Fly by Wire

William Langewiesche's Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson is brilliant aviation writing, a marriage of hard-headed engineering analysis and edge-of-the-seat storytelling. Hook: the 15 January 2009 water landing of US Airways Flight 1549, minutes after encountering a flock of birds and losing both engines during inital climb from takeoff. Meat: how state-of-the-art aircraft are designed to maximize safety and performance, via intimate collaboration between pilot and computer.

This is a lovely book, John McPhee class in prose and organization, crude in a few places but polished gold in its overarching message. Along the way Langewiesche interviews "... a charismatic French test and fighter pilot named Barnard Ziegler, now retired, who must stand as one of the greatest engineers of our time." Ziegler was the driving force behind the Airbus Consortium's "... culture of intellectual courage that existed in the 1980s ... a bet-the-farm determination to rethink airplanes from scratch and to challenge Boeing in the only way that might succeed—by leaping forward unhindered by tradition and without fear or compromise in the design."

In Chapter 6, Langewiesche explores the root cause of most accidents. He tells of a 1995 crash into the Andes near Cali, Columbia, and in the middle of the story digresses:

Intelligence is not a prerequisite for safe flying, but an acceptance of human fallibility is, and the two are generally linked. Ziegler mentioned it on the banks of the Garonne. He has seen such variations over the years. He said that the mark of the great pilots he has known is that they admitted in advance to their capacity for error, and they addressed their mistakes vigorously after making them. He said, "Vous savez, monsieur: L'erreur est humaine." Actually the Latin original, in full, goes, Errare humanum est, sed perseverare diabolicum. To err is human, but to persist is diabolical. Maybe it should be posted in polling stations. Certainly it should be posted in cockpits. The captain [of a particular airliner about to crash] was having a hard time with it that night. He never admitted that he had screwed up. He never even admitted that he and the copilot together had screwed up. Instead he said that they had gotten screwed up, as if it had been done to them by outside forces—presumably some mysterious equipment failure. The distinction may seem like a semantic quibble, but it fits into larger patterns at play that night and helps to explain the ongoing and maddening descent. Even now the captain did not fully accept what the navigational instruments showed—that they had overshot the entry gate, that they had proceeded into uncharted territory far to the east of the final approach course, and that after all these years spent flying airplanes, this time his mental map was wrong. He was intellectually arrogant. It was diabolically stupid of him. He kept thinking they could salvage the arrival.

Several pages later Langewiesche concludes the accident analysis: "No technology can protect passengers from such pilots, but in this particular case, had they been in a fly-by-wire design, it seems likely that everyone would have survived. ... Experiments later found that perhaps 10 percent of airline pilots can (on a good day) squeeze the maximum performance from conventional airplanes during emergency maneuvers like pull-ups that require them to go to the very edge of flight. Ziegler was not building protections for them, but for all the others, 90 percent of airline pilots worldwide. He could not keep crews from descending on autopilot into the Andes at night, nor could he keep such crews from crashing, but once the autopilot is off and the pilots' hands are on the controls, he could guarantee the same performance to everyone—from the top 10 percent to the Cali crew, and all the pilots in between."

In my teenager years of reading Flying magazine I loved the detailed analyses of plane crashes. Now, I think I know why. Accident reports aren't just data-dense tense human-machine stories. Nor are they sure-glad-that's-not-me schadenfreude spectaculars. When well-written such a report can bring one into a hyper-aware mindful state, perhaps similar to the slow-motion total-immersion that people in crisis sometimes feel. Fascinating, and important.

(cf. WrightFlight (2003-03-30), Theory of Flight (2008-02-26), ...) - ^z - 2011-01-07