Fly the Airplane

Earlier this year, I highlighted a fascinating account of what happened to Air France Flight 447, which crashed in the Atlantic Ocean on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.

In the December issue of Popular Mechanics, we get an extended perspective of what went horribly wrong during that flight. Through an extensive transcript, we learn that the flight crashed due to human error. Here’s the conclusion from the Popular Mechanics piece:

Today the Air France 447 transcripts yield information that may ensure that no airline pilot will ever again make the same mistakes. From now on, every airline pilot will no doubt think immediately of AF447 the instant a stall-warning alarm sounds at cruise altitude. Airlines around the world will change their training programs to enforce habits that might have saved the doomed airliner: paying closer attention to the weather and to what the planes around you are doing; explicitly clarifying who’s in charge when two co-pilots are alone in the cockpit; understanding the parameters of alternate law; and practicing hand-flying the airplane during all phases of flight. 

But the crash raises the disturbing possibility that aviation may well long be plagued by a subtler menace, one that ironically springs from the never-ending quest to make flying safer. Over the decades, airliners have been built with increasingly automated flight-control functions. These have the potential to remove a great deal of uncertainty and danger from aviation. But they also remove important information from the attention of the flight crew. While the airplane’s avionics track crucial parameters such as location, speed, and heading, the human beings can pay attention to something else. But when trouble suddenly springs up and the computer decides that it can no longer cope—on a dark night, perhaps, in turbulence, far from land—the humans might find themselves with a very incomplete notion of what’s going on. They’ll wonder: What instruments are reliable, and which can’t be trusted? What’s the most pressing threat? What’s going on? Unfortunately, the vast majority of pilots will have little experience in finding the answers. 

I also want to highlight one blogger’s perspective about this crash. Dustin Curtis writes:

Every time I read about or experience one of these situations, I am reminded of a story I read in The Checklist Manifesto about the emergency checklist for engine failure in a single engine Cessna airplane. The checklist has just six vitally important steps, including things like making sure the fuel valves are open and ensuring the backup fuel pump is turned on. But the first step is fascinating. It is simply FLY THE AIRPLANE. In the confusion of losing an engine, pilots often panic and forget the most obvious things they should be doing. It seems completely unnecessary, but this step ensures the best chance for survival.

The human body’s physical “fight or flight” response evolved to help it evade a dangerous situation, which historically involved extreme physical exertion. The rush of steroids into the bloodstream essentially turns off unnecessary systems, including some higher thinking processes, to aid in escape. Unfortunately, as we’ve evolved into more intelligent beings, that response hasn’t evolved along with us. The stress response is still optimized to prepare for a short period of extreme physical exertion, not for increased mental clarity. The result is painfully obvious with Air France 447: the co-pilot made an absurd error that no pilot in his right mind would make.

This is a superb reminder of how we let our guard down, panic, and act irrationally (or outside of our normal habits) in intense situations.

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