Two stories this past week have thrust back into the spotlight, the accelerating “dumbing-down” of America. Not only do these stories send shivers up the spine of anyone who prefers to leave their home on occasion, the story not-told is how well they must play around the world, as more evidence of our cultural decline, to those who celebrate the occurrence.
The first story is of the MBTA employee, a “T-Train” operator, who was texting while operating the train and caused an accident that injured over fifty people and incurred in excess of 9 million dollars worth of damage. That, of course, does not include the inevitable lawsuits.
It’s baffling, isn’t it, that an employee who has the dire responsibility of protecting passengers, has such a cavalier attitude towards that burden. There was a time in our history, when individual pride would have prevented such an event. Common-sense, at one time, would have dictated that using a device which draws ones attention away from ones work would have been considered unfair to the employer. Undignified, quite simply. There was also a time when a prevalent base-level of intelligence would have mandated that texting, the equivalent of using a tiny typewriter, while operating a train, would be just plain stupid. And it is.
This has reignited the argument about texting while driving. Driving is not a right, it’s a privilege. As someone who has held a Class A Commercial license for over thirty years, and had only one accident in that time(a driver had a seizure and crossed the line into me), I have seen it all. Texting, eating, shaving, applying nail polish, while driving. The only thing I haven’t seen is someone using a potter’s wheel while driving, making a nice fruit bowl on the way to work.
My experience is in “heavy-hauling”. Trailer trucks full of construction aggregates, usually weighing between 95,000 to 100,000 pounds. You can bet that rolling down a three-lane highway at 70 miles per hour, with that kind of weight behind you, keeps all of your senses busy, constantly. I admit to being on the cell phone quite a bit, and I am convinced that it is the conversation, not holding the phone, that is distracting. I can’t even imagine trying to text while driving. But I drive for a living. I’m used to having my head on a swivel, with a constant accounting of who is behind me, beside me, and in front of me. My eyes are a half mile down the road, because I need every second of available time if there is suddenly a sea of brake lights ahead of me. Our young drivers are woefully under-trained for today’s driving conditions. This fact was brought home two weeks ago when two Sophomores from Milford High School were killed in a car crash a few towns over. Good kids, no booze or drugs, just going a little too fast, and no training on how to recover a car from a broadside skid. A little training may have saved them. They knew how to parallel park, but not how to get a wheel out of the dirt on a corner. You want these kids texting while they’re driving?
The second event is the news from the cockpit of the Continental flight that crashed in Buffalo, New York a few months ago. It turns out the Captain, a male, and the First Officer, a female, had been engaged in light chit chat, somewhat flirtatious, for most of the flight. When the aircraft began to pick up ice during descent to Buffalo, it was as if these two pilots had never heard of it before. The Captain remarked that he “had never seen that much ice on the wings” before. The First Officer noted that she had no experience in actual icing conditions. The recognition of ice on the wings that your de-icing equipment is not effectively removing calls for immediate action. They did everything wrong. They left the autopilot engaged, denying them the necessary opportunity to “feel” the airplane. The controls were undoubtedly becoming sluggish, but by allowing the autopilot to do all the work, compensation is being made and the pilots couldn’t feel the changing flight dynamic.
When the “stick-shaker” deployed, an automatic device meant to shake the pilot to attention, it was too late and a stall was imminent. Incredibly, while emergency procedures in any airplane would call for stick-forward, nose-down and full power, this Captain fell to instinct which is to pull back on the yoke to arrest the “falling” sensation. Sadly, this reaction quickly worsens the situation, deepening the stall and probably pulling the aircraft over, into rotation and ultimately a spin, or “graveyard” spiral. They had inadequate altitude to recover. The First Officer was reduced to screaming and panic.
As a private pilot, it is astonishing to imagine. Accidents like this occur all the time in general aviation, the kind of flying I do, because the FAA regulations are much more lax for us, but still quite demanding. The airlines typically have stringent safety parameters, training and recurrent training. It is simply inexplicable how pilots this inept were chartering passengers. Even for me, the “recent-flight” requirements are pretty stringent, but not enough for me. I don’t fly much, if at all, during the winter because I’m just too busy. While the law allows me to take the plane up myself after months of not flying, make three complete takeoffs and landings, and then I’m legal to take passengers, I take it a step further. Each spring my first flight will be with an instructor, to go up for a work out. Stall recoveries, slow flight, emergency procedures, engine-out procedures, etc. It’s called “risk management”. Make flying as safe as it can be. I owe it to my passengers. It doesn’t mean I won’t make a mistake someday…I’m human, but I can minimize the risk by enhancing my training to my comfort level, not what the FAA says is acceptable. I use the same mindset on each flight, considering weather, my own mental state, that there is not something on my mind that will prevent me from giving the flight my full attention, and any other detail that may affect the outcome of the flight. The Continental pilots, regardless of pay-grade, working conditions, fatigue or anything else, owed that to the passengers on that plane. Clearly, neither pilot really had the kind of mettle needed in an emergency, nor did they give the flight the attention it deserved. A descent through heavy icing conditions should have come as no surprise. It was forecast and other pilots had reported it. The Continental pilots should have been discussing it a half hour before they got into it. Develop a plan, an out, an alternate. Instead, the stared out the windows like dolts remarking on the intensity of the ice. Incredible.
It all is a symptom of a much greater disease. We are an increasingly self-absorbed culture, unconcerned with anything other than ourselves. We leave a wake of disaster behind us, most often for someone else to clean up. We demonstrate a poor model for our children who will grow up even less engaged than we are, with even less recognition of the values that made our forefathers the Greatest Generation. Yes, children, there was a time when an inept pilot would have excused himself from duty before risking the lives of innocent people. There was a time when someone driving a car would not endanger other people on the road to satisfy an urge to send a message to someone. Sadly, it seems it is always someone else’s wife and kids that get snuffed, and the errant “texter” escapes with a scraped elbow. But hey, even that inequity fits right into the model of the new world order…”I ran you off the road while I was texting? Hey! That’s your problem.”