When the fire’s too hot


The “‘Oh #%*!”, moment captured above definitely qualifies for the vigorous application of the rule that when the fire’s too hot, the water’s too deep or the smoke’s too thick leave. 🙂

But in fact in this incident the pilot actually had to convince the navigator that he needed to leave ‘right now!’. The navigator it turned out was so fixated on shutting down the aircrafts avionics system he didn’t realise how bad thing were, nor recognise that immediate evacuation was the correct response.

While it seems funny, almost incredible, that a trained professional would sit in a burning aircraft throwing switches his behaviour is actually very typical of human reaction to crisis, even for professionals who ‘do this for a living’. So what’s going on here? To answer that question we have to understand what happens in the human body and brain in a high threat or crisis event.

In an event like this the pilot and navigators amygdala’s, that part of the brain that is central to the fear response, would have initiated a cascading set of physiological changes intended to ready the body for fight or flight. Their heart rate would have rocketed, blood pressure increased and a cocktail of cortisol and adrenaline flooded their bodies, even as their blood itself coagulated to deal better with injuries.

Unfortunately this very same set of physiological responses takes away cognitive ability as much as it enhances the physical. The same flood of hormones interfering with the ability to reason, solve problems and sense what is going on in the surrounding environment. Disaster survivors, police and military personnel all report during crisis events how difficult it is to function mentally.

For the navigator in our story above this induced cognitive deficit evidenced itself as an extreme channelisation of attention upon completing a routine task.

Nor is our navigator alone in his experience. As an example of how ubiquitous this effect is, in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre about one thousand individuals took the time to shutdown their personal computers before leaving, while 40% of survivors surveyed reported stopping to pick up items from their workstations.

But the above story also illustrates that being incapacitated by such events is not inevitable or universal. Witness the very different response of the pilot, a two cruise veteran to that of the navigator a first cruise newbie.

Even just a little additional training and experience can make a significant difference in the ability to respond to crisis events, especially in what is called the ‘reckoning stage’, where we are trying to overcome the normalcy bias as the first step in response.

2 responses to When the fire’s too hot


    There is also a saying in the military aviation business, Out of air speed, out of altitude and out of ideas, time to punch out.


    Lyle C. Brown 16/05/2017 at 11:48 pm

    Since the fire is all below the wingline. It is much more likely that the B/N just did not realize how much of a fire it was (or even that there was a fire). Having over 1000 hours in that seat, I can tell you that the B/N most likely could not see the fire.