When The Wings Fall Off

One gem of wisdom I’ve quoted a number of times on this blog is from a speech given by professor Seymour Papert, and it goes like this…

“The model that says learn while you’re at school, while you’re young, the skills that you will apply during your lifetime is no longer tenable. The skills that you can learn when you’re at school will not be applicable. They will be obsolete by the time you get into the workplace and need them, except for one skill. The one really competitive skill is the skill of being able to learn. It is the skill of being able not to give the right answer to questions about what you were taught in school, but to make the right response to situations that are outside the scope of what you were taught in school. We need to produce people who know how to act when they’re faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared.”

What I really like about that quote is the idea that it’s not the specific content of what we teach that really matters, but rather the ability to apply general principles to solve entirely new problems.

So when I saw this video it occurred to me that it was an interesting example of how we can never be fully prepared for when the unexpected happens.

I know that the training required to be a pilot is an incredibly rigourous process.  It means learning about aerodynamics, weather, instrument training, plenty of takeoffs and landings and lots of instruction on how to deal with emergencies, but I’m not sure that it includes what to do if your wing falls off! (I don’t know, maybe it does… perhaps if you’re a pilot you can leave a comment and let me know)

So you’re flying along, relying on all those habits you developed back in flight school and the many years of practice you’ve done since then, and suddenly one of the wings comes off and all those things that have always worked for you no longer apply.  The plane plummets towards the ground.  Your mind immediately runs through all the stuff you learned in flight school to find the right response to this situation, but there isn’t one.  The controls no longer responds the way they used to.  The big question now is, can you unlearn what you’ve always known and relearn what you need right now? Can you apply the right general principles to this new situation and respond to this situation for which you were never trained?

I can’t even begin to fathom the composure that must have been required to put that aircraft into knife edge flight, start using the rudder as an elevator and vice versa, and manouvre the thing towards the ground in such a way that it stalls a few metres of the ground and then drop it safely onto the runway. But more importantly, the only way that such a stunt could even be attempted is by a pilot who was able to relearn and instantly adapt to the aircraft’s new behaviours.  To me, this is a perfect example of the sorts of things that Papert was talking about when he said, ” We need to produce people who know how to act when they’re faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared.”

PS: There is a bit of discussion in the comment thread on this video as to whether it was real or not… some say it was faked, some say not.  Lots of accusations of it being a model plane, being done with CGI, although some even said they were there and actually saw it happen. I did some more research and I’m still not convinced it’s fake. This video of a model plane suggests that such a manouvre is feasible.  Either way, the point remains that if it did actually happen, there is no way that a conventional response would have given the pilot a hope in hell.