Disdain for details our Achilles heel

By Johan Lottering

IGNORING or deliberately overlooking potential adverse effects of glaringly obvious minor details often has major consequences. Just take the example of the Greek demigod who had so impressively vanquished the giant Boagrius early in the movie Helen of Troy. He had his intellect, natural skills, intellect and agility to thank for many a feat or triumph in life. During the siege of Troy he had audaciously slept with the Hero Paris' little sister and killed his big brother in a brawl. Being as amorous and nimble his armour needed a few strategically placed holes in it.

The aggrieved Paris was not stupid. He paid attention to such seemingly trivial details or weaknesses, to ultimately send a poisoned dart into a narrow opening in the armour, above his heel. The rest, as they say, is historyÖ Achilles keeled over, but even today those in medicine refer to the tendon in remembrance of the conquered hero. Similarly, many an aviator would not allow minor details, such as a magneto drop or loose-fitting oil filler cap spoil the fun. Our disdain for details has been the demise of many.

Downsizing or mitigating is perhaps better understood through the example of Harry and Harvey. They worked for a phone company. An old lady had deemed their manners and language leaving much to be desired. She made a complaint and upon their return to work the shift boss wanted a full report. After much deliberating, soul-searching and introspection the astonished due signed a report, reading 'Dear Sir, Harvey and I were soldering connections for a new line. He held the ladder below. At one point some molten lead must have accidentally dropped down his neck, upon which he looked up and exclaimed, 'Really, Harvey! You ought to be much more careful in future!'

Well, accident reports often reveal how aviators negate or downplay risks, allowing relatively minor mistakes to go undetected and escalate into disaster. Our habit orientation ensnares us. Our cognition often fails us. The two edged mental discrepancy causes us to overlook and not interpret minor though vital facts and details. In 'Social Psychology' by Robert S. Feldman (Prentice Hall, 2001; pp. 40 - 71) confirmation bias is described as our tendency to select, formulate or interpret data and information in a way which conforms to our 'current' expectations or beliefs. Our preconceived ideas and perceptions cause mental blind spots, which we find quite logical. Even experienced pilots tend to make the silliest mistakes. Why do so many fail to take the most logical escape avenue at their disposal at the most sensible time? Let's consider two examples.

On March 3, 2000 the pilot of a pressurized twin-engine eight-seat Cessna 414 did a forced landing 1.5 hours into the flight from Gaborone to Maun. The four survivors' plight to reach Civilization through the lion infested Kalahari made headlines. The SACAA report was less sensational and pointed out the pilot had overlooked to tighten an oil filler-cap, resulting in oil loss and engine failure. The pilot would be neither the first, nor the last to overlook 'the obvious'. On the night of January 26, 1996 two experienced pilots had died as their cargo-laden Piper Chieftain ran out of fuel to crash in Boksburg inbound to Johannesburg from Eros. Shortly after departing on the ill-fated journey they had to turn back after losing oil pressure in the climb, to top up oil and tighten an oil filler cap through which they had been losing oil. They had taken off again, but without refuelling. Crashing with the airport already in sight a miss was sadly a mile in their case. Fly safely

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