is what happened to Yanofsky.

“They want to see the article gone,” explained Jay Walden, a flight instructor and corporate jet pilot, who called to complain about the piece. “They want to see his journalism career buried.”

Much of the backlash seems to have been coordinated on message boards and the Facebook page Shit Pilots Say. Yanofsky’s phone number was posted there several times, with instructions to harass him. One of the people who has posted his number appears to be a pilot for Spirit Airlines, the low-cost carrier based in Miramar, Florida. The pilot, Glen Carpenter, spoke to Yanofsky before the piece was published, arguing that all sorts of FAA regulations are violated during a typical flight and that it would be impractical to enforce them.

“I talked to this Fucktard for half hour yesterday… He’s truly an idiot,” Carpenter wrote on Facebook under the pseudonym Glen Christopher, though the account’s username is glen.carpenter.129. That account has been posting Yanofsky’s cell phone number and encouraging people to call it or text him photos taken in the cockpit.

Spirit spokesman Paul Berry confirmed the airline employs someone named Glen Carpenter and said, “We are taking this allegation seriously.” In a brief phone call, Carpenter denied that he works for Spirit and said he wasn’t the person going by Glen Christopher on Facebook.

“That’s not me,” he said.

“He may be a security threat,” one man, apparently a police officer, wrote.

Another person joining in the harassment appears to be Ben Reiver, an officer with the New York City Police Department. Reiver wrote on Yanofsky’s Facebook profile, “Looking at his page, he sure does have a lot of anti-government, anti-police, and pro anarchist (Ferguson) on there. I’m not sure, but he may be a security threat.”

In another comment, Reiver wrote, ”It figures he lives in Park Slope, native land of the species called: entitled communist shitbag.” Yanofsky has lived in Park Slope, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, but it’s not clear how Reiver got that information.

Reiver didn’t respond to a Facebook message seeking comment. Asked if Reiver worked for the NYPD, Sgt. Jessica McRorie, a spokeswoman for the police department, said, “We’re unable to accommodate your request.”

Not all pilots

While the vast majority of reactions to the Quartz piece have been negative, some pilots said privately they concurred with the concerns raised by the piece.

Even among those who disagreed with the story’s premise, there were more level-headed responses, including this charming Instagram post:

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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