Flashback Friday: steam gauges and a dose of the wrong stuff

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A 30-year-old BBC television documentary now on YouTube is a fascinating primer on human factors, crew resource management, ergonomics and automation.

‘The wrong stuff,’ from the BBC’s long-running Horizon program examines the state of air transport safety in the mid 1980s, when the industry was beginning to realise that its primary safety problems were personal, not technical.

Lovers of old school ‘clock shop’ flight decks will enjoy that there’s hardly cathode ray tube to be seen, let alone a 21st century LCD display. The concepts discussed in the film (and yes, it was shot on film, and is a little blurry by modern high-definition standards) are modern, and form the basis of today’s crew resource management (CRM).

Taking an editorial stand against the then-current domination of airline flight decks by ex-military pilots the announcer intones how a simulator exercise designed to test crew communication produced, ‘everything from good coordination to almost complete mayhem.’

There’s a nod to the efforts of US carrier United Airlines in developing CRM, which is significant because the program predates the United Airlines flight 232 crash by three years. United 232 was a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 that crashed at Sioux City , Iowa, in the US, after the fan disc on its central engine disintegrated, severing all hydraulic control lines. The crash, although a tragedy that killed 111 people, was also a triumph for the crew resource management model that United Airlines had pioneered. The crew improvised, co-operated and delegated to fly the aircraft as best they could, using differential thrust for control. There were 185 survivors of the crash.

All of that was in the future when the BBC’s Horizon team filmed this hour-long documentary, however it’s still worth watching, if only to remember how far air transport has come in living memory.

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