The Jeff Wise Blog

In Smolensk Air Crash, Blame People, Not Machines

Horrific news this weekend from Smolensk, Russia, where a plane crash killed Polish president Lech Kaczynski. I’ve got a blog post up this morning on Popular Mechanics about the psychological factors that may have caused the pilot to fly a perfectly functioning aircraft into the ground:

Sometimes… a pilot is highly motivated to get on the ground, a state of mind known colloquially in aviation circles as “get-there-itis.” He might be suffering mechanical problems, a fuel shortage or simply be impatient to get where he’s going. Instead of abandoning his approach, he continues lower, hoping that by pressing on a little longer he’ll emerge from the clouds, spot the runway and accomplish his landing. He might figure that, since there’s a certain amount of safety margin built into the descent protocol, there’s no harm in pushing it a little bit. But “busting minimums” as this behavior is called, can be an insidiously dangerous pastime.

I continue:

As far as safety margins go, a little bit quickly becomes a little more, and then a lot. Meanwhile, the ground is growing closer, time is growing short and the pilot is stressed out and overloaded, as he tries to simultaneously keep track of various parameters such as altitude, airspeed, direction, and location. Psychologically, the intense pressure only makes matters worse, as high levels of fight-or-flight hormones shrinks the working memory and hampers rational thought. By the time trees and buildings emerge from the haze, it may be too late.

In the case of the Smolensk incident, the pilot had already attempted the approach three times, and each time failed to identify the runway through the fog. But his passengers, an elite delegation of high-ranking Polish politicians, were eager to get on the ground so that they could attend an important ceremony with their Russian counterparts. This was a group that was used to getting what it wanted. In the past, the Polish President had even threatened to punish a pilot who refused to land in bad weather. The pressure was on. Get-there-itis set in, and the stage was set for tragedy.

It’s chilling to recognize how easy it is for pilots to find themselves vulnerable to bad decision making. But the fact of the matter is that when you’re midair on a commercial flight, the thing most likely to fail and kill you is not the airplane. Even though a modern jet airliner is an unfathomably complex device, with more than three million parts that can conceivably fail, it is also deliberately engineered with multiple redundancies, so that any single malfunction on its own will be harmless. There is only one component has the capacity to single-handedly destroy an aircraft in flight. And that is the pilot.

Most of us, to be sure, don’t see things that way. We take comfort in the presence of a human being at the controls and are suspicious of machinery.  But in reality failings of human psychology are responsible for about half of all airline accidents. As far back as the late ‘70s, experts at NASA pioneered efforts to circumvent expected mental shortcomings through a process called Cockpit Resource Management. Ultimately,  it has proven easier to perfect machines, even inconceivably complex ones, than to do away with human fallibility.

So why not get rid of pilots? It’s technically feasible. With unmanned air vehicles becoming ever more dominant over the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s easy to imagine an air transportation network that does away with on-board human pilots altogether. The only stumbling block, aviation experts say, is the public’s continued faith in human competence, however misguided. Until we’re willing to get aboard a plane with an empty cockpit, crashes like last Saturday’s will take place.

Filed under: Aviation

4 Responses

  1. Conan776 says:

    Interesting stuff!

    Gee, I’ll really have to check out your book; as an avid poker hobbyist, I know that manipulating fear and managing your own is essential for crushing the game.

    • Jeff Wise says:

      Thanks! I’m a terrible poker player myself, but I admire the skill of those who can play it well; it requires, it seems to me, an unusual degree both of intellectual facility and emotional control.

  2. Jerzy says:

    theory in that article is very weak : 4 landing attempts was an early version from Russian side , later abandoned .
    Previous case when President Kaczynsk was to tell his pilot to land ( Georgia 2008 ) turned out to be false as well .
    There was a lot of early theors from Rusian side re. cause of the crash : some as bizarre as the one saying that pilot didn’t know Russian well or that he didn’t know TU154M plane type well enough !
    In short , all were blaming Polish .

  3. Krzysiek says:

    Please direct your attention to some solid facts and not an desinformation (like 4 aproches – there was only one).

    Russian transport plane IL-76 landing first and Polish Presidential TU-154M lux (#101) comeing after him to land in about 1.5 min difference were both almost in the same place (cut down trees and power line is proof).
    Two different planes and pilots educated in two different systems can not make the same error.

    Than what did???

    Fact is that Polish plane was on correct course (axis of runway and height until it reached second NBD landing marker point). Since this moment plane turned left about 15 degrees and decendet sudenly 6 m/s. MAK comission stayted that plane operated on autopilot until 5-6 sek. before crash, when piolots realized that they are in the wrong place and height and tryed to pull up.

    If the Polish plane would not recived wrong info from Russian navigation system, Polish Presidential plane would’ve touch down the runway at the very begining and there would’ve be NO tragedy!

    History repeats itself: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1986_Mozambican_Tupolev_Tu-134_crash

    Today this action is called: meaconing.

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Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

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