Rabbit in the Headlights

Author Jeff Wise specializes in the human response to fear. His book "Extreme Fear" examines how many people have coped with paralyzing danger, from wild animal attacks to forest fires to aircraft emergencies. He notes that exercise helps the brain cope with anxiety; nervous parachuters on their way to a drop perform better on mental puzzles like crosswords in proportion to their physical fitness. Another trick is either to be in control, or at least to visualize oneself in control. (I learned decades ago that imagining myself behind the throttle in a commercial aircraft cut way down on the fear of flying that used to afflict me from time to time.) Staying warm is surprisingly effective, too. Scuba divers without wetsuits tend to have more panic-related mishaps.

In a recent article for Popular Mechanics, Wise tries to unravel how an Air France co-pilot over the tropical Atlantic in 2009 could have responded so disastrously to anxiety-provoking severe weather and a relatively minor icing-up incident by putting his aircraft into a completely unnecessary and deadly stall. Part of the explanation may be that most of us lose our higher brain functions under the influence of extreme fear and must fall back on rote training. Repetitive training under high stress can be a life-saver, but the Air France pilot, unfortunately, fell back on a singularly inappropriate routine.

These recommendations are nothing very startling or new, except for one: studies show that having sex cuts down measurably on the fear of public speaking. Now they tell me.

I'm not sure if the movie "Three Kings" is one I'd recommend to this audience without reservations, but one line did stick with me. George Clooney counsels a terrified young recruit by explaining: "Here's how it works. You do the thing you're scared ****less of, and you get the courage afterwards, not before."


Grim said...

The Clooney line is correct, but you should know it from Aristotle. :)

BillT said...

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.

When you're trying to cope with an unexpected emergency, you focus on one particular item -- usually a visual one -- to the exclusion of pretty much everything else around you. The first thing you ignore is *sound*, which is why the "cricket" is designed to be annoying -- it's to jolt you out of channelizing your attention.

That's the primary reason us *Army*-trained helicopter 'structors slam students with multiple simultaneous emergencies -- it teaches them to evaluate each emergency and cope with the most important one first, and then address the others in order of most-dangerous-to-merely-annoying.

The secondary reason we do it (as LR1 will attest) is because when one thing goes wrong in a helicopter, something else will, too -- and in very short order, so will something else...

BillT said...

Unless you lacked the common sense to be scared ***less of it in the first place -- if so, you don't get courage, merely a rude awakening.

In that event, you don't get the courage unless you survive the rude awakening -- and do it again anyway...

Texan99 said...

I had no idea that was swiped from Aristotle! Thanks.

Never having been exposed to much dangerous emergency myself, and being easily confused by sudden, loud, multiple, moderately scary things, I'm in awe of people who successfully complete trainings of that kind. It's very hard to come back to basic principles and prioritize risks when the adrenaline is pumping. As my doctor friends say, the first thing to do when your patient is coding is to take your own pulse.

That AirFrance crash is fascinating, not just because a frightened young pilot so thoroughly lost control of his situation, but because a system was in place that prevented the two more experienced pilots from figuring out what the panicking pilot was doing wrong. From all appearances, they never even knew he was pulling back on the stick the whole time, and it was such an insane thing to do they never suspected it.

BillT said...

Pilots are human, and sometimes an agenda can overcome training. The young pilot may have had a fear of ditching in the ocean.

I know of one incident where a cargo pilot was scorched in a post-crash fire following a landing with an unsafe gear indication. He told his fellow pilots he never wanted to be involved in another post-crash fire. Three years later, he had another unsafe gear indication and circled the airport even after the flight engineer had visually confirmed the suspect gear was down.

He continued to circle until the engines flamed out from the lack of fuel, three miles from the airport.

There was no post-crash fire...

Texan99 said...

Exactly. We're often afraid of just the wrong things, and allow the lessons of past disasters to force us to solve the wrong problems in the future.

Anonymous said...

Yup, nothing ever goes wrong on its own - gremlins travel in pairs at least (kinda like nuns).

Panic aside, Airbusses provide no tactile feedback for control movement. The side-stick feels the same if you ask for a little movement or a lot of movement. Since fixes wing pilots (and I assume rotorwing as well) train in part to pay attention to the changing feel of the controls as airflow changes, especially at high altitudes, a number of Airbus instructors and pilots have suggested that the crew reverted to their earliest training and that contributed to the problem - they could not feel the changes and did not notice what was happening on the displays until they were well outside the envelope.


BillT said...

Control feedback in most fling-wing craft is pretty much nil above 14,000 feet (most are designed to fly below 10,000). Control response is sluggish, at best, but if you're too sloppy on the controls, you can amputate your tailboom -- which is a *bad* thing.

That said, there are helicopters *designed* to perform at high altitudes, and they're very good at it. Just don't shut an engine down in an LZ above 16,000 feet and expect to get it started again. I know where there's a Pakistani Army Llama frozen into the ice above the 18,000 foot level...

raven said...

They blew through 38,000 feet in a stall, stick back. A simple cross-check of instruments would have told them what was going on. Attitude indicator? Ground speed? Altimeter? Rate of climb? Power? And for a lot of it, they did have the air speed indicator.
To me, as a low time private pilot, the frightening thing is this stuff was taught me as BASIC flight training.

E Hines said...

As the report indicates, they did, indeed, have their instruments back for significant periods of the descent, including early enough in the end game to have recovered.

What I saw in the report was a combination of panic (which need not be demonstrated as screaming and shouting) and lack of training in "going manual." These guys could not understand how to work with simple, basic analog systems that told them their altitude was decreasing--pulling back on the stick wasn't working; their airspeed was falling off--pulling back on the stick and/or not adjusting the throttles was not working. Etc.

My beginning training as a private pilot included drill on partial panel, analog instruments. I had to correctly interpret the incomplete data I was getting (which in fact was complete enough, or interpretation would have been impossible) and recover from the strange attitude into which my instructor had placed the aircraft. And after I was qualified, and reasonably competent, my training and check rides included such tests.

These guys simply weren't drilled enough on basic instrument flying--the computers and glass will never fail, after all--and in the stress of their moment, their minds froze and they couldn't even figure out what they had.

Incidentally, the lack of force feedback on side-sticks was a problem in the USAF, too, when they were first deployed. Now the side-sticks in the F-16 and F-22 move some, and in proportion to the amount of yank the pilot applies.

Eric Hines

Texan99 said...

That reminds me, I've never understood what a "cross check" is, despite hearing it mentioned on commercial flights before every landing. Can someone enlighten me? Also, can you guys help me understand what should have tipped off the other two pilots that the youngest one had the stick back, short of looking over his shoulder and seeing it? How hard is it to see, anyway?

E Hines said...

You do a "cross check" whenever you drive, if you're properly attending your instruments on your dashboard. This is nothing more than actually looking at your instruments and understanding what they're telling you: your speed, your engine's rpm (if you have a tachometer--all proper cars have these...), and so on. In an aircraft, this cross check involves looking at the altimeter, the heading indicator, the engine power readings, and nose up/down position wrt the horizon at a minimum (there are lots of status indicators that indicate incipient, or actively in progress, problems of various types, also), and understanding what they're telling you, particularly whether your altitude, heading, airspeed, nose position relative to the horizon, and so on are varying in accordance with your active control inputs.

On the matter of the side stick, I can only use the F-22 cockpit layout and my memory of USAF heavies with their jump seats. The side stick for the co-pilot sits on a console (just what it sounds like) on the co-pilot's right. I have no idea whether in the Airbus, the pilot's side stick (who sits on left side of the cockpit) is also on his right, or also on his outside. But with this layout, the incident Airbus' pilot in command, sitting in the jump seat, would have been either directly behind the pilot or directly behind the co-pilot. If the former, the co-pilot's body would have screened the PIC's view of the side stick. If the latter, the view would have been possible, but not straightforward.

But there were a couple of indicators that the co-pilot had a hard grip on the side-stick. One early one was the pilot's inputs having no effect: he should have questioned that, rather than assuming unresponsive controls (yes, but why? Surely his training included that little tidbit that the Airbus' two side sticks were not ganged together.) Second was the co-pilot's announcement late in the incident that he'd been hauling back on the side stick all this time.

But there was a third method, never (inexcusably, in my mind) exercised at all, most especially by the PIC when he re-entered the cockpit--the one to which you alluded: Overtly and directly asking, "Who's got the stick?"

In USAF multi-pilot aircraft, there's a drill that's actively gone through whenever change of aircraft control is transferred from one pilot to another: they exercise a chant (and it's gone over, ad nauseum in mission pre-briefs): "Pump to pass, shake to take." And the execution is just that straightforward: the transferring pilot, in addition to saying out loud, "you have the aircraft," pushes the control stick forward and backward a few times. The receiving pilot, in addition to saying out lout, "I have the aircraft," swings the stick from side to side a few times. I think the aircraft movement in response to this pumping and shaking would be little distinguishable from ordinary turbulence, and so not a problem for commercial passengers. With the Airbus' side sticks not ganged, though, pumping and passing would be no signal at all. Out loud, deliberate, verbal coordination would be necessary.

This was in inexperienced crew, inadequately trained, and inadequately led.

Eric Hines

Assistant Village Idiot said...

In a crisis, you will not rise to the occasion. You will revert to your level of training.

That's not just aircraft.

RonF said...

The "Three Kings" quote reminds me of teaching kids the Scout Law. "A Scout is Brave" is the 10th point. When I ask the kids what that means, they mostly tell me "It means not being scared."

I tell them, "No. Someone who has to do something dangerous or risky and isn't scared isn't brave. They're a fool. Stay away from fools, they'll get you hurt. Being brave is when you have to do something and you're scared to do it but you do it anyway. If you're not scared, then you're not being brave."

This is a revelation for many of them. Generally they are led to conduct their lives in such a fashion that anything they might be scared of is taken out of their lives. They're pretty much trained to stay away from anything that might be scary. But then I take them away from their parents up into Devils' Lake in Wisconsin, tie ropes to them and have them climb up rocks or rappel down them. Rappelling is pretty scary. Getting them to overcome that and go down anyway helps grow them up some.

BillT said...

This was in inexperienced crew, inadequately trained, and inadequately led.

Inadequate by US standards. US pilots transitioning into the Airbus used to be taught by Air France instructors. I know five "old timers" (ca. 1988) who were told that the computers were infallible.

Each one had a *rude* awakening within the first two years of flying the A320 -- two had autopilots decide to land short of their destination (they would have gotten very wet), two had altitude-hold failures with no warning light illumination, and one had an autopilot decide that Toronto was *south* of JFK and turned the aircraft accordingly.

There are NTSB records on file in which the autopilot refused to disengage and allow the pilot to return to his departure airport after an engine failure on climbout. Airbus engineers were quite piqued when one pilot in that situation disabled the computer controlling the autopilot by smashing it repeatedly with a fire extinguisher.

Texan99 said...

Sounds like they really needed the guy with the fire extinguisher on board Air France 447. Not the kind of fellow who'd freeze all the way into the drink.

BillT said...

The saga continues. From this morning's NTSB recap:

In 2008, a Qantas A330, with 303 passengers on board, pitched down twice due to a combination of conflicts involving its flight control computers and an air data inertial reference unit (ADIRU).
A software design problem caused the flight control computers to command the aircraft to pitch down in response to incorrect data from the ADIRU.
The wild ride saw at least 110 people injured, 51 of them seriously enough to require hospital treatment. Nine of the aircraft's 12 crew members were also injured.

Moral of the story: keep your seatbelt fastened in flight, particularly if you get stuck on an Airbus...

E Hines said...

...told that the computers were infallible.

It's time to head for the exits when the instructors have their heads that far up and locked.

...disabled the computer controlling the autopilot by smashing it repeatedly with a fire extinguisher.

I suppose the Airbus engineers denied their computer was at fault. Still, the solution was hard on the fire extinguisher. Where was the Air Marshall and his side arm? Oh, wait....

Eric Hines