Monday, December 29, 2008

I am the expert

I Am the Expert
Hagai Cohen

The first time I heard this bit of self-praise: “I am the expert,” was from my friend, Dr. George Popper when he told me one of his stories.

George, a geologist, was working some years ago on a special project commissioned by the Federal government. He was given an all-terrain truck, fancy radiation detection equipment and an assistant, to find uranium deposits within the boundaries of the state of Pennsylvania. He spent two vain years on every highway, throughway, turnpike, subway, waterway, driveway, parkway, dirt road, and no man’s land - on foot, on bicycle, on mules and on his truck but no uranium was anywhere to be found.

About a month before he came to the end of his budget and at the end of the two year limit, the Geiger counter started to scream while they drove through a small rural community. George and his assistant quickly equipped themselves with the latest state of the art mobile instruments. Looking like visitors from outer space, they began to comb the area. The closer they got to a particular house the stronger the signal became. George decided it was up to him to warn the residents about the high level of radiation in their home. The two 'aliens' knocked on the door and said with tact, “Nothing to worry about. Just a little radiation, slightly higher than the normal background level.” George turned the counter to minimum sensitivity to lower the noise. He noticed that the radiation level was high but of a strangely unstable nature. Wandering from room to room without finding anything was very frustrating. George’s assistant acknowledging the difficulty came up behind him and whispered, “Don’t you want to get an expert.”
George turned with an impish grin and whispered back, “in case you hadn’t noticed, I am the expert, and the only one, east of the Mississippi, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Hudson Bay.”

The answer to their problem came from an unexpected source. A very old man, ignored by everybody and clutching a walker, said, “Maybe it has to do with the radioactive iodine they gave Granny for her thyroid test this morning.” George immediately turned the Geiger counter off, took the old man’s hand and said: “Thank you sir, for saving the government's money.” He then turned to his assistant and said, “You see, knowledge is not enough, experience is the more important ingredient.”
* * *

By odd circumstances, I had good reason to think of Dr. George Popper’s story and his remarks several years later. It was a day that had began at Kennedy International Airport where we rolled the heavy 747/200 to runway 31-left. Echo Lima Yankee 008 was cleared for takeoff enabling us to barrel down the runway.
It was a routine 340 tons takeoff weight, 130 tons of fuel, 475 passengers and 16 crew members. Apart from a report of ‘embedded thunder storms,’ (storm clouds hiding between harmless clouds), in the vicinity of the airport, there was nothing irregular about this flight. Under fair weather conditions, when the Manhattan skyline was visible, the twin towers stood right in front of the runway. Normal departure procedure calls for a left turn immediately after takeoff.
The takeoff run was normal but at 700 feet, after turning left into clouds I felt an irritation in my eyes. I looked to see if my colleagues felt anything but they were too busy. Our heading, dictated by the approved departure procedure, was taking us right into a cumuli nimbus, a thunder cloud. It was impossible to ask for a deviation as every pilot was demanding at the top of his lungs a heading to avoid the storm or the buildings of Manhattan. Following the approved departure procedure was dangerous.
A very strange smell accompanied the irritation in my eyes. Still not taking it too seriously, I concentrated on the departure. The first officer could not get through a request for a new heading. We were already in the clouds experiencing a lot of turbulence. Maintaining the stability of the airplane so close to the ground with wind-shear and a rapid change of air speed, was an all-consuming task. At that moment I was certain some kind of smoke was polluting our air. I now felt the irritation in my nose and throat.

“Smoke in the cockpit” I cried. “Oxygen masks and regulators.” I recited the first recall item on the checklist. No response from the crew. I called out again, “Smoke! Put on your oxygen masks, gentlemen.” Still no response. They were too busy flying the airplane in the adverse weather conditions. They neither listened to me nor felt the smoke. I undid my belt, removed the oxygen masks from their stowage and handed them over to them. Set your regulators to 100% oxygen" I prompted them. The problem was acknowledged and we communicated through the mike in the oxygen mask.

Smoke in the cockpit from an unknown source is a reason for deep concern to any crew. It may be caused by toxic fumes from burning plastics, an electrical fire, or air-conditioner smoke. The questions to be asked are: how fast will the smoke/fire obscure vision? Disconnect a main electric supply? Disable the flight controls computer? The autopilot? Or other flight-instruments? Fast action is required, first to find the source, then to extinguish the fire and lastly to remove the smoke. If this is not done quickly, the flight crew is constrained to its seats with the oxygen hose and the headset chord, wearing goggles that only partially protect the eyes, and facing obscured flight instruments.

The book instructs laconically: "Declare emergency and land at the nearest suitable airport.” The ‘suitable’ airport might be one where the crew had never before landed, making it necessary to consult the landing charts under stress.

“What now?” I said to myself. What am I supposed to do? "Yes I should follow the checklist" but which one? Air conditioning smoke? Electrical fires? Smoke evacuation? “Something very important is missing in this scenario, an instructor to tell me from where the smoke was emanating. The instructor's comments provided necessary guidance in a simulator. With his hand on my shoulder, he would say, “Electrical smoke,” or “Air-conditioner smoke,” and then it was easy. But where was he?
All aircrew training is done in a simulator. The simulator is a useful trainer but it cannot simulate smoke and it cannot distinguish between electrical smoke and air-conditioner smoke. In this reality, I watched the declining visibility trying to figure out what to do. The smoke was getting thicker and already making breathing difficult. “I have to do something, very soon,” I told myself. “After all, I am the expert.”

I kept repeating to myself, “I am the expert. I am the expert. I am the expert.” I am facing a grave situation and George's funny quote was bouncing in my head. So what does an expert do in a situation like this? "Think logically. Use your intuition. ‘Experience’ was another word George used. “Experience is the more important ingredient.”
I dialed the purser's number. “Purser speaking."
“Is there smoke in the cabin?”
“Yes” coughed the purser.
“Why the hell didn't you call?”
“I did not want to use the override hot line. You know the cabin manual allows us to use the override number only in an emergency.”
The smoke was now heavy in the flight deck and I could hardly talk. Through my coughs I said, “So, in your opinion, this is not an emergency!?” and hung-up.
I deduced that if there were smoke in the cabin, it could only be from the air-conditioning system. I turned off the No. 1 air-conditioner and switched on No. 2. A few minutes later, we were clear of smoke.
I was quite pleased I hadn't gone by “the book”. I knew the checklist would have taken at least half an hour of isolating systems one by one for trouble shooting, ultimately achieving the same result.
Of course, I called Dr. George Popper to inform him with delight that the uranium deposits in the old woman's thyroid guided me through my emergency.

Incidentally, the first page of the operations/training manual used to read: ‘This book is for unskilled pilots and not a substitute for experience and intuition.’ Over the years the operations manual became a legal document and the checklist sacred. That first page was removed by lawyers. Going by the book in a case of smoke in the cockpit may appear legally good, but medically the crew may simply appear dead.

This story is based on a true incident. The actual writing of it prompted years later, after the Swissair 111* smoke/fire incident. The Swissair crew did not identify the source of the smoke, did not communicate properly (language and hierarchy issues), and used the incorrect checklist. They crashed into the North Atlantic Ocean.

*For more information about Swiss air accident, go to Google “cockpit fires Swissair 111.”

Dr George Popper wrote this

Quite a story. You captured it well and at the end tied all the pieces nicely together … And thanks for the honorable mention. One additional background point to the “I am the expert” incident. This all took place near Lebanon, Pennsylvania, not many miles away from the Three Mile Island reactor where a week or two earlier the “meltdown” accident had taken place … so everyone was under extreme heightened sensitivity regarding radiation. When I showed up at those people’s door the first thing they thought about was, “Did this have something to do with the reactor?”

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