This Isn’t About Safety

You know that thing you hear all the time about the most dangerous part of flying being the drive to and from the airport?   Well, it’s true if the flying you are doing is on a commercial airline.   There simply isn’t a safer way to get from one place to a much farther away place than on a commercial airliner.   But if the flying you are doing is in a general aviation airplane– the kind with a propeller or two in the front of it, well then, you’d be safer driving. Small airplanes typically crash somewhere between sea and shining sea at the alarming rate of several a day.   Not that that is very much as a percentage of miles flown, but it is greater than the percentage of cars that crash to the whole of miles driven.

While it takes some statistical gymnastics to get there, the research on aviation safety concludes that flying in a small, general aviation airplane is just about as safe as riding a motorcycle.   If you ride motorcycles, you know all about that.   And if you don’t ride motorcycles, that’s probably the reason why. Riding motorcycles is more dangerous than driving a car not just because there is little to separate you from the environment, but also because they slip, slide, bump into things and are harder to see.

In spite of their danger, many people in the United States ride motorcycles, and many more people throughout the world ride motorbikes, sometimes, as one often sees in Southeast Asia, with whole families, infants, pets, laundry, and lumber precariously balanced over two wheels traversing pothole-ridden, detritus-laden roads. They do so primarily because it is a cheaper form of travel, and gives you greater access to places than cars.   But some, I imagine, do so because riding a motorcycle is thrilling, not unlike flying in an airplane with an open cockpit.   My cousin Peter flies an open cockpit Raven, and I can assure you it is much like riding a motorcycle in which you not only own the lateral dimension, but the vertical as well. His only speed gauge, he told me as we were flying, is the feel of the wind on his face.

But what you’re reading right now isn’t really about safety, because I am superstitious and a friend of mine died in a horrific aircraft accident not long after his safety-oriented article appeared in a magazine.   He was—I believe, a safe pilot, but sometimes the forces of nature are just too powerful compared to the meagerness of the best human ingenuity. Yet, glancing over at the other hand, perhaps most everything—to some extent, is about safety. It is just a matter of how far one can stretch a metaphor.   I suppose if you carry fear around with you at all times– and if you aren’t I’m not sure you’re worthy of being released on your own recognizance, all things are, more or less, about safety. Once ejected from the relative safety of the womb, we each land on a planet with wild winds, earthquakes, tsunamis, guns and white bread. That is why some really sensitive people don’t ever venture outside of their apartments, but still manage to get electrocuted in their bathtubs.

Nevertheless, some who do venture out inevitably crash and manage to simply dust themselves off, walk away and collect insurance.  What makes one person see danger as a mere inconvenience and another see the same danger as a tragedy is certainly a combination of genetically determined temperament and early experiences. It is, I imagine, a parent’s ability to sensitively manage an infant’s fear and provide a safe environment that goes a long way to equip innately fearful children to steel themselves against life’s inevitable challenges.

Most pilots with whom I speak don’t admit that they feel the least bit frightened when they fly.   They also think that being fearless is a good thing.   And apparently, according to a poster I saw hanging on the wall of a yoga studio, fearlessness is the number one characteristic of a yogi. I don’t think that would be hanging on the wall of the yoga studio unless someone else also thought that was a good thing.   I don’t think it’s a good thing; in fact, I think it’s a really stupid thing.   To me, fear is the friend who accompanies me everywhere and teaches me how to calculate that risk-reward ratio that defines life outside the uterus.   Without it, I suspect I wouldn’t be here, nor would you.   In all fairness, I don’t think that what a yogi or yogini says when he or she refers to fearlessness is exactly the same thing as what I mean.   There’s only so much you can explain on a poster, or only so much people who read posters want to know as they are doing warrior two.   Fearlessness to a yogi likely has more to do with a certain amount of comfort or acceptance of fear rather than the absence of it, and if I’m wrong about that you should probably switch lamas.

I take my friend Fear with me every time I fly, from the moment I get into my hangar and eye that beautiful beast of mine to the moment I leave the hangar and feel grateful the big hangar doors didn’t land on my head and crush me. It is also why, safely on the ground, I feel a sense of mastery and exhilaration when it is over.   And it is also why, if I want to be as close to absolutely certain that I will make my friend’s daughter’s wedding in Paducah in one piece, I will fly commercially, and hope the ceremony isn’t too far from the airport.

 

 

The Flight of the Enchilada

enchiladaI don’t eat Mexican food too often, but when I do, I usually go for the chile relleno. There’s something wonderful about the balance between the spiciness of the chile and the softening effect of the cheese.   And even though most Mexican restaurants serve generous portions of everything, if the relleno came with only half a chile, I would likely be annoyed.   Like an enchilada, there is something unsettling about half a chile, half a dictionary, half a blog post, half an airplane, or half a flight to anywhere.

One can leave most things half-completed, but flying is something that essentially requires the whole enchilada. You can’t really stop flying mid-air between San Francisco and Houston, although you could always land and call it quits, and spend the night in a roach-infested motel in Gallup, New Mexico.   But in order to be a whole enchilada, or a whole anything, you are going to need more than the sum of its parts.

In order to get off the ground, you need just the right ingredients mixed in just the right proportions. Lift alone won’t get you anywhere, thrust won’t necessarily get you in the air, and drag—needed to keep you from going out of control, is actually designed to get you nowhere, which is why drag is a drag.   You need the whole enchilada, ingredients mixed just right, to achieve the alchemy of controlled flight.

I had a professor in college, whose name for reasons I would prefer not to mention, I don’t recall. (I give in– he slept with my ex-girlfriend, and even though she was an ex, it still bothered me.) He was fond of saying, half-jokingly I hope, that when he died he wanted the definition of “gestalt” written on his tombstone.   It was a silly thing to say, but as a mnemonic device it worked well because I remember the phrase now, more than 40 years later.   A gestalt, Dr. Whatshisname said, was the “ongoing, contingent, sociobiological organization of attention and action.”

We experience life in chunks—in organizations of attention and action, and each chunk is not only ongoing, but it is also contingent on what comes before and after it. The “before” part is obvious, but the “after” part was something illuminated by behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner, who insisted that what we do is often determined by what immediately follows it.

Contingency is important, because it is how things are connected, how we are all interdependent, and why if a tree falls in the forest we may not hear it but it will still scatter the ants beneath it.

As long as you keep cutting the enchilada in half, and realize that you still have an enchilada, then each half becomes a whole unto itself, especially if you keep eating it. You’ve just created smaller enchiladas. That is why in order for something to really be whole, it needs to be something greater than the sum of its parts. If, on the other hand, you were able to break down the enchilada the way I remember breaking down water in chemistry class into hydrogen and oxygen, interesting things begin to happen.

Enchiladas require tortillas, which require flour or masa, and water. To make the cheese you will probably need some milk, rennet, and maybe a starter culture. You might even add some salt to be adventurous.   Then there’s the chile pepper, and maybe a little guacamole.   None of those things on their own look or taste anything like an enchilada. But, mixed together in the right proportions and under the right Mexican sun, something greater than the mere sum of its parts begins to emerge.

It is, of course, alchemy when we mix ingredients to create something transformative.   It is alchemy when we mix lime with sand and water to create concrete, which by some magic of physics or chemistry becomes the building I am writing this in, and alchemy when you add rice to salmon roe and quail eggs to create the transcendent mixture of earth, sea and sky we call sushi.   It is alchemy when we fall in love, and even greater alchemy when we remain in love. It is alchemy when we fly an airplane. It is alchemy that is the foundation and the very substance of the feeling of awe, which so many have equated with a sense of holiness, numen, or spirituality.

Flying, as is true with everything we do, is a gestalt—a contingent organization of attention and action.   To be up high, beyond the realm even of happy little bluebirds, is an alchemical miracle.   As is true for love, good food, and those things that we value most, it is the transformation of disparate elements under the right conditions—a series of intentional acts that taken together exceed the mere sum of its parts.   It is, dare I say, the whole enchilada.

 

 

 

 

 

The Raven Over our Shoulders

images-3I recently read an accident report in which a pilot lost power on the rollout, and then when he heard the engine surge back to life, resumed his takeoff.   Just after leaving the ground, the pilot retracted the landing gear, the engine quit again and the pilot died attempting to make the 180-degree turn back to the airport.

In a matter of a very few seconds, the pilot had some important decisions to make.  If he had made the decision to abort the takeoff the first time his engine lost power, he would likely be alive enough today to have learned that his fuel was contaminated with water.   But perhaps buoyed by the engines roaring back to life, he decided instead to climb out.   That was his first bad decision.   The second bad decision was to retract his landing gear before reaching the end of the runway.   The third was his attempt to turn around rather than find a place to land in front of him.   That was the one that sealed his fate.

I don’t fault the pilot for making the decisions he made.   We all make them, even the most experienced pilots.   But I suspect that once he heard his engine quit as he was advancing down the runway, he may have found himself struggling to manage his fear.   We will never know if the pilot panicked, thus preventing him from thinking clearly, or if he calmly made the decisions he thought were the most rational, or most likely, something in between.   But if it is fair to say that what killed him was a series of bad decisions, then I think it is also likely that (especially given his instructors’ statements that he had been a thorough and safe pilot) managing fear is a prime suspect in what may have led to those decisions.

There, I suspect, but for the grace of God go all of us.   I fear all sorts of things, from germs to failure to success.   But I am nothing if not tenacious, and I have learned over the years to try to welcome fear the way Abraham Lincoln is said to have approached his enemies.   While some have said that he borrowed the line from a Roman Emperor, when an elderly woman chastised him for not calling Southerners irreconcilable enemies who must be destroyed, Lincoln is reported to have said, “Why, madam– do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Making friends with our fears is the way to master them.  But mastery of our fears does not mean that we eradicate them—it just means that they begin to work for us as opposed to the other way around.   I often think about fear as Carlos Castaneda’s raven of death, which constantly flew just behind his shoulder.  Death cannot be run from.  It will assuredly outfly me so running away from it is a pointless endeavor.  Instead, while I often fail, I know my job is to welcome it into the house, feed it, get to know it.   If we blindly advance the throttle on takeoff without fear of engine failure, it is more likely to take us by surprise and potentially overwhelm our decision-making ability.

The Annual

imagesI returned home from Saigon last week with my airplane’s annual inspection nearly completed.   A backup battery was replaced, along with a set of three new tires, bearings greased, airbags and their control device replaced, and a half-broken door release handle fixed.

Owners of airplanes typically have mixed feelings over Big Brother’s requirement that we subject our airplanes to annual inspections.   The negative side of the equation is obvious: inspections cost a lot of “aviation units,” a term invented by pilots who prefer not to disclose exact dollar amounts to their spouses.

On the other hand, the benefits are equally as obvious.   The fact that the airplanes flying above us are thoroughly inspected by licensed mechanics at least once a year undoubtedly makes those flying inside them and those on the ground below them a lot safer.

When Wednesday rolled around, and my calendar reminded me that I had to fast from 9pm that night until my appointment with my physician the next morning, I couldn’t help but smile at the coincidence that both my airplane and my body were being checked out simultaneously.    The FAA requires that pilots over age 40 have a physical every two years, but since I turned 50 I have been getting my own physical annually.

I am not sure that my physician, who is about my age, enjoys poking into my orifices nearly as much as I enjoy looking under the cowling of my beautiful Diamond airplane.   I do hope, and am more than reasonably certain, that he knows a lot more about the internal workings of human bodies than I know about internal combustion engines.   Fortunately, just as one doesn’t need to know how a car engine works to be a good driver, one doesn’t need to know much about the inner workings of an airplane to be a skilled pilot.

Along with the annual, a pre-flight inspection is done routinely by all pilots, even those flying big birds, before every flight.   They are, in effect, largely scaled-down versions of the annual inspection.  I was once told that 85% of accidents could have been prevented by an adequate pre-flight inspection.   I don’t know if that number is accurate, but it is a very high number.

I can’t imagine that 85% of diseases could be prevented by daily self-inspections.  But even if the odds are reversed, and only 15% of diseases could be prevented by routine checks, it is probably still a good idea.   Women are encouraged to check their breasts every day, because the earlier one catches any kind of cancer the better the odds of survival.   We brush our teeth every day, not just for cosmetic purposes, but because the buildup of bacteria in the gums can lead to the heart and other vital organs.   Fair skinned lads such as myself would be wise to check their skin regularly as well, on the lookout for early signs of melanomas.

I suspect the most important tool in conducting an annual inspection that a mechanic has in her tool shed is also the least expensive tool: the checklist.   The mechanic runs through a series of items that are required to be dismantled and inspected based on the make, model and vintage of the airplane.   A good physical examination does the same thing.   The trained physician runs through a series of inspections based on a mental checklist learned through experience, in order to not miss something important.

Requiring that airplanes receive annual inspections by licensed aircraft mechanics is undoubtedly one of the reasons why flying small airplanes has gotten safer over the years.   While pilots are required to have physical exams to maintain their flying privileges, fortunately, our government does not require any such thing for the rest of us.    But maybe a peak beneath the hood every once in a while is a good idea.

A Note from Saigon

Tea HouseI am writing this today from a tea house in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1, still referred to by many as Saigon.  My business here is psychology and autism related, and the closest thing I am getting to aviation is the flight on the two miraculous jets that got me here– Airbus’ spectacular double decker A380, and Boeing’s stalwart triple-seven.

Vietnam is a beautiful country.  It would be even more beautiful to see it from a small airplane at a few thousand feet above ground, but that is not possible today because there is no such thing as general aviation here.  The skies are reserved for the military and commercial jetliners on flight plans.

To say that the fact that there is no general aviation in Vietnam is the result of communism is an oversimplification.  One can say with confidence that when it rains in Vietnam the streets get wet, but it seems as though there is little else one can say with confidence about Vietnam.

Yet, there does seem to be a relationship between the fact that the two “mostly communist” governments in Southeast Asia, Vietnam and Laos, are the countries that have the least going for them in the arena of general aviation.  Cambodia, which has been beautifully described recently as “vaguely communist” now has a flourishing albeit young general aviation community.   Other countries in the region whose political-economic systems are ostensibly democratic-capitalistic such as the Philippines and Malaysia, have flourishing aviation scenes.

In a previous post I mentioned that growing up in the U.S. I somehow knew that when you wanted to chase another child off a swing you would shout “It’s a free country!”   How interesting it is to be socialized (indoctrinated?) into believing in freedom.  A private pilot’s license grants another opportunity to define and even treasure this thing we call freedom. Here in Vietnam, a country where flying your own airplane is illegal, and one in which the U.S. lost 60,000 of its children and the Vietnamese sacrificed millions of their own, it is difficult for me to not think about it.

It is fascinating to me what a difference a generation can make.  My closest associates here are probably either one or two decades younger than me, and they have little consciousness of the Vietnam war.   Vietnamese themselves learn about the war in school, but it seems that very few carry the deeply felt conflict inside them that I do.  (Today, a receptionist here told me that she “sees it in my grandparents’ eyes.”)

I filed for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam war, although the draft ended before my paperwork could be processed.  Clearly, I opposed the war at the time, but my filing for CO status was duplicitous if not downright disingenuous.  I was against the Vietnam war, and I was against war in general, but I also believed that there was such a thing as a just war (such as the Second World War).

The more I learn about the Vietnam war, the more I believe that both sides were right, and both were wrong.   Isn’t that true of damn near everything?  The North Vietnamese had a legitimate gripe– their country had been arbitrarily torn in half and the south was dominated by corrupt, imperialist nations that had subjugated and tortured their people for generations.   The South Vietnamese treasured their freedom and democratic ideals and were fighting the spread of communism.   These were noble goals on both sides.

The dominoes did not fall when we lost the war.  The Viet Cong did not commit genocide or even torture their own citizens when they won, although they imprisoned many and “re-educated” many others.  In fact, it was the post-war unified Vietnamese that fought off a Chinese invasion and routed the genocidal Khmer Rouge from Cambodia.  Today’s Vietnam is one in which the communist party is considered “irrelevant” or a nuisance by most Vietnamese.  There is no free press here, but there is widespread Internet access. It is a system rife with corruption, as is the case with governments throughout most of the world.

One of the reasons I love to fly is because I feel a deep sense of freedom when I do it.  I don’t know how to explain that phenomenon.  It just is.  And, perhaps coincidentally, flying one’s own airplane is also a symbol of freedom.  As Vietnam continues its gradual path toward openness, I suspect that general aviation will emerge.  Laos, closely aligned with Vietnam, has its very first flying club, and perhaps that will serve as a model for Vietnam.

Although I see faults in the American system, as deep as those faults can be, it remains one of the few places in the world where I could get in my airplane, start the engine up, and legally fly from one end of the continent to another without letting anyone know about it.  I can even do it legally without turning on my radio.   Sure, Langley will have me on its radar and will be watching every move I make, but as long as I don’t stray too close to Disneyland or Washington DC, they are going to leave me alone.  That is freedom, and that is noble.

Diversions

imagesFlying my Diamond DA40 home from a conference in Las Vegas with two colleagues on board not long ago was uneventful, until I came to the formidable mountains that comprise part of the Transverse Range.    While most of the flight from Las Vegas is over the wide Mojave Desert, my home airport in Santa Paula is tucked in a valley on the other side of those mountains.  The tops of the mountains were obscured completely by a line of clouds that extended as far as I could see in both sideways directions, and the tops of the clouds were higher than my normally-aspirated airplane could climb.

For an instrument-rated pilot this would present no problem, but I have yet to get that rating, so for me it was a challenge.   It wouldn’t have been difficult, mind you, but it would have been entirely illegal, and certainly unsafe for me and the passengers on board given my lack of “actual” (as opposed to virtual) time in the clouds.

After looking in both directions, it became clear that I immediately needed to alter my flight plan and make a diversion.   I disconnected the autopilot, and started a slow, wide turn to the left, with the intention of doing a wide circle while I figured out my next move.   I informed the passengers that there might be a delay getting home, and then called ATC to let them know that I was altering my planned route due to the line of clouds in front of me.    The composed voice came back with the query, “Are you instrument capable and qualified?”

I answered quickly that I was capable but not qualified, which means I have the appropriate instruments on board but was not certified.   The business-like voice simply said, “OK.”

I was considering diverting right or left to see if there was a clearing in the line of clouds that I couldn’t see yet, and what airports lay in wait below or just behind, and what the best place might be to spend the night, when the controller came back on the radio.   “One Romeo Alpha, it looks like there’s an opening in the clouds about 10 miles to the north.”

At about 150 miles an hour, that’s a pretty short diversion, so I thanked the controller and headed north.   Sure enough, there was a nice gap in the clouds that took me over the mountains near Santa Barbara, and I was able to turn south and head down the coast to my home airport with only a short delay.

Most pilots hate diversions.  Diversions make those aboard late, and usually create additional expense in fuel, time and lodging.  But diversions are a necessary part of getting there safely.

I would like to believe that having to divert is one of the more wonderful things about flying.   It forces us down a road that, if not less traveled, is certainly less anticipated.   And it forces us to live in the moment, a skill I have never been very good at, managing to immerse myself in the nostalgia of yesteryears, or the expectations and fantasies of life downstream.

There is a wonderful story that has been circulating the internet for many years now about how being a parent of a child with autism is like expecting to take a trip to Italy and ending up in Holland.  The point of the story is that if you live your life mourning the fact that you aren’t in Italy you’ll end up missing the beauty of Holland.

I do think that people who are good at accepting life’s diversions do so partly because they don’t allow themselves to get too attached to outcomes.   Lao Tzu said it best when he said, “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

I hate surprises, but I am convinced that surprise is where the adventure begins.  If the original goal, the runway on which you intend to land, is suddenly unsafe, then it’s time to open the throttle and find another one.

When I think of that simple diversion required of me to keep out of the clouds, I think of some small things I might have done differently.   It forced me to think under pressure, and later to review those decisions and therefore rehearse doing it better the next time.   But we all arrived safely, and enjoyed extraordinary scenery along the way that we would not have seen otherwise: wispy clouds teasing the mountain ridges, the beautiful Pacific Ocean and the California Coast, and the rolling foothills accompanying us home.

 

 

 

When All Else Fails: Regulate

UnknownI don’t like the word “regulation.”  It feels and sounds ugly to me.   I suppose that is because when I think of regulations, I think about them as a set of rules foist upon us by politicians, designed to govern behavior externally– echoes of “make your bed, Ira,” or simply, “you have to go to school, Ira.”

But in my day job as a psychologist, the word “regulation” often appears with the word “self-“ preceding it, and that gives it a different connotation.   Self-regulation means to be in control of one’s self, to have a smoothly operating thermostat capable of turning on the heat when needed and cooling down as the situation demands.   It is a popular word today, perhaps because it is less theory-bound than the term “ego strength,” which essentially meant the same thing but was promulgated by those sex-obsessed Freudians.

Most pilots I know are like most people I know, and they hate regulations imposed upon them by the government.   On the other hand, they tend to be in favor of self-regulation, especially when it comes to things such as determining what medical conditions should prevent them from flying.

As a pilot, I am aware of the fact that the vast majority of accidents are caused by something called “loss of control.”   It can happen at any time, but it often happens when life offers up a surprise, such as a malfunctioning instrument or a sudden weather change.  Accident investigations of such major catastrophes as Air France 447 and Colgan 3407 revealed that the pilots were “startled” by the events unfolding in the cockpit, and that the startle response may have led to a deterioration in the pilots’ reasoning ability.

Regulations designed to prevent such disasters are often aimed at improving training of how to recognize and respond to specific emergency scenarios, which is all good.   But let’s face it, the whole point of the so-called startle effect is that, almost de facto, when faced with a real emergency, the human body is designed to flood the bloodstream with hormones that simultaneously have the effect of muting learned responses and instigating a primitive fight or flight response.

One of the oldest clichés is that a pilot’s license is a “license to learn.”  I deeply appreciate the ongoing training I avail myself of, as well as the early training I received in which certain fundamentals were drilled into my head.   One of those was the mantra that, above all else, one must “fly the airplane.”   That mantra is there because, when the fit hits the shan, pilots and humans in general forget the basics.   Whether panic takes over completely, or one concerns oneself so much with problem-solving that one fails to focus on the simple basics of flying, the failure to self-regulate can have devastating consequences.

“Flying the airplane” is a metaphor for self-regulation.   When the unanticipated bill arrives from the IRS, when the person in the Escalade cuts you off on the freeway, when the process server knocks on your door, the first thing to do is to take a deep breath and simultaneously level your wings.   Slow down if you’re going too fast, or speed up if you’re going too slowly.   Above all, don’t let the airplane fly you.   Self-regulation beats the other kind hands down.

Autism in Love

d0a08b_dea72ec2e51f45c3b2a5a9e1a948da8a.png_srz_p_346_192_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_png_srzI am on a Boeing 757, sitting in the economy section, one of the few times I am grateful for having short legs.   I am returning home from New York where a film I conceived and executive produced just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.   It is truly an honor, given the numbers: 6700 films were submitted and only 120 were selected for the competition.   The film, “Autism in Love,” is in the “world documentary feature” category, competing against 11 others in its category for a coveted award.

One of the films in competition with “Autism in Love” is called “In Transit,” a beautiful and moving documentary interweaving stories told by real passengers (i.e., not actors) on the Empire Builder, an AMTRAK train whose route goes from Seattle to Chicago.   The stories themselves are captivating, but I was equally captivated by the fact that the stories were told as the American landscape unwound behind it, creating a kind of metaphor within a metaphor.   Each person seems to be in some sort of transition in their lives, moving internally as they physically move through the landscape.  But on a train, the sensation is that it is the landscape that is moving, so that one’s internal movement is mirrored by the movement of the landscape.  And of course, all that occurs on a screen projecting a “moving picture,” a medium that is, by definition, about movement.

I am doing the same thing now, traveling at 514 miles per hour, four-fifths the speed of sound, 40,000 feet above the ground.  We humans, through the ingenuity provided by our cerebral cortexes, create and build machines that allow us to use nature in order to defy it.   We build machines that move us from one place to another for many reasons, but ultimately we build machines that move us physically in order to move us emotionally.

The film I produced, expertly directed by Matt Fuller, follows the lives of several people diagnosed with autism as they navigate the waters of romance and love.  Their lives are very different from one another’s, but they each live in the landscape others have called autism.   I have lost any objectivity I might have had about the film, but judging by the reviews I have been reading, it succeeds in a message I was hoping for; that love is love and nearly anyone, despite having a label that others insist prevent them from loving, can teach us about it.

In college days I was taught that humans, by nature and physiology, are novelty seeking animals.   That is undoubtedly what makes solitary confinement so punishing.  But without the contrast of stability there could be no novelty, just as a figure disappears when the ground around it disappears.

So whether we find ourselves riding the rails of AMTRAK, sitting on a bus, or flying on a Boeing 757, we ultimately remain figures embedded in the world around us.  We are moving, or being moved.

For more information on “Autism in Love,” see www.autisminlove.com, or better yet, see “Autism in Love” on Facebook.

Mass Murder in the Alps

The Germanwings disaster intrigues me more than most, perhaps because as a psychologist who flies for fun my interests bridge psychology and aviation, and all roads seem to be pointing to the mental health of the copilot who apparently flew the Airbus into the ground, killing himself and 150 others.

Crash investigators are charged with determining the cause of airplane accidents.   Cause is a complex, multi-layered concept.  One can say, for example, that the immediate cause of the Germanwings disaster was the co-pilot’s directing the airplane into a fast descent into the terrain below, causing the airplane and its inhabitants to break into pieces.   But what “caused” the copilot to direct the autopilot to fly the aircraft into the ground?

The word that I hear most often is “suicide,” one of those verbs that disguises itself as a noun.   Because we know that the copilot went onto the internet and looked up ways to kill himself as opposed to ways to commit mass murder we assume his intention was the former, and the others who died were “merely” collateral damage. But does calling the pilot’s action suicide get any deeper at the cause?

Psychologists have come a long way in understanding the ingredients of suicidal behavior.   But it is more difficult to imagine the depth of cognitive distortion, the outrageous amount of blindness that must occur when severely depressed to not feel for the families of others on board.

I have survived the suicide of four of my patients in my career, and scores more who either tried and failed or had strong enough impulses to require hospitalization.   In the vast majority of those situations, the perpetrator and the victim were the same.

I did have one suicidal patient who dealt with his anger toward his father (who had shot him at point blank range when my patient was a teenager) by “putting people in the hospital,” as he used to say.  Occasionally, he targeted police officers for his aggressive attacks, which were certainly suicidal gestures, but each time it occurred the police responded professionally and subdued him.   (On one occasion, two Burbank police officers brought him to my office instead of jail after he attacked a co-worker because they were either insightful or well-trained enough to realize that his aggression was a sign of his suicidality.)

What I don’t understand is the overwhelming number of press reports that refer to the behavior of the copilot as suicide instead of homicide.  One could argue, perhaps not too cleverly, that the copilot’s actions leading to the death of 150 people and his own makes it 150 times more likely to fall under the category of homicide than suicide.

I consider it a character flaw whenever I have difficulty finding compassion for the perpetrator of heinous acts.  Compassion for victims is easy; it is the perpetrators who need it more.  Understanding is helpful in finding compassion, but I don’t know that science will be able to determine the “reasons” why this copilot pointed his airplane’s nose to the ground.   There is no brain left to scan that might reveal a lesion.   We are left only with our theories, our knowledge that depression is often a combination of helplessness, hopelessness, distorted thinking, rage and blame turned inward.

This would not be the first time in history one has used an airplane as a weapon of mass murder.   But most of the others have been in the context of war between nations.   When mass murder takes place in the context of war within one’s own mind, there is no societal sanction to welcome you home.  The punishment of having ended one’s own life in the process does not bring the innocent victims back to life, nor does it lead very far down the road to compassion.

Perhaps more than most I should be able to understand someone whose depression is so great that he is able to transform his own pain into what can and arguably should only be called a case of mass murder-suicide.  But for me that is likely going to require considerably more effort.

Managing Resources

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These days, if you use the initials “CRM” most folks in the business world will immediately think you are referring to “customer relationship management,” but in the world of aviation it initially stood for “crew resource management” and now “cockpit resource management.”  It has been said that the difference between the “Indians” (the pilots flying single-engine airplanes down low, nick-named such because they often flew Apaches, Seminoles and Tomahawks) and the “chiefs” (commercial pilots flying big jets up high) is that the “chiefs” had more resources at their disposal to manage.

But in this information age, even low-flying pilots (with sophisticated electronics) are inundated with “resources” to manage, which Oxford defines as “a stock of money, materials, staff, and other assets that can be drawn on by a person or organization in order to function effectively.”

One of the postulates going around graduate school, allegedly based on some research somewhere, was that those among us who had the most organized filing system were the most likely to get the best grades.  After all, a filing system is nothing more than a way to organize the vast amount of information we were expected to learn.

And if words themselves could be considered resources (assets that can be drawn on), then getting them onto paper expeditiously can be a handy form of resource management, which is why I have often thought that the most valuable class I ever took in my life was my seventh grade typing class.  There is rarely a day that goes by that I don’t use this form of resource management.

We all manage resources differently.   Not long after I started graduate school, with barely enough money to eat, I complained once to my sister that I was completely overwhelmed by details to be managed—“scutwork,” as it was called in those days.  She strongly suggested that I hire someone to do the thoughtless tasks that only detracted from the important things I needed to get done, such as reading and studying.   I thought her idea was completely absurd, given that I was living off of McDonald’s’ french fries.  But always drawn to absurd ideas, I found a way to eat less fries and hire someone at minimum wage to re-type my papers (those were the days when cut and paste meant literally to cut and paste), file articles, and run errands for me, and I have never looked back.   To me, a good manager is as good as his or her assistants.   And good assistants are those who, above all else, can manage their (and my) resources.

Entire books and book chapters are now written about cockpit resource management, and I suppose that “getting organized” has always been a popular concept for books and workshops.   I have an entire shelf of books about getting organized which, as opposed to many of the books on the other shelves, I have actually read.  Although I have long since given up the notion that one can ever actually “be organized”; that it is rather a lifelong journey than a destination–  those books are filled with valuable techniques, such as never touching the same piece of paper twice.  But here is what resource management often boils down to:  first, know what your resources are.   Know what is available to you and how to creatively obtain what isn’t.  Second: manage them.   Create the systems required to achieve the objective and follow them.  Third: evaluate them and change them in a circular fashion in order to function more effectively, as both the challenge itself and the environment around the challenge changes.   Those three elements seem like the proverbial no-brainer, but most of us often fail at one of these elements.

Those are the things that good pilots do well, as I suspect is true of all managers.  And, as I like to think, at the very least we are all managers of our own lives.