What really happened aboard Air France #447: pilot error after error after error

I read the same article Ran Prieur refers to here and found it equally fascinating, even compelling; plus, I also saw the story of that “accident” as a metaphor for the way we are working with the economy. Unlike Ran Prieur however, I was unable to articulate why I felt that way. So thanks! And thanks to Rob, for turning me on to Ran Prieur.

From ranprieur.com, his blog:

December 8. (permalink) (subreddit link) Via Hacker News, a fascinating article about What Really Happened Aboard Air France 447. This is related to my post a week ago about the power curve. Basically all three pilots made huge errors. First, faced with a massive cluster of thunderstorms, the most experienced pilot said “fuck the storm” and plunged right into it. He could have flown through it, and the autopilot could have flown through it, but right when the plane hit the worst part of the storm, he went to take a nap. When the airspeed sensors got iced over, the autopilot switched off, leaving the least experienced pilot holding the stick. He made a first-day-of-flight-school error, and pulled the nose all the way up and held it there. The other copilot didn’t notice. The plane went into aerodynamic stall, and a loud stall alarm, “designed to be impossible to ignore”, was ignored by all three pilots, all the way to the ocean. At any moment the plane could have been saved by lowering the nose, dropping altitude, and increasing airspeed, but by the time the lead pilot took over, the plane couldn’t go any lower without crashing. The irony is, they thought they had lost control of the airplane, when really they were controlling it too much, in the wrong direction.

There’s a lesson here about technology destroying our ability to survive in the absence of technology, but I want to take a different path, and make it a metaphor for the economy. Only an unskilled and panicking pilot will respond to a stall by pulling the nose up, but almost every “pilot” of the global economy thinks the best response to the “stall” is to spend more money to stimulate growth. I’m stretching the metaphor here, but I think they’re treating money like altitude, and growth like speed. In that case, going into debt (dropping altitude) to buy growth (speed) would be the right move.

Really, altitude is analogous to the size of the economy. You grow an economy by increasing the frequency and quantity of activities for which money changes hands. Like a plane that’s flying too high, an economy that’s grown too big has to work harder and harder to maintain increase. Now the economy has stalled, and the solution is to voluntarily shrink it: to cancel a bunch of debts and de-monetize a bunch of activities. For example, unemployed people can take care of each other’s kids instead of paying for day care, and grow their own food instead of buying it. In a full economic crash, kids are not taken care of and food is not grown. If these activities are merely de-monetized, it’s called a “depression”, but really only the change is depressing. Once people get used to it, work done for direct benefit is more meaningful than work done for money. So, the meaningfulness of life is analogous to airspeed.

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