After its flight data recorders were recovered from12,000 feet of water in the Atlantic last year, the July 2009 crash of Air France 447 was widely blamed on ‘pilot error’. The ‘lesson’ was supposed to be that if pilots had better training, they wouldn’t make the same mistakes again. That’s probably not true, says Jeff Wise, author of the 2011 book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.
In a Popular Mechanics magazine article about what really happened on flight 447, Wise says the pilots’ brains worked exactly the way nature intended – the same way yours and mine do, too. It wasn’t pilot error; it was (brain) design error.
Training – conditioning, actually – can overcome an innate fear reaction. That’s what soldiers and cops get trained to do. But Wise says, “when trouble suddenly springs up and the computer [your brain] decides that it can no longer cope – on a dark night, perhaps, in turbulence, far from land – the humans…find themselves with a very incomplete notion of what’s going on.”
Airlines may change their training programs to reinforce habits that might have saved the doomed flight AF 447: practice hand-flying an automated airplane during all phases of flight, pay closer attention to the weather and to what the planes around them are doing, clarify explicitly who’s in charge when two co-pilots are alone in a cockpit, understand the parameters of ‘alternate law’ flight control modes. But they can’t rewire the human brain.
Why is this important for resilience professionals?
Humans make mistakes, even humans with hundreds or thousands of hours of training. That’s why planes, ships, trains and automobiles have automated navigation, steering and signaling systems that reduce the likelihood and impact of human error. But when those automated systems fail or are overridden, it’s unreasonable to expect their human backups to be ready almost instantly to prevent airplane crashes, shipwrecks, highway pileups and train wrecks. As you’d expect, “hours and hours of boredom sprinkled with a few seconds of sheer terror” are terrible training for an emergency.
- On our innate, biological reactions to fear, I recommend the page-turner Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzalez about how your brain reacts in life-threatening situations – avalanches, mountain climbing disasters, capsizing river rafts, motorcycle accidents and other ways of soiling yourself from fear.
- On crash protocol, airlines cover or paint over their livery on a wreck to reduce photo opportunities and the anxiety of passengers passing by on a runway. See China Airlines flight 120 to Okinawa before and after. For Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia, you have to be at sea or in the air to see the ship’s name on the port side, and on the starboard side, it’s difficult to paint underwater. Still, if I were Carnival Corporation, the ship’s operator, I’d be begging the Italian Coast Guard to let me paint over that name as soon as possible.