Covid19: Eastern Airlines Flight 401 for our time

The current situation of the government reacting to the Corona Virus pandemic reminds me of the crash of Eastern Air Lines flight 401 in Dec 29, 1972.

At the time it happened, I was 12 years old.  At that point in my life I was settling in on my goal of becoming an engineer with an particular interest in a career in aerospace.

I think my initial reaction on the first news was shock in that this kind of crash should not have happened with a jumbo aircraft.  Later as more details came out about what really happened, I was very affected by the information.

The pilots were distracted by a warning light and in investigating this they neglected to attend to the cockpit.   The aircraft flew into the ground because no one was flying the aircraft, because of a warning light.

I have always been reluctant air traveler.   I like to think that I trust the physics of the aircraft manufacture and the physics of flight.   I fear getting into airplanes because I fear the pilots.

The details of what happened in that cockpit seemed very human thing to do.   A warning light goes off but it doesn’t make sense so someone will investigate.   The first investigator needs help so the other pilot lends his assistance.   They are focused like humans tend to be when trying to solve one problem, often leaving some other issue aside to focus on the one that is drawing all the attention.   In this case, the issue they left unattended was actually flying the aircraft.

I did go on to pursue a degree in engineering, choosing electrical engineering but thinking about applying it to aerospace either through communications systems or through control systems.   Just before graduation, I was treated to numerous paid trips to various potential employers, each involving air travel.

I flew without any concerns.  I recall one flight in particular, a small plane with just a few seats and no door to the cockpit so I could watch what they were doing.   It was a very rough flight especially in the entire approach for the landing.   The plane was tossing quite a bit, enough to be a little concerned, but I think I was fascinated by the process.

Perhaps another reason I didn’t worry was because there was no door separating the pilot from the passengers.  I could see the pilots.   I felt assured that they were clearly very busy trying to handle the aircraft.

Such benefits don’t exist any more.   Instead we can only see a sealed door yet we know there are humans on the other side.   We have no idea what they are doing.

My first jobs were aerospace related and I learned more about the airline industry.   In particular, I was very impressed by the industry’s emphasis on studying and improving the human factors aspect of flying.   My experience was with the human factors involving the instrumentation and the considerations about how to present new information to the pilots in a way that is appropriate given anything else that may be occurring in the airplane.   However, I also became very aware of what experienced pilots go through in training, specifically training to avoid the situations involving past incidents.

Based on this early career experience, I gained more confidence in the industry as a whole to be sure that the pilots are properly equipped with well-designed instrumentation as well as thorough training.

One theme I kept hearing is that even when the pilots make an error, it is really a fault in the design, something that can be fixed with a better design.  Another theme is that the pilot task can never be really automated because the pilots skills and experience are essential for when things unexpectedly go wrong.

I tend to agree about not trusting a fully automated flight.   I think technology is at the point where we could have a pilot-less airline flight, but I still want a human pilot in the cockpit, and if he is there he might as well fly it himself (especially for take-off and landing).

But I also still don’t fully trust the pilots.

A recent example is the details surrounding the Ethiopia Airlines crash involving the new 737-Max airplane.   As mentioned above, the goal in these investigations is to find fault in the equipment instead of the pilots.   In this case, there were multiple things wrong with the equipment that required changes that are still being tested and certified.   However, the description is eerily similar to the Eastern Air Lines crash above.   In this case both pilots were properly in the cockpit trying to fly the plane, but their attention was fixated on the main problem, and it was a major problem.   However, in this attention, they were not paying attention to the auto throttle increasing the airspeed and this was compounding the difficulty of solving the problem they were focused on.

To be clear, I am very ignorant on all the details of the flight.   I’m just relaying my impression from what I heard.   There was a technical problem on board that required some attention.   The combined attention of both pilots on this problem meant that they were not aware of another problem, that being the excessive air speed that made solving the first problem even more difficult.

I don’t trust the pilots, but this lack of trust does not stop me from flying.   I avoid flying now, but my reasons are completely unrelated to trust in the technology or the pilots.

I mention my impressions of these airplane events because it reminds me of what is playing out on a global scale.  The entire world is like an airplane being piloted where all the pilots are fixated on a single warning light.   The warning light is about something that is serious.    The problem is that we no longer have any pilots paying attention to rest of the craft.

The world is getting close to the terrain and it is speeding up, but we’re entirely focused on some problem.   That problem we are focusing on is serious, but if left alone it will not alone lead to the demise of the entire modern economy and the civilization that economy supports.   On the other hand, single-minded focus on this problem can leave everything in ruin.   I don’t trust the pilots.


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