The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Friday, August 19, 2005

The bottom line

This one, thank God, I'm happy to report that my job is so easy because I don't have to speak to grieving widows and family members, so that takes about half of my hard work away.
- Real Lavasseur, lead investigator, Transportation Safety Board

I had intended to write another entry about the Toronto Air France crash and the inevitable blamefest which had been starting to manifest almost instantaneously -- not all the comments engendered in the first few hours after getting all the survivors clear were positive -- but before I could get to its writing, it was followed by some six other aircraft crashes which resulted in the deaths of all those aboard. Balance, perhaps.

So, set aside the analysis of the commentary, positive and negative; set aside that the existence of an emergency evacuation renders all questions of safety no longer "absolute" but relative; set aside the scales weighing the dangers of a four-metre jump against the fire which engulfed the entire cabin area only minutes after the two-minute evacuation (with three-quarters of the passengers and crew already evacuated in the 52 seconds it took for emergency crews to arrive); set aside the threat and later actuality of explosion against the last-minute retrieval of a knapsack; set aside that an orderly evacuation will require that not everyone can be first out the door and that occasionally someone else will be in front of you and block your way to the exits.

(Maybe don't set aside that persons escaping an airplane crash ... well, to say that the people involved might have been upset would be something of an understatement. Why should it be surprising that some might felt abandoned, or latched determinedly onto the debris of a disrupted routine, or even blindly lashed out at whatever was nearest at hand? We do this kind of thing even when our lives are not at stake!)

Sheer irony that a tornado may have touched down today in close to the same area as a 60 km/h gust of wind was confirmed to have struck without warning on runway 24L. It may not be typical for the area, but Toronto, Canada seems to be a magnet for severe storms of late.

Choices never come with guarantees; but even the lack of active choice comes with consequences.

Once in my life, I have been a passenger in a car which aquaplaned, through a usually busy intersection against the traffic signal. It had rained, but had not been raining for some hours. The brakes had been applied correctly, but there was no contact at all between the wheels and the road surface; and thus neither could steering have helped. Inertia kept the car moving until that minimum amount of friction finally brought it to a stop half a kilometre beyond the intersection: and I, grateful that the road was straight for some good long distance; and that no other obstacle, such as another moving vehicle, decided to intervene to shorten the braking distance.

There is some debate about who held the ultimate decision to land or not land the airplane. Had the pilot chosen to abort (and been successful in doing so, current analysis suggests there was less than an hour of fuel remaining), the flight would have consumed significantly more fuel than had been budgeted -- at a time when fuel costs are creating new records almost daily, and the news of another major airline going into receivership does not make the front page anymore. Add to that the domino effect of other connected diversions and various direct passenger-related costs: and one concludes that diverting an airplane would not generally be a cost-effective decision.

With the sheer number of thunderstorms and other types of violent weather systems in the world, how long would a pilot be retained, who was not willing to take a chance and regularly land in threatening weather?


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