Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Tragedy of Routine

Services like Flightradar24 and Flight Aware track thousands of flights every day. The sheer number of flights is equalled only by their mundanity. Humans have conquered the sky; travelling close to the speed of sound at 38,000ft is a routine exercise barely given a second thought by most.

But when this hum-drum routine of almost fantastical logistical tedium is interrupted, the results are rarely pleasant. Yesterday, Germanwings flight 4U9525 was another routine blip on the radar, with a departure and destination: BCN–DUS.

At DUS, it had an arrival gate: Gate 2A. Family and friends waiting, the machinery of the airport whirring seen and unseen all around. Arrivals, departures, luggage conveyers, coffee carts.

As we now know, that flight never made its gate at DUS. For some reason, somehow, in this age of routine (and tedious) air travel, 4U9525 rapidly lost altitude over the course of 8 minutes. Pilots in these cases are trained to aviate, navigate and communicate. At this time, we don't know how many (if any) of these tasks the pilots were able to accomplish.

The wreckage of the aircraft now lies strewn across the French alps, torn to pieces by the force of impact. The sheer force of this impact is almost impossible to comprehend. Schooled by Michael Bay et al. in the laws of physics, we assume forces to be far weaker than they actually are, with lucky protagonists able to survive accidents and disasters that would tear normal people asunder.

It's times like these I marvel at the wonder of flight, about the tens of thousands of people transported in safety every single day to the far corners of the globe. Like with every incident since the dawn of civil aviation, I know the investigators and regulatory bodies will learn something from this tragedy. That is about the only solace that can be taken by the bereaved friends and relatives who will be looking for purpose in the mayhem.

Looking at the density of European airspace, the wonder isn't that events like this occur, but that they do not occur more frequently.