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Lessons Learned from the Cockpit

Image:Alice in Wonderland.jpg

                    Alice with her wonderland friends.

I have been climbing into and out of the cockpits of airplanes for over 36 years.  It's been a  geat experience; it has allowed me to see a large portion of our world and presented me with many opportunities that I never dreamed of having as I grew up on that little farm.  It has also taught me a few lesssons along the way that easily transfer to the larger world outside of the cockpit.  I realize that anyone should learn something from doing almost anything for 36 years, but the lessons learned in a cockpit are often graphic and memorable due to the speed and brutality with which they can come.  I intend to share some of these lessons over the next few months under this title.

One of the first lesson I learned is that the impossible can, and likely will, happen, and it may very well happen to you!  Alright; if something is truly impossible I suppose that it will not happen, so let's say that that which is considered impossible in aviation is almost certainly going to happen.  Thus, it would behoove us to consider the possibility of the impossible happening and make plans to deal with it.  First, let's go all the way back to the dawn of aviation history.  Initially, it was considered lunacy to think that man could ever leave the earth like the birds, but then the hot air balloon came along.  Then it was considered impossible that man would ever fly in a heavier than air contraption and actually control where he was going, but then the Wright brothers came along.  So aviation actually began with the supposedly impossible happening.  But those are examples of good impossibilities happening.  There are certainly examples of unpleasant "impossible" things that have happened as well. Consider the case of the crossed aileron controls on the Airbus 320.  The ailerons on an airplane are the surfaces on the wings that control the airplane's bank angle, and thus, its turn rate.  Those ailerons are controlled by hydraulic servos that are controlled by computers that respond to inputs from the pilot to a stick in the cockpit.  It was considered nearly impossible to get all of that system arranged in such a fashion that the input that the pilot made with the stick would result in the airplane banking in exactly the opposite direction from what he intended, but that is exactly what happened.  On 20 March, 2001 a Lufthansa Airbus 320 took off from Frankfurt bound for Paris.  Seconds after take-off the captain made a slight stick movement to correct for a wake turbulence (air disturbance from the aircraft departing ahead of them) drift to the left, but the aircraft banked even further to the left, almost immediately reaching 21 degrees of bank.  The co-pilot sensed something was very wrong and assumed control of the aircraft.  Fortunately his control is independent of the captain's and was wired properly.  Although their left wingtip came within one and one-half feet of the ground, the co-pilot's quick action saved them and their crew and passengers from a most unpleasant experience.  That situation was considered an impossibility, but today every airbus crew takes care to checked that their controls are working properly prior to take-off, just in case.

Boeing has also had episodes resulting from flight controls working in a way which was supposed to be impossible.  A good friend of mine, along with his crew and 130 passengers, lost their lives in a tragic Boeing 737 accident several years ago because the rudder (the control located along the vertical tail of the airplane) worked in a completely "impossible" manner.  As they were descending for landing in Pittsburgh, the rudder, due to a malfunction of the rudder servo, went to a full left position.  This caused the aircraft to roll violently, and they were unable to correct it; the rudder was stuck in a fully deflected position.  Nothing they could have done would have corrected this condition in the short time they had to prevent the tragic outcome.  They did everything right, but nothing worked for them.  What happened to my friend, that crew, and those passengers was supposed to be impossible.  But the impossible occassionally happens.  Sometimes you can recover from it; sometimes you cannot.  You can only prepare for it as best as you can, and trust the good Lord for the rest.

When the impossible happens in aviation it is often a bad thing; sometimes the outcome is described as a tragedy.  But occasionally when the impossible happens it is a good thing, and it can be described as a miracle.  The seriously ill get well.  The addict recovers for a second chance at life, or the neer-do-well child suddenly finds his niche and succeeds.  The disagreeable and uncooperative person is suddenly  touched by someone or something, and becomes a different person.  The physically or mentally challenged child, whose parents are told he will never accomplish anything, accomplishes great things.  One of Michael Phelps early teachers told his parents that he would never be able to concentrate on anything.  Eight Olympic gold medals in swimming have proven that teacher very wrong.  Then there is the case of Yashica Robinson White from Notasulga, Alabama.  Yashica grew up poor, very poor.  She gave birth to her first child at 15, and had another child before the 12th grade, both out of wedlock.  Her father was murdered when she was 2, and she buried her alcoholic mother about the time her second child was born.  This is an old story and almost always leads to another generation growing up on welfare, in poverty.  Very few in her situation ever escape to lead a productive life in service to others.  But Yashica accomplished the impossible.  While supporting her two small sons and living just above the subsistence level, she finished high school, and with the help of her grandparents, went to college.  Then, with the help of a National Health Service Corps loan, she went to medical school.  She is now practicing medicine and serving the medically underserved in Opelika, Alabama.  Virtually no one believed that she would ever go to college, much less medical school, when she was a senior in high school with two small sons to support; no one, that is, except Yashica.  "I just struck the words "quit" and "failure" from my vacabulary."  That attitude served her well, even as she failed to get into medical school on her first try.  Her story is the stuff of movies. 

I recently wrote a note to a friend of mine who finds himself, due to a series of misteps, in jail.  Admittedly his life looks pretty bleak right about now.  I told him that a great many people were not ready to give up on him yet, thus it would be highly inappropriate for him to give up on himself.  He has to believe, however impossible it may seem now, that he will get a second chance to live the life he once imagined for himself.  You see on many occasions we have to believe the impossible; sometimes that belief may be all that we have.  That is about where my friend finds himself now.  I am reminded of the exchange that Alice had with the White Queen in the classic, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll.  When told to believe something that she thought was impossible, Alice told the queen that "There's no use trying; one can't believe impossible things," to which the queen replied, "I daresay you haven't had much practice.  When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day.  Why, sometimes I've believed as may as six impossible things before breakfast."  Before we can do anything, especially the "impossible," we have to believe.

The "impossible" happens in life; count on it.  Sometimes it is not so good, especially around aviation.  Ah, but sometimes when the impossible happens, it wrings tears of joy from our eyes and we fall to our knees with gratitude.  We rejoice in the life that our God has given us and shout at the top of our lungs "Life is good!  Thank you God!"  If we are lucky; if we are truly blessed; if we know how to look for them, those impossibly good moments will outweigh the impossibly bad.  But sometimes you have to believe impossible things!  Yashica White did.

Fly/Drive Safely

23 August 2008

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