Human errors in the cockpit have been the focus of media attention over the past few weeks.
An interesing article by Nautilus last week discussed the human errors in the airline community lately and speculated that the human brain might not be completely caple of handling multiple alarms in the flight deck.
For people in the grip of a life-or-death emergency, fear has a tendency to spiral.
In this state, we experience what’s known as “cognitive tunneling.” Our attention narrows as we focus on the danger at hand, resulting in an elevated heart rate and quickened breathing, and all our mental resources are focused on the main threat.
Yet there is also a flipside. With a narrowed focus it becomes hard to multitask, to think complex thoughts, to decipher instructions, or to generate novel solutions. Our judgment can be clouded, and experience thrown out the window.
In extreme cases, we lose the ability to consciously control our behavior at all, and find ourselves willy-nilly engaging in ancient stereotypical behaviors like fighting, running, or playing dead.
In other words, when a pilot who’s managing a complex modern airliner realizes that his plane is going to crash, he needs the mild fight-or-flight response appropriate for taking a multiple-choice test, but what he gets is a five-alarm response better suited for surviving an animal attack.
A common, deadly mistake of overwhelmed pilots is to put the plane into an aerodynamic stall.
When a plane is flying slowly at low altitude, there’s an instinctive human reaction to want to move away from the immediate danger and pull back on the controls to gain altitude.
Doing so, however, can have exactly the opposite effect.
Climbing causes an airplane to slow down, and if its airspeed falls below a critical velocity, the wing dramatically loses its ability to generate lift.
Instead of gaining altitude, the plane suddenly drops, often with fatal results.
From the very start of flight training, pilots are taught to be extra careful not to raise the nose when low and slow. But every year, pilots panic, forget their training, and die.