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.
It’s a paradox: Shouldn’t the most accomplished be well equipped to make choices that maximize life satisfaction?
There are three things, once one’s basic needs are satisfied, that academic literature points to as the ingredients for happiness: having meaningful social relationships, being good at whatever it is one spends one’s days doing, and having the freedom to make life decisions independently.
But research into happiness has also yielded something a little less obvious: Being better educated, richer, or more accomplished doesn’t do much to predict whether someone will be happy. In fact, it might mean someone is less likely to be satisfied with life.
That second finding is the puzzle that Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, tries to make sense of in his recent book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?Raghunathan’s writing does fall under the category of self-help (with all of the pep talks and progress worksheets that that entails), but his commitment to scientific research serves as ballast for the genre’s more glib tendencies.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
For some, abandoning expensive urban centers would be a huge financial relief.
Neal Gabler has been a formative writer for me: His Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity was one of the books that led me to think about leaving scholarship behind and write nonfiction instead, and Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination was the first book I reviewed as a freelance writer. To me, he exemplifies the best mix of intensive archival research and narrative kick.
So reading his recent essay, "The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans," was a gut punch: First, I learned about a role model of mine whose talent, in my opinion, should preclude him from financial woes. And, then, I was socked by narcissistic outrage: I, too, struggle with money! I, too, am a failing middle-class American! I, too, am a writer of nonfiction who should be better compensated!
The team, which had 5,000-to-1 odds of winning the English Premier League, has pulled off the biggest upset in sports history.
Much to everyone’s disbelief, the Leicester City soccer club was crowned the champion of the English Premier League Monday.
The team’s chances last summer were small, to say the least. Back then, William Hill, a British betting group, put the odds of the Foxes of Leicester City, a fledgling team based two hours north of London, of winning at 5,000-to-1. Essentially, the team had a .0002 percent chance of being the best team in the league of 20. Except for the 25 people who bet a combined total of just $243 on the team through William Hill, no one expected this from Leicester City.
Here’s some perspective: William Hill once put the odds of Elvis being found alive and well at 2,000-to-1 and an acknowledgment by the U.S. government that the first moon landing was faked at 500-to-1.
The U.S. president talks through his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world.
Friday, August 30, 2013, the day the feckless Barack Obama brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower—or, alternatively, the day the sagacious Barack Obama peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void—began with a thundering speech given on Obama’s behalf by his secretary of state, John Kerry, in Washington, D.C. The subject of Kerry’s uncharacteristically Churchillian remarks, delivered in the Treaty Room at the State Department, was the gassing of civilians by the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Home,” the second episode of the sixth season.
Every week for the sixth season of Game of Thrones, Christopher Orr, Spencer Kornhaber, and Lenika Cruz will be discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners are being made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
The newly discovered worlds are now the most promising targets in the search for life among the stars—and the race to take a closer look at them has begun.
The robot telescope settles on its target, a star that sits closer than all but a tiny fraction of the tens of billions of stellar systems that make up the Milky Way. Its mirror grabs light for 55 seconds, again and again. The robot telescope—called TRAPPIST—will observe the star for 245 hours across sixty-two nights, making 12,295 measurements. Eleven times, it will see the star dim, ever so slightly. This dip in luminosity, called a transit, has a straightforward astronomical explanation: It’s a planet passing in front of the star, blocking just a bit of its light. In this case, the transits tell us that 3 planets orbit the star.
“So what?” you might think.
Astronomers have been spotting planets around distant stars for years now, using the transit method, among others. Not a month goes by without a headline, touting the discovery of new “exoplanets.” But these planets are different, and not only because they’re near. Like the Earth these planets could potentially permit liquid water to persist on their surfaces—which is thought to be a key pre-condition for the emergence of life. Today, when their discovery is published in Nature, they will instantly become the most promising planets yet found in the search for life among the stars.
“A typical person is more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event as in a car crash,” says a new report.
Nuclear war. Climate change. Pandemics that kill tens of millions.
These are the most viable threats to globally organized civilization. They’re the stuff of nightmares and blockbusters—but unlike sea monsters or zombie viruses, they’re real, part of the calculus that political leaders consider everyday. And according to a new report from the U.K.-based Global Challenges Foundation, they’re much more likely than we might think.
In its annual report on “global catastrophic risk,” the nonprofit debuted a startling statistic: Across the span of their lives, the average American is more than five times likelier to die during a human-extinction event than in a car crash.
Partly that’s because the average person will probably not die in an automobile accident. Every year, one in 9,395 people die in a crash; that translates to about a 0.01 percent chance per year. But that chance compounds over the course of a lifetime. At life-long scales, one in 120 Americans die in an accident.