Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Regular guys: the pilots on flight MH370


I do not think I am the only one, but my working life has been distracted by a missing plane. Last Friday night I turned down a chance to be on TV talking about it. I had an alibi: pressing work, work that presses on me still. Yet here I am.

The first news about the missing plane seemed to lead to a straightforward interpretation: a bomb or missile or massive structural collapse had caused a plane to be blown out of the sky. Modern aeroplanes do not fall out of the sky, or certainly not at any perceptible frequency. Debris would be found soon, I believed.

The distraught relatives waiting for a “delayed” plane is a modern tragedy: the incomprehensible delay, the cruel uncertainty, the lack of bodies, the crowd of stunned strangers bereft by the loss of the parallel strangers who sat next to each other on the plane. And the Press, on our behalf, asking them pointless and intrusive questions, and recording their inchoate grief and rising anger.

Then, in slow motion, I watched another tragedy unfold: the gruesome detective story, into which I fell. Three levels: the government story (slow, measured, sometimes evasive); the technical story (faster, far more detailed, sometimes contradictory) and the media story (wild, speculative, interesting, informative and some of it right).

Speculation is what we are told we should not do. We should wait for facts. However, speculating is part of being intelligent. Indeed, it is one of its core features. A predator passes behind an obstruction and we speculate which side of the rock they will come out again. Getting the prediction right helps keep us alive. Speculating is what leads us to find out how things work. Puzzles intrigue us because we are curious. We see it as our business to seek for an answer, and begin to distrust the answers we are given. Good. The Enlightenment continues.

In a different sort of way, speculating is what the accident investigators do (systematically, based on previous cases and industry knowledge, and bound by the laws of physics). Speculation throws up a lot of rubbish, but also creates scenarios which can be examined and rejected, or which serve as a starting point for new possible explanations. The trick is to speculate and then evaluate. The scientific procedure, no less. Warmly welcoming hypotheses, and then coolly dismissing those that don’t make the grade.

Another feature which assists speculation is that the Press often have better contacts. They get past the official story, and on to the real stuff. The “received and official” pronouncements leave out the rough edges of reality. For example, the exemplary young pilot was attracted by pretty blondes. In this joined up age the blondes provided photographic proof of their flirtation with him in the cockpit. Incidentally, will they be arrested for distracting a pilot from his duties? The older pilot posted on YouTube, and had political opinions. Worse, he is a geek with a home-built flight simulator.

Is a having a home simulator prima facie evidence of mental disorder? James Reason, of Human Error, might argue that simulators assist the corruption of reality. Simulators were probably involved in the worst ever airplane crash in Tenerife in 1977. The most experienced KLM pilot, with most simulator hours, started his plane too soon, before getting permission to take off.  He crashed into a taxi-ing plane slowly clearing the fog bound runway, and 583 people died. He was used to ignoring those unnecessary control tower delays so as to save time when training young pilots in the expensive simulator.

A home simulator might encourage fantasies of being a fighter pilot and of flying fast over hilly terrain, avoiding enemy radars. It might allow the rehearsal of landings in far away airports, off the Malaysian Airways beaten track. It would add a layer of extra skill to even a skilled pilot, who could attempt manoeuvres never allowed in civilian flight. Did the more experienced and older pilot play so many combat fighter games that, at a personal moment of anger or despair, he wanted to try them out for real? Or will it turn out to be no more than a hobby? I see it as a bit more than a mild obsession.

The official story about the pilots was reassuring. After all, they are Malaysians, and work for Malaysia Airlines. All flag carrying airlines carry an extra burden of national pride. If the airline was called Anyplace Airlines, fewer feathers would have been ruffled. That aside, a large number of friends attested to the essential normality of both pilots. The older one was portrayed as an altruistic man, and his political opinions nothing out of the ordinary; the younger man, blondes aside, mild mannered and about to get married to a long time pilot girlfriend. So far, no smoking gun has been found that would distinguish these two from other airline pilots in Malaysia. However, neighbours of major criminals often find they have nothing much to say about the perpetrator beyond “He kept himself to himself”. What may lurk beneath the calm exterior, etc ad nauseam? On the contrary, these guys seem social, engaged, normal.

And yet, after days of confusion, it is belatedly clear that the events seem due to deliberate action by a pilot of some sort: the older one, the younger one or another hypothetical one. My control tower informant (not in Malaysia) says: “You put your faith in the guys in the cockpit. Malaysian Airlines is deeply in debt. They just bought A380s (6), so they are even more in debt. Perhaps they were starting a redundancy programme, and that got to one of the pilots”. He was clear that the pilots were involved, even if he could not be sure of their motives. He told me to read some pilot websites like Flight Global.

The whole story is a festival of d prime, ROC curves, and bewildering noise. Inmarsat obviously should have run the satellite data for the previous few days to refine their interpretation of the MH370 handshake signals (and probably they have done just that). Is it another case of epi-genetics? Fluff on the toffee that tells us more than the toffee can? It certainly presents us with a very interesting puzzle in Bayesian terms: what can we deduce from the lack of an answer, when that sliver of non-response gives you the angle the satellite was at when it did not receive its expected answer, but only the merest blip of a non-answer. Codes are broken this way.

The other problem is the assumption that there can be only one narrative. For example, a terrorist is assumed to have only one narrative, which is to complete the murderous mission. In fact, a proportion of them change their mind and give up, either well before or during the early stages. They dump their bombs somewhere, and go off to have a coffee like everyone else.

A “deranged” pilot might start out tentatively, and then get deeper into his dilemma. One narrative might take over from another. A wild prank, a small protest might lead on to dawning shame, depression and suicide. Perhaps our putative deranged pilot could not face the shame of coming back to admit he strayed into being a boy racer, angry with the government, who had diverted a plane as a protest. One pilot may have asked the other to go out and look at the wings or something, and then been safe in his armoured cockpit. A wannabe pilot may have talked her way in. Perhaps. All this seems fanciful, but possible.

I was once helpless in a large commercial plane with a deranged pilot. He ignored standard procedure, and flew his 200 passengers slow and low over the beaches of Uruguay, to general surprise and some amusement. The opinion expressed by those near me was that he was trying to impress his girlfriend on one of the beaches. It was a Spanish airline, after all. Cruise liners have been lost for less. The other opinion is that he had recently bought land for a beach home, and was trying to find the damn thing from the air. After half an hour or so, he tired of the tour, and we rose up to normal altitudes, appreciative of our little scenic outing.

Despite pressing deadlines, I took a short break on Saturday to go to lunch with friends. For no particular reason I called the very talkative luncheon company to silence to set my novelist hostess a challenge: that she should write a novel which began with a wife saying to her husband that he was useless and had never done anything of interest, only for him to reply “I am not going to stay here arguing. I have a plane to fly”.

I assure you that I do not usually see novels as a basic ingredient of accident investigation, but in fact the scenarios that accident investigators must examine often contain sequences which would look unbelievable in a novel.  We have to speculate, because one of our speculations might make us examine new possibilities. Might. The speculations about Air France 447 was only confirmed when the black box was found, though the basic outlines were there. Snapshot: a pilot was scared by an electrical storm and the absence of speed indicators, and pulled up the controls, causing a fatal stall which, because of the nature of the controls, was invisible to the returning captain who rushed into the cockpit to help.

So, what really happened to flight MH370? Now, there’s an intelligence test item.

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