Air France 447´s Surprising Lesson: Intuition Can Kill

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We hear it so often that it’s taken as a truism: Trust your instincts. Obey your intuition. Ignore your book knowledge and go with your gut.

The importance and value of intuition (especially in women) is widely accepted. One author, Gavin De Becker, even wrote a book based on the premise that we must listen to intuition to be safe. In his bestseller The Gift of Fear, De Becker calls intuition “your personal solution to violence (that) connects us to the natural world and to nature. Freed from the bonds of judgment, married only to perception, it carries us to predictions we will later marvel at.”

Yet heeding instinct and intuition apparently contributed to the 2009 disaster in which Air France flight 447 crashed in the North Atlantic with 228 people on board. Now that one black box was recently found, investigators have a better idea of what went wrong. Experts are calling for improved pilot training that will in part teach them to ignore their intuition for their passenger’s safety.

According to USA Today, French authorities concluded that the pilots made a series of mistakes. The plane encountered rough weather that caused the speed sensors to ice over and malfunction. This by itself was not necessarily a serious problem, but:

Instead of flying level while they diagnosed the problem, one of the pilots climbed steeply, which caused a loss of speed. Then the aggressive nose-up pitch of the plane and the slower speed caused air to stop flowing smoothly over the wings, triggering a loss of lift and a rapid descent. They had entered an aerodynamic stall, meaning the wings could no longer keep the plane aloft. Once a plane is stalled, the correct response is to lower the nose and increase speed. For nearly the entire 3½ minutes before they crashed into the ocean, the pilots did the opposite, holding the Airbus A330’s joystick back to lift the nose.

Why did these trained pilots do the opposite of what they learned in flight school? They trusted their instincts. Human instinct and intuition for pilots in such a situation is to keep themselves (and therefore the rest of the aircraft) facing up toward the safety of the sky, not to intentionally aim directly toward the ground. In their fear and panic they listened to their intuition instead of their knowledge of basic aviation, and it cost hundreds of lives.

This is not the first time that pilot intuition has killed passengers. In February 2009, a commuter flight crashed near Buffalo, N.Y., killing 50 people including one person on the ground. Investigators determined that the accident was caused by a series of errors by the pilot and co-pilot. They had not been paying attention to the plane’s airspeed, and when they realized the plane was about to stall, the pilot pulled the plane’s nose up instead of down, exactly as the Air France pilots did.

It’s certainly true that intuition can be right. But intuition fails people all the time, and we just don’t notice it because we selectively remember the times when our intuitions or fears were confirmed. We’ve all read news stories of serial rapists or serial killers whose friends and neighbors, upon being interviewed after the criminal was caught, say, “He seemed like a normal guy, I never would have expected this.”

For example, suspected serial killer Anthony Sowell seemed like “a civilized person” before he attacked, according to one of his victims who escaped; Ted Bundy was handsome and charming; and no one had suspected a Sunday school teacher and mom of raping and killing eight-year-old Sandra Cantu in 2009.

Intuition and instinct routinely fail to warn innocent people about impending accidents, attacks, abductions and death. If intuition could reliably avert disasters, and even terrorism, the world would be a very different place.

Perhaps the legacy of Air France flight 447 is reminding the world that intuition is fine for deciding who to date or picking a pet, but when you’re in a life-or-death emergency, let your brain overrule your gut.

Image Credit: Corbis

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