Thursday, October 2, 2014

Opua: the crash of Air France 447 and you and dodgers and self-steering vanes

        VANITY FAIR has a long article by William Langewiesche about the 2009 crash in the Atlantic Ocean of Air France Flight 447.  Although I would not have remembered it, I recognized Mr. Langewiesche’s unusual name from having read an article of his many years ago about the crash of, I think, a Boeing 737 over Pennsylvania.  That crash was due to a cascading series of minor problems that combined to create disaster.
        I was thinking of that toward the end of the passage from Neiafu when GANNET was coming unravelled.  No one failure was critical:  split floorboard, broken pipe berth, failed flashlight, limited solar charging, failed tiller pilots, sheered off tiller pedestal tube; but our resources and options were diminished, and in addition to personal comfort I wanted to reach port before the cascade became serious.
        Air France 447 was a very different story, one of pilots unable to respond properly when automation failed.  In the Air France case the failure was minor:  a brief loss of air speed indication; but 98% of flying commercial jets is now automated turning pilots into system managers and rendering them ever less capable of flying the aircraft when they have to.
        There is more here than a mere analogy to sailing.  I have prepared all my boats to sail themselves with only minor intervention from me.  That is true of GANNET as well.  I often think of myself as a system manager; but when the time came in the gale as we approached Opua that I had to steer, I did.  When the time came on Flight 447 that the pilots had to steer, they—and there were three—did exactly the wrong thing and killed everyone on board.
        I found many interesting observations in the article, among them that the average pilot thinks he is better than he is; there are cultural differences in pilots willingness to take over the controls from automated systems—the Irish are most willing; Asian pilots least so; and Wiener’s Laws, formulated by Earl Wiener, an engineer who taught at the University of Miami.

        Every device creates its own opportunity for human error.

        Exotic devices create exotic problems.

        Digital devices tune out small errors while creating opportunities for large ones.

        Invention is the mother of necessity.

        Some problems have no solution.

        It takes an airplane to bring out the worst in a pilot.

        Whenever you solve a problem, you usually create one.  You can only hope that the one you create is less critical than the one you eliminated.

        You can never be too rich or too thin (Duchess of Windsor) or too careful what you put into a digital flight-guidance system (Wiener).

        William Langewiesche is an intelligent and lucid writer and the entire article is well worth reading for airline passengers, sailors, and all living in this brave new world.
        For myself, Wiener’s law about creating one problem when you solve another is at the heart of why I am not putting a dodger or self-steering vane on GANNET.  The problems created by adding them—for the dodger, greater difficulty in moving through the main hatch, reefing the main sail, and standing in the companionway; and  for the self-steering vane, expense, added weight in the stern, and that at times GANNET accelerates too quickly for a vane to keep up—are worse than the problems they solve.  Not to mention aesthetics.
        People universally say GANNET is a pretty boat, often they say beautiful.  That is because there is none of the stuff—and I almost choose a harsher word—many people put on their boats.  
        One of the more pleasing compliments I ever received wasn’t even directed to me.  Many years ago while down below on RESURGAM on a mooring in Sydney, Australia, another boat sailed by and I heard the owner tell someone aboard, “That boat has sailed around the world.”
        The incredulous reply, “Why it doesn’t have enough stuff on it.”
        Recently a friend emailed suggesting that I reenforce GANNET’s transom from the outside, which would indeed be considerably easier than from the inside, and then he added, “Who cares what it looks like.”
        You know I replied, “I do.”
        Am I willing to pay a physical price for aesthetics?  
        You know the answer to that one, too.