Now that I have finished, for now at least, with regular air travel, I have finally got round to reading a book published in the UK earlier this year by William Langewiesche (how exactly do you pronounce that?), called Fly by Wire – it’s about the US Airways plane which ditched in the Hudson River in New York in January 2009. I have not quite felt able to read this book in the midst of various flight-dependent speaking commitments (one thing which Langewiesche’s writing does, mind you, if you want it to, is make you feel a little safer about flying). Oddly enough, aeroplanes were quite important to my early reading experiences. I grew up in a household full of books, which was good, but an awful lot of them were about famous WW2 bombing raids – books by or about Guy Gibson, that sort of thing. And at school I had a subscription to one of those weekly magazines that built-up into a complete encyclopaedia of the history of military air warfare. So this post is partly about a guilty pleasure.
Anyway, so here I am, aware of the risk of seeming to be trying to pull off that most academic of conceits, which is to try to establish some intellectual sounding justification for one’s own personal interests, tastes, hang-ups – like arguing that baseball is ‘the best of all games’, or that all the best cricket writing (not much) is written by lefties – CLR James, er, er.., er…?
Langewiesche writes about why planes crash. I first remember reading something by him sometime last year, on a train, in Vanity Fair, about an accident in which two planes collided over the Amazon forest. The great thing about his writing about crashes is that, of course, you know from the start what is going to happen – the planes are going to crash. But he develops narrative tension by reconstructing the ‘why’ of crashes (think of a highly literate version of the TV programme Air Crash Investigation, which I should probably be ashamed to admit to watching, but hey, it’s sponsored by the National Geographic Channel, so it’s almost formally related to my professional world as a geographer…). The story of crash over the Amazon turns out to be about how attempts to programme safety into complex systems like international airline flight only generate unanticipated consequences of some sort – i.e. crashes.
This essay, ‘The Devil at 37,000 feet’, is reproduced in Aloft, an expanded collection of Langewiesche’s writings on the magic of human flight. Langewiesche is a moralist, of a sort, in so far as what he does in these essays is work-up a clear account of how the development of human flight has gone hand in hand with competing scientific and social scientific understandings of the degree to which complex systems are inevitably prone to ‘normal accidents’, or whether, as in the view of ‘high reliability’ theorists, the prevention of accidents is actually within human control – Langewiesche’s position seems to lean towards the former position. Anyway, I learned new things about social science from reading his books, about sociologists and political scientists like Charles Perrow, Scott Sagan, and Todd La Porte, and other exponents of ‘systems accident thinking’. Langewiesche uses plane crashes to elaborate on the relationships between technologies, organisational systems, and the idiosyncrasies of embodied, human skill and judgement. In the book about the plane landing on the Hudson, Langewiesche has this repeated theme of how the ‘heroism’ ascribed to the pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, in terms of his displaying ‘cool under pressure’, is not so much mistaken as mis-described – the theme he reiterates is that both pilots pulled of ‘a work of extraordinary concentration’. The book is a brief history of fly-by-wire design technologies, pioneered by Airbus – the plane they were flying was an Airbus A320. To cut a long story short, these technologies surround pilots in ‘flight envelope systems’, which ensure that various parameters of flight are maintained automatically, not least in crisis situations. This is one of the feedback loops of perverse consequences which Langewiesche explores in the essays in Aloft, looking at the ways in which enhanced safety-oriented design features of modern commercial airlines can, under certain circumstances, combine with the routinization of the skill and fluency of pilots in flight “to inhibit their powers of self-assessment”. It turns out that the design features innovated to keep us poor folks back in Economy safe (Langewiesche is also very acute on the political economy of the airline business as it impacts on the performance of pilots in stressful situations), might inhibit the exercise of the very reflexive skills which pilots have at their disposal to negotiate unexpected situations when they arise.
When Fly by Wire was published in the US at the end of 2009, it was rather predictably spun in terms of a scandalous de-bunking of the media-created mythology around Pilot Sullenberger’s heroism – as if the implication was that the plane landed itself on the water. This is unfair – Langewiesche wants to give the built-in design features of the plane their due, for sure, but the point about the pilots being ‘concentrated’ is precisely about locating what it was that they did so well. This is the reason why Langewiesche’s writing is interesting – it is his concern with thinking through the distribution of ‘responsibility’, in good and bad senses, across technologies and humans, between systems and discretionary acts. It reminds me of early actor-networky theory, by Latour and Steve Woolgar for example, which made so much of re-describing social theories of agency in terms of the dynamics of attributions of responsibility. This emphasis seems to have been lost in the slippage of so much of the work inflected by these sorts of thinkers into making big claims about the ontological status of various sorts of ‘non-humans’, ‘actants’, and the like. So if you are ever worried by the challenge of that sort of social theory, I recommend reading something by William Langewiesche.
Just wait ‘til after you have taken that long-planned plane journey. Better to read it on a train.