Trust the evidence: flying is safe
Posted by tomhmackenzie
We have all been shocked to the core at the terrible tragedy which unfolded last week in the French Alps. It is the stuff of nightmares: a deranged madman propelling us forward to an inevitable and horrible death. While millions place their lives regularly in the hands of the airlines, a surprising number do so with the utmost reluctance. The reason they do so is that they recognise it is the only practical way of getting to distant, exotic places and that the urge manages to override their fears.
We heed, as best we can, the mass of statistical evidence which says that flying is safe. As I write, 9,000 passenger aircraft are in the skies of the world carrying a population the size of Manchester. All will arrive safely. When 9/11 struck and the order went out to ground all aircraft, private as well as civil, 5,000 aircraft were in the skies of North America.
The loss of two Malaysian aircraft, and this recent German one in what seems like quick succession, has evoked all our ancient, primeval fears of doing such unnatural things as soaring high in the sky. ‘That’s for the birds,’ we think. Evolution, after all, has hardwired us to fear heights as a terrestrial animal, and it takes a supreme effort of will to set such fears aside. I am myself full of irrational fears and contradictions. What do you make of a man who flew his own hang glider yet is anxious about trusting his lot to an airline pilot? The pilot’s machine is infinitely safer and better maintained, and his skills in the air immeasurable better, yet still I preferred to rely on myself.
We have come a long way since those first spluttering engines of World War One with their rickety airframes and fresh air environment. They were the true heroes of flying, not us. Accident by accident over these hundred years, we have investigated the causes of failures. And modification by modification, aircraft have been brought to the point where almost nothing remains to be discovered.
The machines we put into the air today are almost as safe as the birds which evolution perfected. In fact it is possible to argue that in some important respects they are safer. Birds regularly fall out of the sky with heart or other physiological failures. On long migrations, they fail through weariness or failure to anticipate the weather. Sometimes they fail to gain the height necessary to carry them over mountain ranges. Planes almost never fail on any of these counts. Moreover, aircraft are able to fly over 13 times the speed of the fastest birds, which, as it happens, nest on the cliffs of Cornwall. Even as long ago as World War Two we were well on our way. Look how many shot-up bombers were still able to limp home, so much were their aircrafts miracles of engineering.
It is a fact that if we are to fear anything today it is ourselves. By far the majority of accidents are human error. Electrical, structural, mechanical and computer, they are all a lot sounder than the frailty of human nature. We have pretty well guaranteed physical soundness, but this recent tragedy in the Alps has highlighted how far we are from understanding the vagaries of the mind.
Few air disasters have been more shocking than this one. When Pan American airlines was blown from the skies over Lockerbie, disaster came like a thief in the night but with no suffering. Death, or at least unconsciousness, was instant. The same is true of the recent Ukrainian tragedy. What unfolded over the Alps were minutes of utmost terror and a final few seconds of unimaginable horror.
This nightmarish scenario was compounded at ground level. When the bodies at Lockerbie and Ukraine fell from their destroyed aircraft, they travelled to earth at terminal velocity of a falling object (120 mph) and for the most part, remained intact. When the poor souls of Germanwings Flight 9525 impacted the ground, they did so at 330 mph and were shattered on impact. Even the metallic parts of the aircraft suffered a similar fate. It was next to impossible for a visitor to the scene to know that this mass of debris had once been an aircraft. A mountain of unidentifiable, desiccated body parts were scattered over a square mile of mountainside. Consequently, one of the worst aspects of this terrible tragedy is that the grieving families have a next to impossible task in recovering their loved ones among so mixed and fragmented a jumble.
Lufthansa will have much to answer for when the final reckoning takes place. It appears their vetting system was so inadequate that it allowed an individual with a long history of mental instability to slip the net and fly their aircraft.
While we all place great importance on patient confidentiality, it appears the Germans are almost paranoiac about it. This, where certain occupations are concerned, will have to change as I believe it will worldwide. A duty needs to be placed on all doctors, which has the force of law, requiring them to inform a patient’s employer the moment they believe their patient unfit to fly an aircraft. The same should apply to train and coach drivers.
At some point in the not too distant future, we are going to have to accept that ground control will get you to your destination and back, as it has long done on far more complicated missions into space. Already our drones daily take off, complete their missions and return safely to earth. Once again, it is an irrational, primitive belief that only a man up front can be given ultimate responsibility. When we have grown used to safely journeying in our cars by automated, driverless systems – which is coming sooner than we think – then we may start to believe that the same technology can be applied to the air. Such systems are already feasible in our towns and cities and will soon be trialled here in the UK. It is only human irrationality which is slowing the process. When accidents and fatalities are seen to have been driven down close to zero with machines in control, then perhaps we may summon up the courage to trust the machine more than the man.