When Instinct Fails

We often laud our ability to go with the gut, to rely on instinct in dire circumstances. But in at least one prominent instance–that in the airline industry–instinct can kill. From this fascinating New York Times piece, we learn about aerodynamic stalls, and how the instinctual desire to lift the airplane’s nose up will exacerbate the stall and possibly lead to a crash:

For the hundreds of pilots he has trained to recognize and recover from an aerodynamic stall, Mr. Otelli said, “the first reaction of all of them is to pull back on the control stick” and drive the plane’s nose higher — a move that only exacerbates the problem. “It’s a reflex that’s almost uncontrollable,” he said.

Learning to overcome that impulse, and instead to maneuver the nose toward the ground to regain speed, takes repeated practice and forms part of the initial training of every licensed pilot. Still, “this is not something everyone is able to do after the second, third or maybe even the fourth try,” he said. “If a pilot has only experienced a stall once or twice — and perhaps only in a flight simulator — chances are higher that instinct takes over in a live situation.”

The good news is that loss of the plane’s control is rare:

It accounted for only about 5 percent of all aircraft accidents and incidents in the past 10 years globally, according to statistics compiled by the European Aviation Safety Agency, and nearly one-third of those incidents involved an aerodynamic stall. But when it does occur, it is almost always catastrophic: Of the 101 accidents attributed to loss of control from 2001 to 2010, 80 percent were fatal. Of all air passenger deaths over the past decade, 25 percent were the result of a loss of control.

It seems like pilot training on the simulators is either 1) inadequate or 2) not rigorous enough:

“When a simulator stalls, it feels like nothing. It is very benign, whereas in the aircraft it can be a dramatic experience” Mr. Advani said. “We must create an environment where the pilot is challenged in a realistic way — to even make it difficult to apply the correct control inputs,” he said. “Ultimately, proper techniques for both prevention and recovery should become thoroughly trained responses. ”

So next time someone says: “Go with your instinct,” you can use this counter-example and explain how that can backfire…

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