Thursday, December 15, 2011

Fear of Flying

In the course of five minutes, Air France flight 447 dropped from cruise altitude down into the Atlantic Ocean; none of the 228 passengers and crew on board survived. There was nothing mechanically wrong with the aircraft until it hit the the surface, sinking two miles to the ocean floor.

The opposite was true of US Airways Flight 1549 whose twin engines flamed dead out after climbing through a flock of birds during takeoff. The captain and first officer ditched the plane in the Hudson river; all 115 passengers on the flight survived.

The reasons for the diametrically opposite outcomes between these two airplane crashes reside entirely within the differences in the brains of their pilots. It involves the response of the human mind to situations of stress, fear and cognition.

Statistically half of all airline crashes can be attributed to “pilot error”.[1] However, these statistics are not entirely unequivocal. For example there are cases of what is termed: “controlled flight into terrain” where pilots, completely unaware of a dangerous situation, believing that they were fully in control and on course, still crashed their aircraft. Then there are fatal incidents directly resulting from the pilot’s incorrect responses to emergency conditions; disregarding warnings or not following accepted procedures.

The latter was the case of Air France 447. While at cruise altitude and on automatic pilot, ice caused the plane’s airspeed indicator to read incorrectly. Unable to reason through the situation, the co-pilot did the unthinkable – failing to consult the checklist for this situation, he disengaged the autopilot. Attempting to fly the aircraft manually at that altitude, he pulled back on the controls, placing the aircraft in a stall condition.

Student pilots learn from their earliest training that pulling back on the control is exactly the WRONG response to a stall; a condition where the nose is lifted up to the point where the plane loses all lift. Even through every pilot knows that placing ANY aircraft in a nose-down attitude is the proper recovery procedure for a stall, the Air France co-pilot continued to attempt to pull back on the controls until the plane hit the ocean. Why?

Analysis of the cockpit voice recorder revealed that the co-pilot in command at that moment (the pilot was away from the flight deck) was apparently overcome with fear, unable to stop and reason through the predicament. Psychologists who study people’s reactions during periods of extreme fear sometimes refer to this inability to think a situation through as a “brain lock”. Deep within our brains the Amygdale processes our fear responses. If these responses override the Frontal Cortex, the “reasoning” portion of the brain, the person mostly likely will respond using instinctive behavior.

The crew of Air France 447 had almost five minutes to attempt to diagnose and recover control of their aircraft. Conversely, Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger in command of US Airways Flight 1549, had mere seconds. But Sully did possess the benefit of both years of experience and specific training which had been programmed into his cognition. When the engines flamed out on his Airbus, his rational frontal cortex overrode the fear. By thinking and responding rationally Sully and his First Officer saved 115 lives. Reacting to fear without thinking cost the lives of 228 Air France passengers.

Fear can cause us to believe things that are not true, to draw to incorrect conclusions and take inappropriate actions; fear often is a response out of ignorance. The antidote to fear is knowledge – education, training, experience and critical thinking.
In 1993, Chinese pilots flying a U.S.-made MD-80 were attempting to land in northwest China when the aircraft crashed on approach killing all on board. The pilots were baffled by an audio voice alarm from the plane's ground proximity warning system. Recovered from the wreckage, the plane's cockpit voice recorder picked up the Chinese pilot's last words: "What does 'pull up' mean?"

1. accident database and represents 1,300 fatal accidents involving commercial aircraft, world-wide, from 1950 thru 2009 for which a specific cause is known.


DJan said...

I have experienced brain lock in skydiving. It just becomes impossible to move beyond a particular moment, which is why emergency procedures are the same for any situation. This is a very interesting post.

Robert the Skeptic said...

DJan I had a scary skydiving experience but I didn't have a brain lock. Instead i experience what I would term time dilatation... and I swear I could make out individual blades of grass on the ground. Obviously I survived the incident. I blogged about it once, I should see if I can find that post.

Wow, that was awkward said...

Interesting. I like your educational blogs.

History Doc said...

I read that report a few days ago and shuddered. Aren't pilots supposed to be better at their jobs than this? Terrifying.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Awkward Glad you find it interesting. Thanks.

Doc Modern commercial aviation is now routine; and most of the flight the aircraft is on autopilot from wheels-up to final approach. Airline travel has the highest safety record than any other form of public transportation. Even though a pilot may have landed a plane a thousand times, they always use a checklist... every time.

Therein lies the trap, those times when things go wrong are very rare. The professionalism comes into play at these rare moments.

Infidel753 said...

It's surprising that the French crew didn't have better training, but I suppose there are a few less-capable individuals in every organization.

In the Chinese case, though, one wonders why the warning system wasn't re-programmed with a warning voice in Chinese, if the plane was meant to be flown by Chinese pilots. No one can follow instructions he can't understand.

This post reminds me of one of the scenes that made Star Wars such an asinine movie -- where Luke hits the target and destroys the Death Star by ignoring training and procedure and instead acting on intuition. In a real-life flying combat situation that would practically always result in disaster.

secret agent woman said...

The only way I am able to get on an airplane is by NOT thinking about things like this!

Sightings said...

The only way I get on an airplane is with the help of anti-anxiety drugs. But you bring up an interesting possibility -- maybe the airlines should post who the pilots are going to be for each flight, along with their resumes and their safety records.

Dawn @Lighten Up! said...

Sully: a hero. No doubt about it.
I bet you I'd be a total brain lock person. I know it. Cool, informative post.

Nance said...

Passing this along to Mr. Mature, who was statistics chief in the Safety office of the Tactical Air Command in the eighties.

Brain lock can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime. A sticking gas pedal scared the bejebus out of me this morning. It unstuck itself before any harm was done, but it wasn't until seconds later that I recalled the steps to cope with it, if it hadn't: turn off the engine.

Thank goodness I know something about pilot training; I'd never get on a plane if I didn't. And, how about that FAA chief recently yanked?! That'll give you pause.

Tommykey said...

This post reminds me of one of the scenes that made Star Wars such an asinine movie -- where Luke hits the target and destroys the Death Star by ignoring training and procedure and instead acting on intuition. In a real-life flying combat situation that would practically always result in disaster.

Yeah, but Infidel, Luke had "the Force!"

Robert the Skeptic said...

Infidel The Chinese air crash is a puzzle to me as well. English is the international language of aviation. You would think that these pilots would have covered this scenario during simulator training.

The Star Wars analogy is a good one; in almost all cases where pilots have ignored what their instruments were saying and proceeded on their gut have resulted in disaster. The instruments arm almost always right and the pilot's intuition always wrong.

SecretAgent Really, you don't need to think about it. When you fly, at that given moment, there are millions of other people, the population of a large city, suspended in the air.

Sightings I don't think knowing the safety records of the crew would make a difference to anyone. We were traveling from Portland to Mexico with some friends one time and our friend told me that if they de-ice the wings he will walk off the plane. Well they did de-ice before we pushed back from the gate and he stayed on the plane and we had a great time in Mexico. Air travel is still the safest mode of transportation on earth.

Dawn Sully declines the title of 'hero', he says he was just doing the job he was trained to do. I would agree... and that he did his job well.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Nance Great, he would know about such things. There was a big training adjustment in cockpit command and control after the crash of a plane in the Florida Everglades and another in Portland, OR. These where situations where the crew was intimidated by a strong-willed captain and afraid to contradict him, with disastrous results.

Tommykey Indeed, but if one confuses "the Force" with one's ego, people can die.

KleinsteMotte said...

Great post Robert. Why is it that some people even after training still freeze up? Is it the way their adrenaline is realized that causes this?

Robert the Skeptic said...

KleinsteMotte This is a good question. I have noticed in some emergency situations, a car crash for example, there are some people who instinctively rush in to help, others are paralyzed; my one daughter is like that, I call it "deer-in-the-headlights" reaction.