The Really Offensive Thing About the Viral 9/11 Math Problem Is It Gets 9/11 Facts Wrong

This was an actual high school math assignment from Newburyport High School in Massachusetts that’s drawing fire.

‘Flight 175, one of 9/11 planes, was traveling at 586 miles per hour when it hit the World Trade Center. It had traveled a distance of 440 miles before impact. How many minutes was the plane in the air?’

Naturally there is outrage. I’d certainly agree that a math problem about a hijacking and terrorist attack — without any additional context — is in poor taste. However a math problem as part of learning about the event strikes me as something that could be useful.

Unfortunately here it does not appear that there was context. But more importantly it’s also teaching wrong history and wrong math.

Here’s the flight path of United 175. That’s not 440 miles. (A direct path from Boston Logan to New York LaGuardia is 186 miles.) My best guess is the teacher simply got confused, since I’ve seen reports that American Airlines flight 11 — which was first to impact the World Trade Center — did so at a speed of 440 miles per hour.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Second the cruising speed on a Boeing 767-200 is going to be lower than 586 miles per hour (at least 10% lower). While the impact speed of the aircraft when it hit the World Trade Center’s South Tower has been reporting to be 590 miles per hour it simply wasn’t flying that fast for most of its journey. That’s just not how fast a 767-200 flies.

Going with the math problem for a moment, traveling 440 miles at a constant speed of 586 miles per hour would take 45 minutes.

United flight 175 was scheduled for an 8 a.m. departure. It pushed back at 7:58 a.m. and took off at 8:14 a.m. Impact was at 9:03 a.m. So the plane was in the air for 49 minutes. It didn’t travel 440 miles in that time, because most of its travel was at lower speeds.

By all means teach what happened on 9/11. Offer context for why it happened, and what the response to the attack was. And use math problems to engage directly in the learning.

But if you’re going to do that please start with getting facts right. Otherwise it really is just a math problem with random numbers with a story of mass murder attached.

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