Beware of technological blind faith

Blind faith is fatal “overdependence.” There have been many accidents caused by too much reliance on technology. I wrote about this in my blog recounting the USS Guardian grounding on Tubbataha Reef.

Among other factors, blind faith in electronic navigation ultimately led them astray. I’m not a luddite, suggesting that new technology is bad or we should go back to Magellan, but you still have to know your job and practice your skills to navigate, steer, and sail by traditional low-tech methods too. Don’t count on the electrons doing it all for you.

A tragic event last month should warn us about having blind faith in technology. On July 6, Asiana Airlines flight 214, a new Boeing 777, crashed while landing. Three died and at least 160 were hurt. The $300 million jet was totaled. This was a horrendously costly mistake that was due in part to overdependence on technology and, some say, foolish blind faith. The investigation is ongoing, but some preliminary findings have been revealed. When I read the findings I was not surprised to see that the same scenario has occurred on ships, tugs, and towing vessels as new technology has moved onboard. Substitute vessel for aircraft and you’ll see strikingly similar conditions and hazards.

On the ill-fated Asiana flight, there were four experienced pilots. The pilot that was in charge of the landing was in early training on the 777. That points to experience as a factor. The senior pilot, supposedly responsible for training the new guy, obviously wasn’t watching closely enough. The crew set up the controls for a “hands on” landing. At first they were high on the glide path and then they were too low. The plane’s speed was decreasing fast and at some minimum speed it became a “flying brick.” Bricks don’t fly.

Airspeed is directly related to lift and stall, which are the principles of flying. Too slow means not enough lift. That means a stall will occur, and then you crash unless you have enough altitude and time to recover. They had neither. In the end their speed was 119 mph and you need 158 mph to still fly a 777. The missing 39 mph proved fatal. The stall alarm activated only four seconds before impact. That wasn’t enough time to “go around” for a second attempt. Then the plane crashed.

How could this happen? Three pilots reportedly told investigators that they were relying on the 777’s automated devices for speed control during final descent. They blindly relied on the plane’s “auto throttle,” which is basically an autopilot. During the entire landing there were multiple auto throttle modes observed. Investigators are wondering if the pilots set the modes, if they were mistakenly activated, and whether the pilots knew and understood what was happening. I’m sure the investigation will reveal much more.

But experience can result in complacency and overconfidence too. Training, crew management, and bridge (cockpit) resource management is vital. Losing your situational awareness can be fatal. Failure to be vigilant and recognize dangers and alarms in time is the foundation of a competent watchstander. Asiana pilots were too late to abort the landing.

Blindly relying on technology without using all the tools available for checks and balances means you are just one electron away from impact. Added together, these are the dreaded “human factors.”

Blind faith in flying, sailing or love is just asking for trouble.

Sail safe.

About the author

Capt. Peter Squicciarini

Capt. Peter Squicciarini is a licensed master mariner and marine safety specialist at the U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area Command in Portsmouth, Va. He has worked on towing, passenger, and fishing vessels, and was a safety and compliance manager for an East Coast tug and barge company. He also served in the Navy as a surface ship officer and commanded several warships. He can be reached at pdsquicciarini@msn.com.

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