Knowing where the ground is
Fifty years ago, on a cold December night, Eastern Airlines Flight 401 departed JFK Airport in New York bound for Miami. It was a routine flight until the plane began its descent into Miami International Airport. As the pilots lowered the landing gear, they noticed that the green light indicating successful deployment had not illuminated.
The flight crew quickly became preoccupied with the landing gear light and failed to notice that the autopilot had been inadvertently disconnected. Without autopilot engaged, the aircraft began to gradually lose altitude, unbeknownst to everyone until it was too late.
Shortly before midnight, Flight 401 crashed into the Florida Everglades, claiming the lives of 96 passengers and 5 crew members. The 75 that did survive the crash endured severe injuries and unimaginable trauma.
It was later determined that the landing gear was fully operational—the indicator bulb had just burned out.
The official aviation term for such a tragedy is a Controlled Flight into Terrain, or CFIT. A CFIT accident occurs when an aircraft, in perfect working order and operated by a qualified crew, is flown into terrain or water without the crew being aware of it.
Flight 401 was one of the worst aviation disasters in American history. In the aftermath of the tragedy, a number of changes were made to airline operations and the flight deck design, most notably the requirement that all large airplanes be equipped with ground proximity warning systems.
A ground proximity warning system, or GPWS, does exactly what it sounds like. It alerts pilots if the aircraft is in danger of flying into the ground or terrain. They do this by emitting shrill alarms or a robotic voice exclaims, “Pull up, pull up!”
Prior to the development of GPWS, large passenger aircraft were involved in an average of 3.5 fatal CFIT accidents per year. Since GPWS became mandatory in 1974, there has not been a single CFIT crash by a large jet in the United States.
What’s most fascinating about ground proximity warning systems on airplanes is not that they worked, but that it took so long to require them.
Technology was partly to blame for the delay, but most of the early warning systems were hardly sophisticated. It seems as though the main reason these warning systems were not mandated was because everyone just assumed pilots shouldn’t really need them. After all, there is nothing more important when flying an airplane than knowing where the ground is, so surely a pilot and their crew would never lose track of altitude.
But pilots are human, and even the most skilled and highly-trained lose focus on occasion.
Most of us will never be in professional situations as high stakes as piloting an airplane. Everyone will however, assuredly face moments where it’s crucial to know when you are operating dangerously close to disaster.
Completing the details on a contract that could make or break your company. Handling a sensitive employee relations issue. Operating a forklift in a crowded warehouse.
Perhaps not life or death, but all moments with increased potential for catastrophe.
There is no such thing as an automatic warning for these precarious moments, so learning to identify the potential for disaster yourself and developing your own internal alert is one of the most important professional skills you can develop. (Employers, this is also one of the most important skills to reward—people early in their career won’t know how to do everything, but the very best will know when something they are working warrants extra attention to detail.)
Experience helps you develop your own warning system, but so does vulnerability and a willingness to ask questions when facing something you don’t understand.
It won’t be easy. There are more claims on our attention than ever before and extreme multitasking is the norm. The potential to lose track of the most crucial detail in the midst of the day’s minutiae is high.
Thankfully you don’t have to be perfect all the time—you just have to learn to recognize the moments where perfection is most important.
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