QF72 and sense-making in the cockpit

13/05/2017 — Leave a comment

The Sydney Morning Herald published an article this morning that recounts the QF72 midair accident from the point of view of the crew and passengers, you can find the story at this link. I’ve previously covered the technical aspects of the accident here, the underlying integrative architecture program that brought us to this point here and the consequences here. So it was interesting to reflect on the event from the human perspective. Karl Weick points out in his influential paper on the Mann Gulch fire disaster that small organisations, for example the crew of an airliner, are vulnerable to what he termed a cosmology episode, that is an abruptly one feels deeply that the universe is no longer a rational, orderly system. In the case of QF72 this was initiated by the simultaneous stall and overspeed warnings, followed by the abrupt pitch over of the aircraft as the flight protection laws engaged for no reason.

Weick further posits that what makes such an episode so shattering is that both the sense of what is occurring and the means to rebuild that sense collapse together. In the Mann Gulch blaze the fire team’s organisation attenuated and finally broke down as the situation eroded until at the end they could not comprehend the one action that would have saved their lives, to build an escape fire. In the case of air crew they implicitly rely on the aircraft’s systems to `make sense’ of the situation, a significant failure such as occurred on QF72 denies them both understanding of what is happening and the ability to rebuild that understanding. Weick also noted that in such crises organisations are important as they help people to provide order and meaning in ill defined and uncertain circumstances, which has interesting implications when we look at the automation in the cockpit as another member of the team.

“The plane is not communicating with me. It’s in meltdown. The systems are all vying for attention but they are not telling me anything…It’s high-risk and I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Capt. Kevin Sullivan (QF72 flight)

From this Weickian viewpoint we see the aircraft’s automation as both part of the situation `what is happening?’ and as a member of the crew, `why is it doing that, can I trust it?’ Thus the crew of QF72 were faced with both a vu jàdé moment and the allied disintegration of the human-machine partnership that could help them make sense of the situation. The challenge that the QF72 crew faced was not to form a decision based on clear data and well rehearsed procedures from the flight manual, but instead they faced much more unnerving loss of meaning as the situation outstripped their past experience.

“Damn-it! We’re going to crash. It can’t be true! (copilot #1)

“But, what’s happening? copilot #2)

AF447 CVR transcript (final words)

Nor was this an isolated incident, one study of other such `unreliable airspeed’ events, found errors in understanding were both far more likely to occur than other error types and when they did much more likely to end in a fatal accident.  In fact they found that all accidents with a fatal outcome were categorised as involving an error in detection or understanding with the majority being errors of understanding. From Weick’s perspective then the collapse of sensemaking is the knock out blow in such scenarios, as the last words of the Air France AF447 crew so grimly illustrate. Luckily in the case of QF72 the aircrew were able to contain this collapse, and rebuild their sense of the situation, in the case of other such failures, such as AF447, they were not.

 

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