Sunday, April 13, 2008

What Are the Chances ?

You never know where inspiration for an article will come from. This morning, I was reaching for my headphones to listen to some music. The cord snagged on my spare reading glasses. They fell off the table and hit the on/off switch on the surge protector/power strip. Poof ! I’m in the dark because the lamp was plugged into the same power strip.

Fortunately, I use a laptop and the light from it allowed me to figure out what had happened. But not before I had the uncomfortable feeling that I’d been in this situation before. More than once actually.

I can’t think of a worse feeling in the world than sitting in front of a radar scope and suddenly -- Poof ! -- you’re in the dark. Just like this morning, you’re never ready for it. It’s always a surprise. And when you’ve got a scope full of airplanes, the little momentary panic can turn into a huge surge of adrenaline.

In the aftermath of one such occasion, the story (I have no idea if it was accurate) of how it happened came back to the control room floor. When the FAA’s mainframe computer was installed, it had an emergency shutoff switch. On a previous occasion, someone had accidentally pressed the switch, killing the computer feeding data to the controller’s radar scopes. Obviously, this was unacceptable so just as obviously, the FAA installed a protective cover on the switch and -- for good measure -- put a lock on it. Problem solved. You’d have to use the key and lift the cover to hit the switch. No more accidental computer shut downs. Well, until the light went out.

One of the janitors went into the computer room to change the light bulb. He carried his ladder over to the overhead light, climbed the ladder and promptly fell off. The ladder tipped over, smashing the protective cover, hitting the emergency shut off switch and -- Poof ! -- about a gallon of adrenaline was pumped into the hearts of a hundred controllers handling a thousand airplanes.

What are the chances ?

Don Brown
April 13, 2008

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