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.