Among the victims of the Air Florida crash has to be the near-religious belief that if conditions were really bad, the pilot would not fly. It is this belief that gets people to board flights in bad weather and that comforts them when the elements, doing what they do best, bounce the plane about the heavens. The crash has made skeptics of us all.
The transcripts of the cockpit conversation make clear that both the pilot and the copilot had more than second thoughts about leaving Washington National Airport. No one who reads the transcript can help but hear the sound of whistling in the dark.
The cockpit crew referred to how deep the snow was. They noticed the ice forming on the wings. They talked about how attempting to de-ice a plane was sometimes "a losing battle," about how they might have to land at some unexpected airport and how they could see very little. In one instance, the pilot recited his plan for takeoff saying that it depended on "how scared we are."
The passengers in the back, of course, knew nothing of this. They, like you and me, must have thought that while conditions looked bad to them, it looked somehow different to the pilots. They must have thought that the pilots knew what they were doing, that the snow was a mere nothing, that the ice had been taken off the plane -- that the plane would not take off if there were any danger at all.
But there was danger a-plenty. And it is wrong to suggest that in ignoring the danger and in barrelling ahead, the pilots were responsible or solely responsible for the crash that followed. They, just like anyone else, were merely following the rules as they knew it. In the case of air travel, the rules -- written or unwritten -- state that passengers be kept ignorant of the risks they face.
When it comes to being patronizing, not even hospitals can compete with airlines. Airlines almost never give you any information about risks or danger -- about weather or mechanical difficulties. Just try and even ask the reason, the real reason, for a delay and you more or less get told it's none of your business. Of course it is more than your business. It happens to be your life.
Some of this reluctance to be frank, just like the reluctance to return to the hangar and call it a day, is based on some sort of silk scarf machismo, a misplaced bravado right out of tbe biplane era. The entire airline industry presents itself with a kind of studied nonchalance, a pose that could put even a John Wayne to shame.
But the machismo, like much machismo, is simply harnessed to serve the needs of the stockholders. One reason pilots are reluctant to turn back is that they would have to explain to their employers why they did so, why they turned back with a planeload of paying passengers. In some cases, that Steve Canyon demeanor merely masks a fear of the company accountant.
The airline industry is not unique in that regard. Almost any industry you can name will harness machismo to serve its own ends. In my own business, reporters not only risk their lives covering wars, but they will place themselves in danger doing a lot more mundane things just so they can get ahead, so they can get to cover a war someday. This attitude serves the public just fine and it serves the news organization just fine. It just tends to take a toll on reporters.
In the news industry, as in other industries, the fiction is that the person going into danger can always say no. He or she can choose. In a strict sense this is true. But experience teaches otherwise. Miners go into mines they know are dangerous and men drive trucks they know can break down and people use machinery that can mangle them. They do these things because they feel they have to, because they know their employer expects it of them. They weigh the risks against the approbation and then decide.
This desire to please the boss, this capitalistic imperative, is why government regulation is needed. Some referee has to be able to blow the whistle. Someone has to be able to say no. Since the boss will not and the employe can not, the government has to. With the Air Florida crash, no one did. That's why it was not only ice on the wing that caused that crash. It was also greed.
NOTE: In a recent column concerning Mike Wallace and the ethnic remark taped by San Diego Federal Savings and Loan, I wrote that San Diego Federal had made copies of the tape available to the news media. They did not. I was wrong and I apologize.