Aviation Safety

Should I watch shows like Air Crash Investigation?

Many people, including patients, journalists, and those who work for airlines, often ask me if fearful flyers should be watching or avoiding TV shows like Air Crash Investigator, or indeed TV news bulletins featuring headline stories about aviation incidents.

It’s very hard to avoid the latter, since any ongoing investigation into aviation events makes all the news bulletins in mainstream media as well as social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

A good example is the recent July 2015 discovery of a wing component which at the time of writing (August 6, 2015 update) is very likely to be part of the Malaysian Airlines B777 which went off radar in 2014.

So I’ll deal with shows like Air Crash Investigation in this blog entry, and leave the topical news items for another entry as I believe they require a different approach.

Shows like National Geographic’s Air Crash Investigation serve several interesting purposes, and if you were to ask me if current patients should watch them, my answer would be a very clear, yes and no.

Now I know that sounds very confusing, so let me explain.

The Yes Part

The YES part exists because I would not ask patients to do anything that I would not do. Which means that from time to time I watch these shows. In general, they report on incidents which ultimately have changed the way air safety is managed on a worldwide scale. Those incidents which are turned into a 40 minute documentary have indeed become well known in the aviation community by the time they go to air and become part of a DVD set.

This means that whatever lessons can be learnt about the causes of these incidents, of which there are almost always multiple, have usually been incorporated into the day-to-day operations of most commercial airlines and the air safety standards bureaux of most nations.

If you look at the events which make for the substance of the shows, they usually reflect how aircraft incidents occur not as one unfortunate event but as an interlocking sequence of events, each of which has its own very small probability of occurring. So in some respects any one episode provides a reasonable summary of an event which may have taken place many years ago, for which the investigation took several years, and for which the lessons learnt continue to be applied.

So for someone like me, who can bring considerable professional understanding to shows like Air Crash Investigation  (this links to the UK show), these shows usually reinforce the safety culture within commercial aviation.

 The case for No – don’t watch (yet)

But for many fearful flyers, especially those whose understanding of aviation risk and safety culture borders on minimal, the events portrayed in the shows only serve to reinforce their fears and display how “unsafe” commercial aviation can be. This is why I included “no” in my answer.

A real life example of “no”

Let me give you another example of what I mean.

In the mid-1990s, I was running the Ansett fear of flying program in Melbourne. I did this until  mid-2000. When I went into private practice, a lot of what I had learnt in the program helped me develop my approach to individual flyers, having come from an airline-based group program.

The Ansett program ran over five weeks, each Thursday night between 7:30 PM and 10 PM, and was held adjacent to Gate 1 at Melbourne Airport. After the fifth Thursday, we would have a flight the following Saturday, with people paying for their flight a week before and committing themselves to a week of fluctuating emotions, vacillating between “I can do this” to “I’m not sure I’ve learnt enough to manage”.

On the fourth evening, when they made their booking and committed to flying nine days later, we would organise to taxi on a real aircraft, heading to the maintenance hangar for its overnight check. This meant being on a moving aircraft with doors closed, and being towed into the hangar after a slow 20 minute ride along the airport’s taxiways. This was part of the exposure program we organised, which in fact started on the very first night of the programme with a visit to an aircraft about 9:30 PM. Indeed the exposure program can be said to have occurred by having the sessions take place in the meeting room next to Gate 1, where the group could hear, feel and even smell planes arriving and leaving.

In the early days of my running the program, we would have buses waiting for us at the hangar to bring us back immediately to our meeting room. But over the years, I developed a relationship with the Engineering team, so that rather than merely hopping off the plane and coming straight back, we would get a 20 minute presentation by an engineer informing the group what work was taking place in the hangar at the time we were visiting. Sometimes a plane would be in for an overnight check. Other times when we arrived at the hangar, an aircraft would be in for a D check, meaning my group would see an aircraft with engines removed, seats removed, and various panels exposed. Essentially, the plane was stripped back to its bare essentials for a complete overhaul.

The point of this exercise was to reinforce the efforts made early in the programme to demonstrate aviation safety culture. But my thinking was also that if we had done this on the very first night of the programme, coming to the hangar and seeing an aircraft in thousands of pieces, would have only reinforced the group’s fears, along the lines of “what happens if they forget to put something back in” or “there are so many things that can go wrong”. I would never refer to these apprehensions as irrational fears, as some psychologists might, but as reasonable questions which require appropriate answers from knowledgable and authoritative staff.

The parallels to Air Crash Investigation programs

In a sense, this is what happens when many fearful flyers watch crash investigator-type programs. Rather than having a basis in aviation safety culture, these programs unfortunately can reinforce their currently held appraisals that flying is inherently unsafe, and if they take a flight, they will surely meet grief.

So, I watch these programmes for my continuing education. From time to time a patient will discuss a particular incident and I need to know about it and perhaps even more than that  revealed in an episode.

Historically, I have met and know some of the personnel involved in some of the most famous aircraft incidents portrayed, such as the Aloha Airlines 737 which lost its roof; or, the United Airlines 747 from Honolulu to Sydney via Auckland which lost its cargo door. Because I’ve been doing this work a long time and go to various conferences,  I get to meet and hear first hand about quite a few actual incidents in these TV shows, and thus can fill in some of the gaps or give more detail of how any one incident changed commercial aviation.

Some concluding remarks and recommendations

I tend to discourage my patients from watching crash investigator shows until they have finished their work with me, usually with a much better appreciation of just how safe flying is – no ifs or buts. The effect and purpose is for them to approach the shows from a much better informed knowledge base and not have their fear circuitry tweaked by the often emotional presentation which makes great TV but unfortunately reinforces the concept “a little knowledge can be dangerous”.

More importantly, if you watch a DVD or cable series in what’s become known as Binge-watching, or even watching a show on a weekly schedule, you can be misled into believing incidents such as those portrayed happen on a weekly basis! But decades might go by between incidents portrayed on July 15 and then on July 22, if you get my drift. If you’re already apprehensive, it’s easy to let the emotional centres misinterpret this time component, and reinforce your pre-exisiting appraisal that flying is unsafe.

In a later website entry, I’ll discuss the slightly different case of the nightly TV news reporting ongoing investigations which can be very hard to avoid. Just the act of trying to avoid can raise many fearful flyers’ anxiety levels especially for those events where no answers have yet been found nor any aircraft parts recovered.

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