A view from Dave Trott: Data can't think
A view from Dave Trott

Data can't think

The Boeing 767 was the most sophisticated airliner of its day.

It had one of the world’s first "glass cockpits".

All the instruments had been replaced with computer screens.

One of the early aircraft in service was Air Canada flight 143.

The captain, Robert Pearson, had 26 years’ experience.

Usually, there was a pilot, a co-pilot and a flight engineer.

But the amount of data on the computer screens meant a flight engineer wasn’t thought necessary on this plane.

The data was on all the screens, so it was foolproof.

Well, not quite.

Canada was changing from the imperial system (gallons and pounds) to the metric system (litres and kilograms).

So everything had to be converted.

Without the flight engineer, this had to be done by the ground crew.

First, they had to convert total litres of fuel needed to kilograms.

Then deduct the number of kilograms already in the plane’s tanks.

Then convert the kilograms back into additional litres needed.

A trained flight engineer could have done it easily.

But the ground crew confused the litre conversion figure for pounds (1.77) with kilograms (0.8).

This resulted in just 5,000 litres being pumped on-board, but a combined total of 20,000 litres entered into the computer.

The pilot thought he had double the 10,000 litres needed for his flight.

In fact, he had half.

The 767 was flying at 40,000 feet when they ran out of fuel.

Both engines died.

When the engines died, so did all the computers.

All the sophisticated data now became useless blank screens.

The most sophisticated airliner of its day now had as much data as a wood-and-fabric glider.

Which, as it happened, was the only fortunate part.

Because Captain Pearson was also a glider pilot – it was his hobby.

He flew the little Piper Cubs that towed gliders into the air.

And now Captain Pearson had to glide a 100-ton brick into an emergency landing at an abandoned airbase.

As they approached, the 767 was way too fast, but he didn’t have any flaps or air brakes to slow it down.

So he used a manoeuvre airline pilots aren’t taught: the forward slip.

Something he used on the little glider-tug.

Captain Pearson said: "After releasing a glider, I would have this long line hanging under the plane, and I had to be careful not to snag it on the farmer’s fence as I approached the runway. So I would stay high until I cleared the fence and then I did a steep slip to make the landing." 

And that’s what he did with Air Canada flight 143.

And all his passengers and crew walked away from the landing.

It wasn’t the banks of computers that saved all 69 lives on-board.

It wasn’t access to massive amounts of data and technology.

Because none of that worked.

It was simple, old-fashioned, seat-of-the-pants experience.

That’s a lesson marketers need to learn.

When you choose an agency, you’re not guaranteed a better result because they’ve got more technology and more data.

Your best bet is always people with brains and experience.

It’s never about technology and data, it’s always about people. 

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.