January 18, 2008

Glide Her In, Or, In Praise Of The Human Mind

A long-haul British Airways flight coming in to land at Heathrow Airport suddenly lost all power while on its final landing approach. Scary. Nearly a disaster.

The pilot announced, "I'll just have to glide her in" and did exactly that. Somehow, he kept his Boeing 777 above the houses and cars, and cleared the security fence on the perimeter of the airport by five feet. The plane crashed into the dirt short of the runway, ripping the (apparently inactive) engines off the wings, and tearing up the bottom of the fuselage. The trail of debris ended at the point the plane came to rest just short of the beginning of the actual runway. Nineteen passengers suffered minor injuries.

The pilot, Peter Burkill, kept his cool and did everything in his power to keep his 136 passengers and 19 crewmembers alive. For this, he earns the Big Brass Ones Award. (SEE UPDATE BELOW, PLEASE.)

This is a bit eerie for me because of a conversation I had yesterday with another attorney up in Stinking Bakersfield. I said that a modern aircraft has very sophisticated computers, and it links with more sophisticated computers with various ground control authorities, so much so that if a pilot wanted to, as soon as the jetway disconnects from his plane, he could turn the autopilot on and the airplane would become a giant robot, taking off, flying to its destination, and landing all without any human input. But then I asked, "Would you want to be on that plane?" The obvious answer was no, and this incident illustrates why.

Computers are very good at storing information and following programmed instructions. But the real world is infinitely more complex than our computers and programmers can handle, and will be so for the foreseeable future. That's why humans and not computers are who we pick to fly airplanes, deliver babies, and sit in judgment over criminals. For computers to handle complex tasks, elaborate measures have to be taken to control external variables. The human mind is more supple and adaptable and it's worth nothing that while we can create computers that are really good at things like playing chess or building cars, the universe sometimes requires that we recognize and adapt to something entirely new. Fast. Computers that can emulate this ability of the human brain are still relegated to the world of science fiction, and likely will be for quite some time to come.

And because a human, not a computer which would have been deactivated with the loss of electricity was at the controls of this airplane in London today, 150 people are alive and suffering from minor bruises and neck sprains instead of being dead in a plane that would otherwise have dropped like a stone from the sky onto someone's house.

UPDATE: The guy at the controls seems to have been the co-pilot, John Coward. I see no reason to strip Mr. Burkill of his award while awarding another award to Mr. Coward -- whose name is ironic indeed, considering the bravery and cool which kept a frightening situation from becoming a disaster. Both contributed to the situation.

1 comment:

Orange Phantom said...

Computer geeks can program anything. It's us software QA guys that make sure the programs run correctly taking into account all possible scenarios (even loss of electrical power).

But as good as the computers are, they are no replacement for an actual live person at the controls. Silicon has a long way to go to even come within an IQ of (some ridiculously low number).