Why do airplanes crash?


Do planes crash because of the culture of the people flying them? Malcolm Gladwell, whose speech aired today on the first hour of Midday, certainly thinks so. We live, of course, in an area with a lot of airline pilots so I’ll defer to them. But I have to think there’s going to be a lot of reaction to Gladwell’s assertion that airline tragedies have a certain ethnic basis.

During his speech, given at the New Yorker Festival in October , Gladwell referred to a section of his new book, “Outliers: The Story of Success,” in which he analyzes airline crashes and determines that pilots from certain cultures tend to crash planes more than others. Some cultures are better at communicating than others.

And he acknowledges that his conclusion is uncomfortable. It’s also very debatable.

“Look at where the countries with the safest rate of airline travel are,” he says near the end of his address. “The United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom.” He reasoned that people in those countries are culturally more inclined to communicate better as a matter of character and personality.

As he said in a CNN interview:

Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world for a period at the end of the 1990s. When we think of airline crashes, we think, Oh, they must have had old planes. They must have had badly trained pilots. No. What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical. You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.

Let’s ignore for now that one of those Korean Air jets got shot out of the sky. But what Gladwell didn’t point out is that English is the official — mandated — language of aviation on international flights. When you remove the international flights from the accident database, the gap between the English-as-a-first language countries and those who aren’t speaking their native tongue closes. Isn’t it at least possible that the reason there’s a communication problem isn’t that there’s a cultural problem, it’s that there’s a lack of mastery of the language being mandated?

Gladwell used an example of this without saying so: The Avianca Flight 52 crash on Long Island. Gladwell relayed the communications in the cockpit and with the controllers for Kennedy Airport, but he never mentioned they were speaking two different languages. The flight crashed because the jet ran out of fuel and the controllers never realized there was an emergency in the first place.

According to a 1990 article in the New York Times:

A captain for Avianca Airlines told Federal investigators today that the company did not train its flight crews to use specific words in asking air traffic controllers for priority treatment when a plane was running out of fuel.

Again, those are international standards that weren’t followed, more of a sign of bad training and a bad airline than a bad culture. But it was more than even that, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The plane crashed because the pilots (a) didn’t manage their fuel (b) didn’t communicate their situation soon enough (c) failed to follow airline “operational control dispatch system to assist them.” And it crashed because the FAA didn’t have a standardized understandable terminology for pilots and controllers in the given situation. Also cited was (a) windshear (b) crew fatigue and (c) stress.

In other words, a lot more than culture went into that tragedy.

But one assertion which I’m waiting for the local airline pilot community to confirm — or deny — is Gladwell’s statement that, “in an emergency, the safest system is one in which the co-pilot does the flying.” He suggested that it would be the more senior officer who would be able to decide the best course of action, and monitor the situation, if he wasn’t burdened with actually flying.

And it’s true that an old axiom in aviation is when there’s an emergency, the first thing to do is wind your watch (I told you it was “old”), because that gives you time to think.

But the greatest pilot in the history of aviation may be Al Haynes. He was at the controls of a United DC-10 whe it lost all of its hydraulics. It cartwheeled at the Sioux City airport on landing.

By all accounts, Haynes, his crew, and all passengers should’ve died. But 185 survived. Why? Haynes talked to and listened to as many pieces of advice as was available to him. It’s something Gladwell touched on too briefly. It’s called “cockpit resource management,” and it’s when the pilot and co-pilot are operating on the same page and the junior officer isn’t afraid to question the senior officer’s decision. (Aside: There’s a pilot in Minneapolis who writes a terrific blog, “Blogging at FL250,” who touched on the relationship between flying pilots. It’s well worth a read.)

Minnesota’s two most recent high-profile plane crashes were both examples of CRM gone bad. In December 1993, 16 passengers and two pilots were killed when a Northwest Airlink plane crashed in Hibbing.

The co-pilot tried to alert the captain about the altitude of the plane while executing a banned maneuver. “The captain’s record raised questions about the adequacy of his airmanship and behavior that suggested a lack of crew coordination during flight operations, including intimidation of first officers,” the National Transportation Safety Board concluded in its investigation. (Also see a New York Times article on the crash.)

And in 2002, the airplane carrying Sen. Paul Wellstone and members of his family and campaign, crashed in Virginia-Eveleth because, the NTSB said, the pilots had violated several policies and, basically, didn’t pay attention to basic airmanship to keep the plane from stalling and crashing.

More often than not, that, and not the culture of a pilot, is why airplane’s crash. Pilots make mistakes

(Photo: Getty Images)

  • I listened to about 10 minutes of Gladwell today, and was fascinated. We take language for granted — that’s really what all this mitigating is about. (And I thought Gladwell’s focus was the problem of mitigation, which you didn’t even bring up here.)

    I see your point, but you’re leaving out everything that made Gladwell’s argument. You didn’t mention any of his startling examples — like the underling hinting about the ice on the wings in New York instead of demanding they not take off until they deice. And I think it’s very interesting that Gladwell said some airlines have removed the ranking in the cockpit, replacing it with “flying” and “non-flying” pilot, or whatever.

    I’m sure you’re right about the stats, but cockpit dialog is still fascinating.

  • MR

    Gladwell is a fascinating person who tells good stories, but I’m not convinced that his “analysis” means much. It seems like he comes up with a theory (like the one Bob mentions), then shoehorns examples to fit with his theories while completely ignoring some examples that don’t really fit with what he’s trying to say.

    The NY Times reviewed this book and said much the same thing.

  • Heather

    I can’t even think about what he has to say; I can’t get past his hair! Oy.

  • Bob Collins

    I viewed his use of “mitigation” as a catch-all.

    I did, actually, note the Air Florida situation. That’s in the “cockpit resource management” section. It’s about the relationship between the captain and the first officer.

    I believe, by the way, that he’s wrong about flying pilot/non-flying pilot, but agtain I have to defer to actual airline pilots around here. I BELIEVE that the terminology actually is grounded in the FARs — the FAA rules and also the terminology used by the NTSB.

    I doubt very much that airlines are trying to neutralize the language. The most important part of a cockpit is establish who is — and this is the actual phrase — the “pilot in command.” That HAS to be made clear.

    But in those previous mentions, it’s not really about trying to change a culture, it’s about trying to indicate who’s flying the plane. Which brings up another problem of plane crashes. Quite often, nobody is.

  • For what it’s worth, I’m an airline pilot, author, and a columnist for Salon.com. I’ve been interviewed once or twice by MPR.

    On the whole I’ve been very disappointed by Gladwell’s comments on air safety.

    I do not, as Gladwell apparently does, believe that the ethnicity or cultural background of a cockpit crew has a serious bearing on global air safety in 2008. It’s far less of an issue than it once was. Most of the things he talks about have been engineered out of the picture.

    But even his dissection of Avianca 52, a crash that occurred almost 20 years ago, is, if anything, only partly right.

    Other of his remarks, meanwhile, are outright reckless and untrue.

    Gladwell says, for example, “The single most important variable in determining whether a plane crashes is not the plane, it’s not the maintenance, it’s not the weather, it’s the culture the pilot comes from.”

    That’s totally absurd, and I am extremely disappointed that somebody as influential as Malcolm Gladwell had to say it. In addition to being incorrect, it encourages the widely held notion that non-western airlines are by their nature less safe than those of North America and Europe – a mythology I’ve addressed many times in my own writing.

    – Patrick Smith

  • Bob Collins

    Thanks for educating us on this, Patrick. It’s very helpful.

  • My brother was a controller at JFK right around the time of the Avianca crash. I called him after I heard this program and told him that Gladwell said the JFK controllers are known as some of the best in the world, but are obnoxious.

    He agreed with that assessment.


  • j. c. Wolf

    Yes, it could easily be a language problem for the pilots as well as the tower.

    I believe it would be a good idea to make English the language of all medical treatment also. I have been in an emergency room in Miami where the mixture of languages caused me personally a great deal of danger to my health and fear for my life. It seems no two people spoke or understood the same language.

    A second problem with ethnic mixes in our hospitals is the lack of importance placed on hygiene by foreign nurses and doctors. If you don’t know what I am talking about, I pray you never find out.

    But getting back to the safety in the air, perhaps the entire flying industry should have a simple code language for all employees who fly and or are in the tower. Sort of the old ”MAYDAY”.

  • Chad

    I’m a doctoral student in psychology here in Minnesota. Like me, I’m sure you’ve all witnessed the deliterious impact “Minnesota Nice” can have on group processes.

    Is Gladwell saying this “minnesota nice” effect can kill us? I think it can.

    That’s nice that Patrick (pilot) doesn’t think culture effects safety. Gladwell has data, though. I agree with you, Bob, that forcing pilots to speak in non-native tounges can have an effect. I’m sure it doesn’t account for all the variance, though.

    Again, Gladwell had data from scientific social-psychological research.

    I loved the symbolic nature of Gladwell’s words. As we mitigate or convey “minnesota nice” in our lives, how are we all experiencing mini crashes of our own because we’re afraid to speak up? How often do we lose ourselves in our pursuit of nice?

  • I know a pilot that works for Horizon air and I had asked him about airplanes and how it feels to have so many lives in his own hand when he flies the planes. He said that I have to remember that the pilot is human too and it’s his own life in his own hands as well.

  • Christina

    HELP PLEASE! Malcolm Gladwell spoke at some considerable length last year (2009) about why planes crash and I have tried desperately to get a copy of that talk. Does anyone know where that speech was given and if it is possible to get a copy?