If the ash cloud shutdown wasnít one of the biggest misjudgments in aviation history, hereís the question: what was? The TerryReport will leave it to the European media to rip into every little details of what happened (they will surely enjoy themselves in the process), but the biggest apparent mistake, and it was a whopper, was to rely on computer modeling as the deciding factor in closing airports and air space.
Computer models are really good. When combined with super computers or arrays of ordinary computers working together, some incredible tasks can be achieved. Hereís how it works: you put in all the known data (wind direction, wind speed, amount of ash coming out of the volcano, etc.) and you punch some buttons. Out comes a really cool overlay on a map showing where the ash is likely to be. Note: not where it is, where it is likely to be.
This same sort of computer modeling, on a higher level, is applied to the science of trying to guess where hurricanes are going to go. It works pretty well and we arenít often surprised by hurricanes any more. Yet, it is not perfect. The computer models can say 15 degrees to the right and the hurricane will go 20 degrees to the left. Why? Things are just too complex in the real world to be anywhere close to 100% predictable.
So, apparently, the air control officials in Europe (NATS in England and Eurocontrol on the continent) looked at the computer models (step one), considered that ash can be dangerous to aircraft and, (step three) shut the whole mess down. The problem is that they didnít check their models against the air outside! They didnít send up test plane (the airlines did that, once the got permission), they didnít fly through the ash, they just shut everything down.
Behind the scenes, all quiet and orderly, the airlines, with some government backing, went bloody ape. All of this came to a head in Madrid on Monday of this week and the airports began to re-open on Tuesday. Of course, by then, the damage, a massive amount, was done.
This is your future, world. Human beings are being ordered around because of faulty data coming from computers. No matter how much you believe in the potential of technology, it is supposed to serve us, not the other way around. We see more and more key decisions in life being left up to computer programs, but, more importantly, we see millions of people giving up their ability to make their own decisions and the skills to be able to make those calls.
Take GPS ďturn by turnĒ systems in cars. Great, right? Weíll if you are the kind of person with no internal sense of direction who gets confused driving around two cities blocks, maybe GPS is wonderful. For the rest of us, it is creating generations of people who now wonít be able to find their way anywhere unless the little voice is talking to them. It, like many other technologies, is enfeebling us and we are happily going along. Did you hear the story about the couple on the west coasts who headed off, driving, into the wilderness because thatís where their GPS told them to go?
This process has been going on for at least 150 years and some of the skills we have lost in the meantime, we probably didnít need or donít need know. Hereís the rub: how do you know a skill is vital until you lose it? Then, it is probably too late.
Doug Terry, 4.22.10