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Jockeying for Control of the Airliner
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It’s around 1:30 am on June 1, 2009, and Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris is flying somewhere over the mid-Atlantic when they run into the outer edge of a tropical storm system. Unlike some of the other planes in the area the crew of Flight 447 has not studied the weather patterns and made a request to be routed around the storm, but this is not a cause for especial concern. They do, however turn on the planes anti-icing system, and check the radar.
After determining that the radar hasn’t been set up correctly, they switch it to the correct setting and see that the storm ahead is worse than they thought. They decide to bank left a little bit, and as they do so, a strange aroma floods the cockpit, and the temperature suddenly increases as well. The more experienced pilot in the cabin, David Robert, explains that both phenomena are due to the extreme weather in the vicinity, and that they are nothing to worry about. Despite this reassurance, the combination of the storm, the smell, the temperature and some St. Elmo’s fire experienced a few moments before, start to make Pierre-Cédric Bonin, the youngest pilot, nervous.
Right about the same time as all of this is happening an alarm sounds to indicate that the autopilot has disconnected. This is because the airspeed indicators have iced over. This is apparently the final straw for Bonin, who irrationally starts to pull back on the control stick which puts the plane into a steep climb. This is a problem for two reasons. One, the air is too warm to provide the lift necessary to climb, which is why they didn’t fly up over the storm in the first place. Two, if you’re climbing and your airspeed drops too low (and recall that they don’t know what their airspeed is anymore) then you can stall. And indeed shortly after this happens the plane begins to sound a stall warning.
I am lifting the description of what happened to Flight 447 from a Popular Mechanics article written a couple of years after the fact, shamelessly and nearly verbatim. And you really should read the whole thing, but if you decide not to, their explanation of the stall alarm is particularly good:
Almost as soon as Bonin pulls up into a climb, the plane's computer reacts. A warning chime alerts the cockpit to the fact that they are leaving their programmed altitude. Then the stall warning sounds. This is a synthesized human voice that repeatedly calls out, "Stall!" in English, followed by a loud and intentionally annoying sound called a "cricket."
...The Airbus's stall alarm is designed to be impossible to ignore. Yet for the duration of the flight, none of the pilots will mention it, or acknowledge the possibility that the plane has indeed stalled—even though the word "Stall!" will blare through the cockpit 75 times. Throughout, Bonin will keep pulling back on the stick, the exact opposite of what he must do to recover from the stall.
Of course one of the big questions is, why did they ignore the stall warning so entirely? Well the plane they’re flying, the Airbus 330, is very advanced, and normally it won’t let you do something like stall the plane. Thus they may have been ignoring the stall warning because they didn’t think it was possible for the plane to stall, and that the warning was spurious. But this is only the case under what’s called “normal law”. When the airspeed indicator freezes up, the plane switches to “alternate law”, and under alternate law a plane can stall. It’s quite possible that Bonin, who still has the controls, has never flown under alternate law and thus doesn’t realize that there are far fewer restrictions, and that one of the restrictions which has been removed is the one that prevents him from doing something to make the plane stall.
Robert notices the rapid ascent, and tells Bonin he needs to descend while at the same time realizing that the situation is serious enough to call the captain, who had left the cabin a few minutes before to nap. Bonin levels things off a little bit, enough that the stall warning stops sounding, for the moment. But he isn’t actually descending, he’s just ascending less quickly.
At a certain point, despite the slower rate of ascent the plane has gone as high as it can go, and it starts to fall. Now if at this point Bonin had just taken his hand off the controls, the plane would have picked up speed, the wings would have started generating lift, and they probably would have been okay. What’s even more interesting is that by this point, the de-icing system has kicked in enough that the airspeed indicator begins working again. The plane is entirely functional now, there’s nothing wrong with it at all, but it doesn’t revert back to normal law, it’s still in alternate law.
Around 60 seconds after being summoned the captain arrives, and perhaps if, upon arriving, he had been able to understand exactly what was happening this would have been soon enough to save the plane. But he’s missing several key pieces of information. He doesn’t know if they’re ascending or descending, he doesn’t understand that the plane has stalled, he doesn’t understand that it’s falling at a rate of 10,000 feet/minute, and most important of all Bonin still hasn’t mentioned the fact he has had the stick back the entire time.
Around this time Robert, understanding that they need to descend, pushes his stick forward. But one of the features of the Airbus 330 is that it averages out the input of the two control sticks, meaning that even though Robert is pushing his stick forward, Bonin is still pulling back on his, this averaging of the two sticks, at best would result in them leveling off, but what actually happens is that the nose of the plane remains high. The plane is still in a stall.
Finally, around two minutes after the captain’s arrive Bonin finally tells the other two that he’s had the stick back the whole time. The captain in disbelief, says, “no, no, no, don’t climb!” (“Non, non, non... Ne remonte pas…”) And Robert demands control and puts it into a dive. Unfortunately it’s not only too late, but inexplicably and without warning the other two, Bonin once again pulls his stick all the way back. Meaning that, 40 seconds after finally getting the crucial piece of information, less than three minutes after the captain’s arrival in the cockpit, seven minutes after losing the airspeed indicator and switching to alternate law, the plane slams into the Atlantic Ocean killing all 228 people aboard.
Some stories manage to really burrow in deep when you hear them. This was definitely one of those stories. The whole thing is tragic. But the final words of the pilots really bring that tragedy home:
Robert: Putain, on va taper... C'est pas vrai!
Damn it, we're going to crash... This can't be happening!
Bonin: Mais qu'est-ce que se passe?
But what's happening?
Captain: 10 degrès d'assiette...
Ten degrees of pitch...
They were uttered in that order, one pilot overcome with disbelief. One pilot still not understanding what he had done to cause it all, and one pilot hoping that if he could just understand the details of his situation he could fix it.
As is only appropriate, when a tragedy of this magnitude occurs people want to understand what happened so they can keep it from happening again. And it’s easy to make a list of things that would have made a difference. Most boil down to more and better training for pilots. But some people, including the author of the article in Popular Mechanics, think the crash of Flight 447 reveals an even deeper issue, one that can’t necessarily be solved by training: an over-reliance on technology.
When I initially read the article, this over-reliance on technology also seemed like the obvious secondary lesson, and I didn’t feel any inclination to dig deeper. Now, several years later, I still worry about becoming too dependent on technology, but over the last few months I began to see how Flight 447 might additionally act as a metaphor for our current situation. Particularly the idea of two pilots both trying to move the stick in the opposite direction. Perhaps you can immediately see where I’m going, but if not allow me to explain what I mean.
I see the US (and perhaps the larger world) as being similar to the plane. We’ve run into a storm and we’ve lost our bearings a bit. Some people think the way out of the storm is to pull back hard on the stick, while other people think we need to push the stick all the way forward. It’s not clear if the plane is ascending or descending, and while the two sides fight over the issue, it’s possible that what’s really happening is the plane is falling out of the sky at 10,000 feet/minute and seconds away from slamming into the ocean.
Now you can agree that this is a useful metaphor, but disagree with who the various pilots represent. You may think that Bonin represents people on the right, who have allowed bigotry, xenophobia, racism and fear in general to convince them that something drastic needs to be done, and that pulling back hard on the stick represents the election of Trump, and that no matter how bad Trump gets and no matter how many scandals there are, they just keep pulling back on that stick, negating the attempts of more reasonable people to metaphorically push the stick forward and correct the disastrous course set by Trump and his followers.
On the other hand, Bonin, who was young and inexperienced, could represent the cohort of young and inexperienced people who are so active in political advocacy right now. People who are confident they know exactly what ails the country and equally confident that they know what to do about it, but who have actually fatally misjudged the situation and rather than pulling back as hard as they can on the stick they should be either doing the opposite. Or, failing that, they should recognize that there are more experienced individuals present and they should be deferring them.
If you see a case for either of those situations being reflected in the story of Flight 447 then I don’t blame you. I can see where both make a certain amount of sense, but I see yet a third lesson from all of it. A lesson on the need for calm and moderation. Recall that the plane was doing okay. It did lose its airspeed sensor, but if it had continued on the same course, at the same altitude with de-icing enabled, it would have almost certainly been fine. Twelve other planes followed more or less the same course as Flight 447 and had no problems. Pilots who were put through a re-creation of the situation in a flight simulator also had no problems. The lesson is that the actual circumstances were not that bad, what caused the plane to crash was a misunderstanding of the situation and an over-reaction to those circumstances. And I definitely see a parallel to the over-reaction we see currently.
If your argument is that Trump supporters or social justice warriors have already pulled the stick all the way back, and that now our only choice is to push our stick all the way forward, then I think you may have missed the point. If Bonin had just leveled off when Robert told him to descend, the plane, once again, probably would have been fine. Counterbalancing Bonin’s desire to have the stick all the way back, by pushing the other stick all the way forward didn’t work. Matching one extreme with another extreme was a losing strategy.
Even if it’s too late to level off, even if the only thing left to do is put the plane into a dive, pick up speed and hope you can pull out before you hit the ocean, you to still need convince the other side (Bonin) that this is the correct course of action. If at any point during the final minutes of Flight 447 the other pilots had managed to convince Bonin of the madness of holding the stick back, they might have been okay. Of course neither of the pilots knew that’s what Bonin was doing, which is an excuse we can’t use. It’s pretty obvious that each side is pushing their stick as far as they can in the direction they think will do the most good.
There was another option, when the captain arrived he could have replaced Bonin. But he didn’t, probably because of the wild gyrations the plane was undergoing. We also have a method of replacing people, we hold elections. And maybe this is stretching the metaphor to far, but I think we’re experiencing our own “wild gyrations” which makes this a difficult option for us as well. Also there’s no obviously impartial, more experienced “captain” we can tap to come in and sort things out, finally, we can only replace certain people every four years.
Interestingly enough the last time we had a chance to replace someone, back in 2016, there was another plane related metaphor making the rounds. This metaphor was introduced in an article called The Flight 93 Election. Flight 93 was one of planes hijacked on 9/11, but before the plane could used in the same manner as the other three flights the passengers became aware of what the hijackers intended, and they stormed the cockpit in an attempt to regain control of the plane. Unfortunately this was unsuccessful and the plane ended up crashing in a field in Pennsylvania killing everyone aboard, though, thankfully, no one on the ground.
I remember reading that article when it was published. It’s powerful stuff, and I agree with many of the points he made. And maybe, to combine his metaphor with mine, we’re not only about to plunge into the ocean, but we’re not even one of the pilots. Perhaps, but I’m more looking at Flight 447 as a framework for considering the current situation, then as an absolute prophecy with specific matches between people and events and what’s happening now. (Would the icing up of the airspeed indicator be the failure of the polls in 2016?)
For example let’s turn to a detail I left out of the initial retelling. I mentioned that professional aviators had a difficult time understanding Bonin’s behavior, but he did say one thing in the final few minutes which offers at least a little insight into what he was thinking. While he and Robert were waiting for the captain, Bonin says, “I'm in TOGA, huh?” I’ll let the PM article explain what this means:
Bonin's statement here offers a crucial window onto his reasoning. TOGA is an acronym for Take Off, Go Around. When a plane is taking off or aborting a landing—"going around"—it must gain both speed and altitude as efficiently as possible. At this critical phase of flight, pilots are trained to increase engine speed to the TOGA level and raise the nose to a certain pitch angle.
Clearly, here Bonin is trying to achieve the same effect: He wants to increase speed and to climb away from danger. But he is not at sea level; he is in the far thinner air of 37,500 feet. The engines generate less thrust here, and the wings generate less lift. Raising the nose to a certain angle of pitch does not result in the same angle of climb, but far less. Indeed, it can—and will—result in a descent.
Unfortunately Robert was apparently focused on getting the captain back to the cabin and didn’t understand what this statement entailed. He may not have even heard it. But as long as I’m trying to make an extended metaphor out of the event, I think this statement and the underlying mindset is very interesting.
One of the points I make repeatedly is that models and ways of thinking which worked in the past may not work going forward. We are, as Robin Hanson points out (and as I expanded on) engaged in cultural exploration. We’ve reached a place we’ve never been before in terms of technology and wealth. And it’s entirely possible that a way of thinking which is perfectly appropriate at “sea level” may have the exact opposite of its intended effect when we’re at the metaphorical equivalent of 37,000 feet. You could certainly take this to mean that we should abandon the superstitions and prejudices of the past. That religion and traditional values may have worked great at sea level, but we need to abandon them now that we’re at 37,000. But as you can imagine that’s not parallel I’m drawing. Rather I see several lessons that point in the opposite direction.
First, even if we temporarily discard all the metaphorical interpretation I’ve added, most people still see Flight 447 as a cautionary tale of over-reliance on technology. And in the final analysis the reason it crashed has far more to do with abandoning fundamentals like lift, thrust, and angle of attack than any over-reliance on the core principles of aviation. I feel confident in saying that if you had shown Charles Lindbergh how to operate the stick and how to increase or decrease engine power that he would not have made the same mistake Bonin did.
Second, to return to more metaphorical territory, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to compare climbing and altitude to technology and progress. Normally they’re not only necessary, but definitional. If you don’t have at least some altitude you’re driving not flying. But this leads people to believe, like Bonin, that if you run into problems climbing to an even higher altitude is always the answer, and there may come a time when it’s not. To connect this to our last point, in the case of Flight 447 adding more technology didn’t solve the problem, it caused it.
Third, from a broad perspective there’s an obvious “small-c” conservative bias to the whole story of Flight 447. If they’d just maintained the same heading and altitude they would have almost certainly been fine. If they had been more cautious, and requested a path around the storm, the problems they encountered would have been less likely to occur. Also, as it turns out, this was a case where age and experience mattered, a lot. Finally there’s this passage from the article:
[Robert and Bonin] are failing, essentially, to cooperate. It is not clear to either one of them who is responsible for what, and who is doing what. This is a natural result of having two co-pilots flying the plane. "When you have a captain and a first officer in the cockpit, it's clear who's in charge...The captain has command authority. He's legally responsible for the safety of the flight. When you put two first officers up front, it changes things. You don't have the sort of traditional discipline imposed on the flight deck when you have a captain."
It doesn’t get much more conservative than “traditional discipline”. But perhaps you think I’m making too much of these parallels. That’s certainly possible, but I think in basically every domain you examine, you’ll find that in times of crisis long-term “traditional” values perform the best.
In the end, you could argue, with some justification, that we’re not in a crisis, that our metaphorical plane is doing just fine, or that if we are experiencing a little turbulence that it’s nothing to compare with 1968 and nowhere near as bad as it was in the lead up to the Civil War. To a point I would agree. I don’t think it’s time to storm the cabin, and I don’t think the plane is falling out of the sky, yet. But if we’re not in a crisis, why has one group been pulling the stick back as hard as can for as long as I can remember? And I’ve seen them get angry when anyone pointed out that maybe we had climbed high enough, and we should level it out for awhile. More recently people have stopped trying to convince the other side to stop “climbing”, and have resorted to grabbing their own stick and pushing it as far forward as possible. (And no that’s not a double entendre but maybe it should be.)
Perhaps with the two sides pushing as hard as they can in opposite directions we will level out, and everything will be fine, but I wouldn’t count on it. More likely they’ll eventually come to blows as each becomes convinced that the other is going to end up killing everyone.
It would be nice if there was just one right course of action, like there was in the case of Flight 447. A way of understanding the situation that would make it obvious what was wrong, and what needed to be done to solve it. But unfortunately, while there are many parallels, our actual situation is far more complicated than the one faced by Flight 447. They could understand the effects of air thinning out as you flew higher, because other planes have flown at that altitude. On the other hand, we don’t know what happens at this level of progress and technology. We’re the first civilization to ever “fly this high”. Flight 447 ran into problems because Bonin, at least, was unaware that the controls had shifted from normal law into alternate law when the airspeed indicator froze up, but the Captain might have known that, and if not it was certainly in some manual somewhere. But given the way technology changes civilizations “mid-flight” so to speak, the rules could have changed for us with say, the invention of social media, and there is no manual to look in that will inform us of this fact.
The air is thinning. The world is changing under our feet. Many people are convinced they know exactly what needs to be done. I guess I’m one of them, because I am absolutely convinced that we need to be a lot more cautious and a lot more conservative than we have been.
I heard once that Mark Twain was unable to tell his good stuff from his bad stuff. I sometimes feel like that, but I think this one was pretty good. If you agree consider donating.