Saturday, October 31, 2009

Fear of Flying

I'll admit it. I hate to fly. I have a fear of flying or as JetBlue now calls it, "Jetting". So now I have a fear of Jetting too. Every flight I take I fear will be my last. It's not rational. I know the odds. It's an honest phobia and with it comes strong anxiety. Not the William Shattner, "There's something on the wing", type of anxiety. Although Shattner was right, there was something on the wing! It's more the discomfort that comes from the complete inability to relax. Every bump, every mechanical whirl, every squeak of the aircraft and my comfort is disrupted with thoughts like, "OMG the wings are gonna to rip off". I don't actually think it's a fear of flying, exactly, I think it's a fear of not flying... and then plummeting 35,000 feet to the ground whilst the screams of terror erupt all around me. I am, of course, also afraid of heights, which might be the real phobia. Or it might be the fear of not being in control. It's also possible I'm a bit claustrophobic. I know for certain that this is not a post 9/11 fear. I was aerophobic when aerophobia wasn't cool. A bomb in the cargo bay is just one of the many reasons the wings might be ripped off, so terrorism just joins the crowd of anxieties already in my head. Regardless, the phobic cocktail that I face when boarding an airliner is real and I struggle each and every time I fly. I like jetting, it's sounds a bit more peaceful, JetBlue might be on to something.

Nevertheless, this fear that I have brings me to a strange place today. Since I believe I am a self made expert in fearful flying, I have something to say. Perhaps I am not the most fearful passenger -- those passengers tend not to get on board -- or they pass the flight heavily sedated...but I have real fear and I've tried to combat it rationally. I like to believe I am a thoughtful person, with a degree in mechanical engineering, and an advanced degree in operations research, along with a career in the United States Air Force. I have spent a considerable amount of time both in the air, albeit always as a passenger, and in careful deliberation of those who make it their profession to be in the air. There was one exception. I was the impound officer on a KC-135 tanker that was grounded from flying for a mechanical condition that could not be solved. During the impound I sat with the aircraft 24/7 and led the investigation into why the aircraft's rudder was malfunctioning. We solved the problem and for some reason, perhaps pride, I flew with the test crew on the functional test flight to return the plane to service. I had no fear, ironic, go figure.

But all this is simply to establish my credibility as someone who is rational but afraid to fly in order that I may make my next commentary. So here is my problem. I would much rather my aircrew be asleep in the cockpit and overshoot the airport by 150 miles, than be on-board an aircraft that takes off into a flock of geese, looses both engines, and then lands in the Hudson river. The pilot of the Hudson River flight, Capt Sullenberger is a National Hero. Both pilots on Northwest flight 188 to Minneapolis have been terminated from their employment and have had their pilot's licenses revoked by the FAA. Captain Cheney and First Officer Cole are National Goats. And not just any Goat’s, they have been portrayed by the media in such an evil and judgmental light almost as if their actions placed their cargo at such risk they might as well have aimed their aircraft directly at the World Trade Center.

The most logical theory, apart from what they the pilots of said, is that they were asleep. Let’s pretend that they were not sleeping and were perhaps, as they have claimed, heavily engrossed in the understanding of their crew scheduling software loaded on the laptops they were using during the flight. Which is, of course, a violation of NWA rules which prohibits the use of "...electronic devices..." in the cockpit. Has anybody been in the cockpit of a modern airliner these days? The cockpit is an electronic device. It actually wraps itself around the crew members. I'm not sure of the difference between a portable computer and the one that surrounds them...the big question is were they really checking the crew schedule or perhaps it will be discovered they were playing MS Flight Simulator while they were at work, that would be ironic.

I think the media would love to discover that they were surfing porn at 35,000 feet. That would make for some National headlines. There seems to be a few indignant journalists’s who don't understand why the pilot's laptops were not confiscated. As if there were some sinister motive at play here, i.e. the pilots were intentionally negligent and therefore immediately criminally negligent for losing their situational awareness (SA) for a few moments. And by a few moments I mean it takes about 13 minutes to fly 150 miles and if I understand correctly -- a good portion of that over flight was spent trying to correct the error. And unlike when we miss a turn on the highway while we were engaged with our cell phone conversation, you can't just throw a u-turn, well actually you can, procedurally though, when you lose SA, you don't. Why the crew was out of contact with air traffic controllers for a longer amount of time is an entirely different problem and has nothing to do with lap tops. I think the question should be, what is the level of vigilance the crew of a commercial aircraft is required to maintain at all times? I think it's unrealistic to suggest that omnipotence is the requirement and I think it's a lie if aircrew members suggest that's where they operate, every minute of every flight. It gets better.

After 9/11 we have taken great measures to seal the flight crew into an impenetrable cocoon surrounded by their electronic devices -- we've sealed them in a crypt -- no one gets in, no one gets out. Their sanctuary is inviolate. When was the last time you've seen a pilot step into the cabin to stretch his legs, or pee. Further, after sealing them in, we expect that on today's flight we have the very best pilots that ever slipped the surly bonds of earth. We force ourselves to believe that Chuck Yeager actually came out of retirement to see us safely through today travel. The truth? Well, you can't handle the truth, and neither can I. So I'll just say that not all pilots are Chuck Yeager's and leave it at that. But I can tell you that as a collective group, pilots are extremely methodical, extremely bright, extremely bound by the rules and the checklists that consume their daily lives, and in general are extreme optimists with nothing but thoughts of self preservation and the success and safety of their command, crew, and cargo. Pilots are rarely suicidal -- unless of course they are unjustly removed from the great careers they have had for decades and surreptitiously turned into National scapegoats. But I digress.

I really would prefer that my aircrew not be asleep. We all know crew rest is an extremely important aspect of flying. Unlike driving a bus, if you get tired, you can't just pull off at the next exit to take a nap. So if the aircrew does get tired, should they fight through it? I've fought through it on the road, tunnel vision sets in, then the hallucinations start...man I don't want my pilots hallucinating as they attempt to land. So perhaps a cat nap to clear their heads is appropriate. What's the alternative? Maybe they can take some caffeine? The fact that military pilots have access to "Go Pills" is an alternative. Can you say amphetamines? True they are flying high performance jet aircraft in combat and they need to be as sharp and alert as humanly possible -- but the fact is, the human body gets tired, and when it does, problems can crop up from nowhere. And then there is boredom. The cockpit of an Airbus 320 in flight high above the mid-west is not as high stress as combat. In fact it is exactly the opposite. It is a long boring haul with nothing to do but monitor a highly automated system and stare out the window. As Pappy Boyington has told us, "Flying is hours and hours of boredom sprinkled with a few seconds of sheer terror". That is the life of a pilot -- that is why we pay them the big bucks, even though bus drivers and train operators have us equally as trapped within their lethal equipment.

Not to take anything away from Capt Sullenberger, he is undoubtedly a good stick. But he had some luck on his side since he found himself without engines on a clear day during the most critical time of flight, on takeoff. He was flying. He was fully engaged in the operation. His vigilance was at a maximum. His SA was at its peak. Had something additional been distracting him – perhaps clouds, or the takeoff was happening at night, or there were icing conditions – his job would have been even more difficult. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time with the right amount of vigilance at the right time? What if he would have been up stretching his legs when the bird strike hit?

How then do we reconcile the exact amount of vigilance required and expected to operate a jet in between the spectrum end points of a long boring haul over the mid-west and the terror of losing both engines on take-off? I state my question again, what is the level of vigilance the crew of a commercial aircraft is required to maintain at all times? We are in a technological era where unmanned vehicles are the reality. We have aircraft that can practically fly themselves. Do we expect the same level of vigilance, from engine start up to shut down, of our flight crews in such a highly automated environment? And if the flight crew’s vigilance drops off for a movement, exactly what is the nature of their crime? And more importantly who should sit in judgment? We know for sure it shouldn’t be the media with their array of colorful and highly paid media consultants.

A boring flight is a safe flight, right? We have clear air, no turbulence, no rapid decompressions, no lightning strikes, and no fear of icing. Everything is so smooth, automated and normal. The exit comes and goes and we missed the turn. Is that such a big deal? Perhaps some procedures need to be reviewed. Perhaps some discipline needs to be metered out to those found wanting. Perhaps there are a few more contributing factors. How about we wait for the safety investigation to reveal what really happened?

The Hudson River event was not a terrorist attack. It was a spectacular event with a happy ending. The over flight of Minneapolis was also not a terrorist attack. It was an incredibly boring event with an equally happy ending, followed by the vilification of the flight crew. Our fear of terrorism and our knee jerk reaction to everything related to flight safety seems exaggerated in the face of our National fear which is continuously fanned by the Media.

Mohamed Atta was not on board Northwest Flight 188. Let's stop acting like he was.

1 comment:

Natasha said...

Good article, I really enjoyed it! I can see your methodical mind at work, your "irrational" fear isn't irrational after reading your explanation (heights, loss of control etc.) You make me want to figure out why I am so afraid of going to the dentist....my own worst fear...