A Wing and a Prayer

JUST LAW AND RELIGION By Michael Kessler Who is responsible for the crash of Air France Flight 447 on Sunday? … Continued


By Michael Kessler

Who is responsible for the crash of Air France Flight 447 on Sunday?

Now with confirmation that the Brazilian military has found the wreckage field, the sad recovery efforts will begin to determine a physical cause. The search will focus on the flight data and cockpit voice recorders which will help piece together why this reliably safe aircraft vanished into the water. Remote-controlled submersibles will descend into thousands of feet of water but questions will remain for months or years.

Survivors will grieve. Investigators will rule out some causes and hone in on others. Some will renew their vow never to travel. Others will grip the armrests extra hard during the next bumpy climb through clouds. Lightning storms will be feared. Lawsuits will be filed. As is human nature, speculation will abound.

228 people from all corners of the globe just perished in an instant. The scope of that tragedy is hard to comprehend. Simple maintenance messages about electrical malfunctions and loss of cabin pressure were the last transmissions. No mayday call. No witnesses to describe the last moments. In an age of GPS navigation telling drivers every twist of their path, we may be surprised that planes flying across the oceans are out of radar contact for long stretches.

Already, stories of the people who missed the flight are emerging, such as the infuriated passengers refused boarding because of expired passports and honeymooners who decided to stay one more day–all still alive out of sheer luck. Some call this a miracle. What about those who made the flight?

The enduring debate about governmental regulation of the airlines and their safety, the antiquated state of air traffic control, and the unprofitable business models of the airlines all cause us to tremble in these moments. Just who is minding the safety and viability of the aircraft on our behalf? Who is in control when we strap ourselves in and plead for mercy from the pilots and providence?

Air travel has many minders, including the airlines themselves who recognize the terrible costs of an accident and self-regulate on many fronts to ensure safe, efficient service. Governments administer the bulk of the industry–some say counter-productively–through regulations and oversight. Customers prod through voting with their pocketbooks–we avoid the seemingly unsafe airlines and the threat of significant lawsuits looms over any mishap. Manufacturers, trade and employee associations, and safety watchdogs battle over particular technologies and procedures, arguing over which are essential to ensure the safety of the industry. Governments may respond–slowly–and not always in a way that achieves the optimal results for the passengers.

The average passenger sits in a machine that operates with a level of technological sophistication far beyond their comprehension. Such ignorance about the physics of flight and the capacities of the planes fuels speculation in times of crisis. Was it terrorism? Did the Intertropical Convergence Zone create overwhelming storms the plane was unable to navigate? The cabin lost pressure–was it turbulence that cracked the plane into pieces? Or, was it lightning, as an early statement by an Air France spokesperson indicated? Did the Airbus “fly-by-wire” system finally confirm a serious flaw of designing a plane without back-up mechanical cables to control flight surfaces in the event of an electrical malfunction?

When we don’t know, we succumb to fear. We are vulnerable inside those tin cans with wings, and we assign so much trust to the pilots, crews, maintenance technicians, controllers, engineers, assemblers, and others who control the many facets of the plane. So we say prayers, hold charms, talk our neighbor’s ear off, or simply try to tune out the fact that we’re hurtling forward at 500 mph at 36,000 feet.

Read the comments to stories about the tragedy and three themes emerge: may God rest the souls of the departed; how can God allow such tragedies to occur; and was there some error on the part of some human that could have been avoided. We divide into two camps–we either seek better laws and planes, or we strive for better prayers.

Knowledge is powerful for overcoming our fear of vulnerability and wild speculation. Yet finding reliable information that we can trust is exceedingly difficult. In the internet age, much information is out there, but finding trusted sources is difficult. The news exacerbates the problem, since the rhetoric often far outpaces the facts available. For two days after Flight 447 disappeared, the average news viewer heard many times that lightning was the probable cause of this crash, which is exceedingly unlikely.

I used to be terrified of flying. White knuckled rides through rain or sun marked my first trips. I had no sense of what the clunks and groans of normal flight sounded like. I was convinced that the throttle back after initial take-off was the start of a quick plummet. If I survived, I vowed I would sue. If I died, I would hope that my parents would sue. I put my trust in powers beyond myself to deliver me, while I sat in ignorance and fear.

Then I was, in short, enlightened. I found Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot and author of “Ask the Pilot” for Salon.com, who de-mystified the process of flying and rationalized away many of my fears, detailing many issues of normal and abnormal flight, security, safety, maintenance, and the challenges pilots face. Turbulence does not hurt the plane, only passengers. Lightning strikes planes often–the electronics are shielded and the plane is designed to conduct the electricity away. One may be surprised at the small amount many pilots earn. That throttle-back after initial ascent is usually to reduce noise over the homes by airports. I can ride in the plane having a sense of what is happening, and when and why it happens. Reason calmed my fears.

And when tragedy strikes, pilot-gurus like Smith can explain away much of the rampant speculation about what did not cause a plane like 447 to crash as well as offer expert conjecture about the likely scenarios that could explain what happened.

This enlightenment from experts, though, only goes so far. 228 people still encountered their humanly end over a volatile sea. All the explanations in the world will not bring them back. God only knows what they suffered. What did they meet during this doomed flight–and after?

However, the human knowledge can help discern the series of causes for this catastrophe. If some defect exists in the flight control systems or pilot procedures, there will be lawsuits to be sure. We will also discover that human ingenuity can creatively improve the systems so future tragedies will not happen from these same flaws. Laws and regulations can be improved to ensure greater safety. Rational knowledge can bring about progress in technology and safety.

Ultimately, though, our fear that we could crash and die cannot be totally alleviated by any of this expert knowledge. We all will die, and even a few more of us may plummet from the skies. The only real peace in the face of our ending comes from the serenity we gain from faith, prayer, and meditation. Or the rational knowledge that calms our fears about what is happening around us. Or a strong armrest that withstands our fearful grip.

Dr. Michael Kessler is Assistant Director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Visiting Assistant Professor of Government at Georgetown University.

By Michael Kessler | 
June 4, 2009; 9:28 AM ET

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Just Law and Religion

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  • ccnl1

    A lightning strike(s) still appears to be the more plausible reason. Some pilots still think they can outrun or outclimb Mother Nature.

  • ccnl1

    Southwest Airlines’ pilot salaries by year of experience: (in thousands)$52.00 $88.00 $98.00 $108.00 $119.00 $122.00 $124.00 $125.00 $126.00 $128.00 $129.00 $131.00

  • pierrejc2

    It’s really quite simple.