The curse

Philip Morgan

(Readin' time: 2m 3s)

On the shuttle from Taos to ABQ, I met an aeronautical engineer who had a theory on the root cause of the recent 737 Max crashes.

He was a dapper-looking guy with white hair, probably in his late 50's, and had a charming British accent.

He started his career as a flight engineer, which he told me was the last of the non-pilot roles to be automated out of existence. (Automation got to the navigator's job before it got the flight engineer's job.)

Those of you that have seen the "Airplane!" movie, or those of you with even more gray hair (or less hair, period) than me will remember the third seat in the cockpit of larger passenger planes, behind the 2 pilot seats. That's where the flight engineer would sit and do their work of monitoring and regulating the plane's systems.

Now that work is largely automated. As they say, never compete against a computer!

So this guy from the shuttle moved into an airplane design engineering role after his job got automated away.

His theory about the 737 Max issue is that the test pilots did not perceive any problem with the plane's flight performance because their relatively high skill level didn't allow them to perceive a problem. The 737 Max is a more difficult plane to fly, but the test pilots easily absorbed this higher difficult level because they're more highly trained and experienced.

The everyday operations pilots, however, don't have this level of experience and training. So their lack of advanced skill made possible the situations that resulted in several crashes and numerous fatalities.

Again, this is the theory of the guy I met on the shuttle. He's in a better position than I to construct theories like this, but who knows if his theory is actually a good one.

In essence, this guy was saying that the curse of knowledge played a significant role in the problems with the 737 Max. The test pilots weren't aware that their higher skill was absorbing a higher difficulty level of operating the 737 Max, and so they didn't communicate the need for additional training for the pilots who fly the production aircraft every day.

Does this remind you of the situations you help your clients improve? I'd bet it does, even if your work has nothing to do with designing and testing aircraft!

As I reviewed Wikipedia's list of cognitive biases, I noticed several that might play a role in the guy on the shuttle's theory. In other words, his theory might be the result a biased view wherein he overweights the role of test pilots in general, or underweights the role of engineering (his "tribe") in aircraft malfunction.

Bottom Line: This stuff is all part of being a good consultant. Helping your clients see past their biases--and seeing past your own--helps you effect better diagnoses and recommendations.


PS - I laughed at almost every joke in the abovelinked supercut of "Airplane!" scenes. And then felt a general sense of amazement at how many of them are in some way sexist. We've come a long way since the 70's.