Like many people (including my Atlantic colleague Jim Fallows), when I first heard about Northwest Airlines Flight 188 going radio silent for 75 minutes and overshooting its destination by 150 miles in October, I figured the pilots must have fallen asleep. As a pilot myself, I could think of no other conceivable reason for such a jaw-dropping lapse in pilot performance. And like Fallows, I, too, reacted with disbelief when the pilots said they had simply been too absorbed with company scheduling issues on their laptop computers. For over an hour?? With absolutely zero thought to where the heck are we??
In subsequent conversations with airline pilots I know, I discovered that to those who fly the line, it's not inconceivable. Just appalling. Suffice it to say that there are apparently a few other pilots out there whose sense of professionalism is noticeably and irritatingly lacking. And while pilots usually try to cut each other a little slack, especially from critiques outside the industry, I've only received one email from an airline pilot defending the actions of the Northwest crew. The rest ran along the lines of "they should be stripped of their ratings and pensions and never be allowed to fly an airplane again. Period."
The FAA agreed, revoking the pilots' certificates within days of the event. The reason all this is noteworthy again is that the pilots are currently in the process of appealing those revocations. And in statements to the FAA released Monday, they tried to shift the blame onto the air traffic controllers who failed to get in touch with them, saying that failures by the air traffic controllers that were "a causal or contributing factor in the incident."
I'm not sure which is more outrageous, actually. To get so engrossed in your personal priorities that you don't bother to ask, "gee, why is Center not calling us," or glance at any of the navigation screens that show you fast approaching your destination, or notice any of the eight separate text messages your own dispatchers have sent you, accompanied by warning lights ... in short, to not think for even one minute about actually flying the airplane ... or to try to blame it on controllers who didn't manage to yell at you loudly enough to get your distracted attention.
It is drilled into every pilot, from the earliest days of their flight training, that the pilot in command is just that: the person who holds final responsibility and accountability for the safe outcome of every flight. If you're flying in busy airspace, in clouds, or at altitudes where the airlines cruise, there are rules that say you have to be in contact with controllers and on a flight plan, at all times. If a controller says you need to do something, in most cases, you should do it. But the pilot retains final responsibility and say over the operation of the aircraft--as it should be. After all, as pilots are fond of saying, the furthest a controller can fall is the 18 inches from their chair to the floor.
If a pilot doesn't feel they can safely execute a controller's request, the simple response "unable" trumps the controller's direction. If worse comes to worst, a pilot can simply declare an emergency and do whatever is necessary to save the airplane and sort the details out on the ground. So blaming the controllers for not doing a better job at getting you to do your job is an even flimsier excuse than saying "the dog ate my homework" or "Johnny made me do it."
Controllers can make mistakes, of course, and from reading the transcripts of the air traffic control communications related to that flight, it seems as if there might have been room for improvement. Not in getting the attention of the Northwest pilots (one controller tried to contact the pilots more than a dozen times), but in realizing that a potentially serious situation, with potentially serious security concerns, was unfolding before them.
In the years since the attacks of 9/11, any number of small airplane pilots who strayed out of approved flight paths or airspace have found themselves eye to eye with pilots in military aircraft and helicopters, signaling stern orders to follow them to an airport and land NOW. This, mind you, for little training aircraft that weigh less than a Honda Civic and could probably do less damage. Yet an airliner with the fuel and mass to really do damage goes radio silent for over an hour, and cruises right past its destination, and nobody moved to intercept it--at least in part because controllers were slow to process what was going on and notify the appropriate agencies.
A mismanaged shift change in Denver may account for some of the delay. And in all fairness, the controllers after that assumed a benign explanation: that the flight had simply lost its radios and was unable to talk to anyone. So they treated it as such. And that kind of thing does happen. But the transcripts also show confusion among controllers about what was really going on and what to do about it. The same kind of confusion that the transcripts of controllers on 9/11 showed. Where are they? Are you talking to them? Can you get someone to try to reach them? Did someone call their company dispatchers?
Of course, the airliner had not departed from its flight path, or shown erratic behavior that would have raised more alarm. And enough little glitches happen in air traffic control communications that controllers are not trigger-loaded to ring alarm bells at the first sign of something amiss. But, still. The Commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command is not pleased.
It's been said that the attacks of 9/11 succeeded due to a lack of imagination on our part. We simply couldn't conceive of hijackers using box cutters to take over airplanes and fly them into buildings. And perhaps the controllers working with Flight 188 had, thankfully, gotten so used to safe skies again that they assumed a lack of contact from an airliner meant an inoperable radio rather than imagining something more serious.
So I hope controllers are getting a refresher course on the importance of better coordination, keeping alert for anomalies, and and questioning all the possible reasons a problem might be occurring. But for the Northwest crew to blame the controllers for not preventing their own transgressions is, as Jim Fallows said of the transgressions themselves, beyond the pale.
I'm guessing that the pilots are following the advice of their lawyers, who are trying to find any and all angles out of a thin list of possibilities that might get their clients off the hook. But ever since the first officer confidently told the press that the passengers were in no danger at any time, the crew has shown an appalling lack of awareness of just how egregious their sins were. What if the flight had been intercepted, as it perhaps should have been? Not to mention multiple other hazards that come with having a flight crew so detached from what's going on in the cockpit.
Perhaps it's asking too much to expect pilots who thought so little of their professional responsibilities in the first place to step up and take professional, mature responsibility for their failures. And the idea of minimizing their professional and legal exposure and cost is surely a tempting one. But redemption doesn't come as easily as a legal victory. And it surely doesn't come from blaming someone else for your own mistakes.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
By announcing the first detection of gravitational waves, scientists have vindicated Einstein and given humans a new way to look at the universe.
More than a billion years ago, in a galaxy that sits more than a billion light-years away, two black holes spiraled together and collided. We can’t see this collision, but we know it happened because, as Albert Einstein predicted a century ago, gravitational waves rippled out from it and traveled across the universe to an ultra-sensitive detector here on Earth.
This discovery, announced today by researchers with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), marks another triumph for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And more importantly, it marks the beginning of a new era in the study of the universe: the advent of gravitational-wave astronomy. The universe has just become a much more interesting place.
The hit new indie release is the opposite of action-packed, yet it’s compelling in its simplicity.
Solitude, it turns out, can be addictive. So I learned playing the new hit indie game Firewatch, where all the action amounts to you, the player, being alone in the woods. You’re a lookout assigned to a summer posting in the Shoshone National Forest of Wyoming in 1989, meaning your job consists of nothing more than wandering around, clearing brush, and calling in any fires you might spot. Most video games equip you with tools and weapons, complex missions, and action sequences. All Firewatch gives you is a map, a compass, and a walkie-talkie—but it’s still one of the most compelling video games I’ve ever played.
It’s the latest in a quiet movement of video games, more psychological products that tap into the atmosphere and wonder of loneliness rather than looking for the simpler thrills the medium usually provides. It’s tempting to trace this trend’s origins back to Minecraft, which launched in 2009 and became a worldwide phenomenon on the back of its extraordinary simplicity. But in Minecraft, you start armed only with your bare hands in a world of monsters, and can eventually upgrade into a city-builder armed with powerful tools. Firewatch is a more intimate affair: a short story, playable over a few hours, that succeeds first and foremost as an emotional experience.
A maverick investor is buying up water rights. Will he rescue a region, or just end up hurting the poor?
On a brisk, cloudless day last january, Disque Deane Jr. stepped out of his SUV, kicked his cowboy boots in the dirt, and looked around. He had driven two hours from Reno on one of the loneliest stretches of interstate in the United States to visit the Diamond S Ranch, just outside the town of Winnemucca, Nevada. Before him, open fields stretched all the way to the Santa Rosa mountains, 30 miles away. But the land was barren. The fields had been chewed down to the roots by cattle, and the ranch’s equipment had been stripped for parts. A steel trestle bridge lay pitched into the Humboldt River.
Surveying the dilapidated structures and the gopher-riddled soil, Deane saw something few others might: potential. The ranch and an adjoining property, totaling about 11,400 acres—14 times the size of Central Park—were for sale for $10.5 million, and he was thinking about buying them.
By mining electronic medical records, scientists show the lasting legacy of prehistoric sex on modern humans’ health.
Modern humans originated in Africa, and started spreading around the world about 60,000 years ago. As they entered Asia and Europe, they encountered other groups of ancient humans that had already settled in these regions, such as Neanderthals. And sometimes, when these groups met, they had sex.
We know about these prehistoric liaisons because they left permanent marks on our genome. Even though Neanderthals are now extinct, every living person outside of Africa can trace between 1 and 5 percent of our DNA back to them. (I am 2.6 percent Neanderthal, if you were wondering, which pales in comparison to my colleague James Fallows at 5 percent.)
This lasting legacy was revealed in 2010 when the complete Neanderthal genome was published. Since then, researchers have been trying to figure out what, if anything, the Neanderthal sequences are doing in our own genome. Are they just passive hitchhikers, or did they bestow important adaptations on early humans? And are they affecting the health of modern ones?
Once it was because they weren’t as well educated. What’s holding them back now?
Though headway has been made in bringing women’s wages more in line with men’s in the past several decades, that convergence seems to have stalled in more recent years. To help determine why, Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, the authors of a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research parse data on wages and occupations from 1980 to 2010. They find that as more women attended and graduated college and headed into the working world, education and professional experience levels stopped playing a significant role in the the difference between men and women’s wages. Whatever remains of the discrepancy can’t be explained by women not having basic skills and credentials. So what does explain it?
When four American women were murdered during El Salvador’s dirty war, a young U.S. official and his unlikely partner risked their lives to solve the case.
On December 1, 1980, two American Catholic churchwomen—an Ursuline nun and a lay missionary—sat down to dinner with Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. They worked in rural areas ministering to El Salvador’s desperately impoverished peasants, and White admired their commitment and courage. The talk turned to the government’s brutal tactics for fighting the country’s left-wing guerrillas, in a dirty war waged by death squads that dumped bodies in the streets and an army that massacred civilians. The women were alarmed by the incoming Reagan administration’s plans for a closer relationship with the military-led government. Because of a curfew, the women spent the night at the ambassador’s residence. The next day, after breakfast with the ambassador’s wife, they drove to San Salvador’s international airport to pick up two colleagues who were flying back from a conference in Nicaragua. Within hours, all four women would be dead.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
Why the Syrian war—and the future of Europe—may hinge on one city
This week, the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian-supported militias including Hezbollah, launched a major offensive to encircle rebel strongholds in the northern city of Aleppo, choking off one of the last two secure routes connecting the city to Turkey and closing in on the second. This would cut supplies not only to a core of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also to the city’s 300,000 remaining civilians, who may soon find themselves besieged like hundreds of thousands of others in the country. In response, 50,000 civilians have fled Aleppo for the Turkish border, where the border crossing is currently closed. An unnamed U.S. defense official toldThe Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef that “the war is essentially over” if Assad manages to seize and hold Aleppo.
If Bernie Sanders is serious about a political transformation in America, he needs a better plan.
If there’s one thing that fires up Bernie Sanders supporters—and makes his detractors roll their eyes—it’s his call for a “political revolution.” To his base, it’s the very point of his anti-establishment, anti-elite candidacy. To his critics, it’s the very embodiment of his campaign’s naïve impracticality and vagueness.
But now that voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have spoken, it’s time to take the idea of political revolution more seriously—more seriously, indeed, than Sanders himself appears to have. It’s time to ask: What exactly would it take?
It starts with Congress. And here it’s instructive to compare Sanders and Donald Trump. Both rely on broad, satisfying refrains of “We’re gonna”: We’re gonna break up the big banks. We’re gonna make Mexico build the wall. We’re gonna end the rule of Wall Street billionaires. We’re gonna make China stop ripping us off.