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September 30, 2007

Connecting the Dots

Sometimes connecting the dots is a very bad idea.

Part of learning to fly an airplane on instruments, perhaps the hardest part, is the discipline of NOT connecting the visual dots. You look out the windshield into fog or rain; your eyes will connect some dots and construct a horizon; they will convince the rest of your body including the seat of your pants that this horizon exists. You level the wings with respect to this horizon and you die. Lots of pilots have done that.

Obviously, translating visual clues into a complete image is an indispensable survival mechanism.  By the time you see the both jaws of the lion, they could be around your head. Without mirrors, we never see more than half of any particular object at a time but we can usually figure out what we’re looking at from just a few fragments. But connecting the wrong dots is still a good way to get killed.

Almost happened to me years ago on a night which was too clear. We were flying into the small strip at Provincetown on Cape Cod on a clear and moonless night. The stars were everywhere; shining in the sky and reflecting in the sea. I misjudged the runway and was too high and too fast to land on my first attempt so I powered up, raised the wheels and flaps, and prepared to go around and try again. But the wind sounded funny in the struts and the plane accelerated too fast even for a full power climb. We were dangerously close to banking into the sea when I realized that the horizon between the star-studded sky and the sparkling sea was a chimera; something my eyes had invented since there were stars and reflected stars everywhere.

Fortunately I was near the end of my instrument training and had just spent hours recovering from “unusual attitudes” by instrument alone. I stopped looking out he window at the treacherous sea and sky and got the plane back into a straight climb using the compass, the artificial horizon, and the attitude indicator with reference to airspeed and altitude.

Instrument-trained pilots know that looking out the window into a featureless void is dangerous. They learn instead to read the angle of the plane in all dimensions from the instruments. Even better as a life lesson, instrument pilots are taught the discipline of the scan: never, never focus on one instrument; always keep looking from one to another even if one or more are giving alarming or inconsistent readings – especially if one or more are giving alarming or inconsistent readings.

One of the instruments could be broken. You need to put together the whole picture. Is air speed decreasing? Could be that the nose is too high; check the artificial horizon and the altimeter. Could be that the engine is losing power; how are the rpm and manifold pressure? is there fuel in the tank? Could be that ice is building on the wings and prop; what’s the outside temperature? Could be that the airspeed indicator is clogged with ice; check temperature again, see what the other instruments say, and shine your flashlight on the pitot tube and struts to look for ice.

Even worse you could have more than one problem or more than one symptom of a single problem. If you fixate on the first problem you see, even if you’ve diagnosed it correctly, you still may fail to react to a more serious problem. Some years ago the highly-trained three-person crew of a commercial airliner flew into a swamp while they all fixated on a not-very-important dashboard light that appeared to be malfunctioning.

The point of all this is that we evolved for an environment very different from the one we’ve built for ourselves. For survival we have to fight our genetic instinct to tell ourselves stories (including the special case of connecting the dots) and be skeptical of our own conclusions. 

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