If you are in search of riveting, edge-of-your-seat, real-life stories about people in grave distress looking for a way out, consider the work of Jack Hersch.
In his debut Death March Escape, Hersch told the remarkable story of how his father twice escaped the Nazi Holocaust — through every harrowing step. Now Hersch turns his attention to aviation, delving into the confluence of modern airplane technology and pilot behavior to probe how and why flight disasters happen.
In The Dangers of Automation in Airliners: Accidents Waiting to Happen, Hersch, an instrument-rated commercial pilot, focuses on nine flight incidents and seven crashes over 10 years, intricately dissecting what went wrong and even factoring in the competence and frame of mind of the pilots. To say Hersch makes readers feel like they are in the cockpit is not cliché.
ARE PILOTS LOSING FOCUS?
While Hersch acknowledges the contributions technology has played in improving air travel, he contends that the ability for pilots to switch into “autopilot” and essentially let technology fly the plane opens the possibility for pilots to lose focus and not be prepared when they need to manage a crisis.
“Use enough automation and the workload can be reduced to where the pilot has relatively little to do except watch,” writes Hersch. “And that is where the trouble begins.”
“Complacency sets in, especially since automation fails so rarely. Pilots … know their automation is eminently trustworthy … That is true until an emergency or mistake shocks the pilots out of their complacency.”
When automation fails, it doesn’t always hit pilots over the head. The “tiniest of mechanical parts,” says Hersch, can bring down a plane — “a forgotten cockpit switch, a broken angle-of-attack vane, or clogged pitot tubes.”
Hersch asserts that these malfunctions alone do not cause plane crashes, that “the pilots had control and had options to deal with their respective troubles.”
Hersch’s expertise is apparent. He takes readers through all the pieces and parts of a plane, references studies that help understand how pilots get distracted and compromise the safety of passengers, lets you hear their dialogue, and calls out airplane manufacturers when they fail to include vital operating information in their flight manuals. “Boeing had placed professional pilots in a position of not knowing why their airplane was behaving in an unexpected and terrifying way. It was inexcusable.”
Before readers freak out and start exploring bus and train schedules to avoid commercial air flight at all costs, Hersch notes that over the course of the nine incidents and seven crashes discussed in the book, there have been perhaps half-a-billion takeoffs and landings. He reiterates the fact that there’s a greater probability of dying in a car crash than a plane crash.
REAL PEOPLE LIVING REAL LIVES
Hersch understands how to write of human drama, as from his opening sentence: “On the last night of her life, 24-year-old First Officer Rebecca Shaw was fighting a head cold … but it wasn’t bad enough to keep her from her job as a copilot for Colgan Air.”
When two Boeing 737 MAX airlines crashed four months apart, that was the impetus Hersch needed to write the book. Those tragedies for him were “the tip of the automation iceberg. Automation in aviation, I learned, was a story with many sides, and it needed to be told.”
People get frustrated with computers every day. When they don’t do what they are supposed to — or when humans don’t provide concise directions — the devices sit like innocent pets without the slightest notion or remorse of what they did wrong, awaiting further command.
When an airplane malfunctions, the stakes are on a completely different scale. Will backup technology kick in? Will the coolness and capability of the flight team have what it takes to steer them out of harm’s way?
Read about one man’s passion with the complicated relationship between man and those ever-so-advanced flying machines.
Watch our interview with Jack J. Hersch here.