On July 7, 2017, Air Canada Flight 759 from Toronto, an Airbus A320, made what the pilots thought was a routine approach to Runway 28 Right at San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Moments before touchdown, at an altitude of merely 59 feet, they abruptly pulled up attempting a go-around for another landing approach to avoid four fully loaded aircraft on the ground almost immediately in front of them.
By the smallest of margins, they cleared the other aircraft, narrowly avoiding what could have been the worst disaster in aviation history.
The pilots were highly qualified and experienced. The Captain, who was flying the plane, had logged over 20,000 hours. The co-pilot had nearly 10,000 hours of flying time. Nevertheless, while on approach for landing, they lined up on the taxiway instead of the runway next to it. Four aircraft occupied the taxiway while awaiting clearance to use the runway for take-off. Without executing the last-minute go-around maneuver, Flight 759 would have crashed into the four aircraft immediately in front of it as it approached to land on the taxiway.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators have not yet determined the probable cause of this incident. The NTSB reported the Air Canada pilots indicated “…they did not recall seeing aircraft on the taxiway but that something did not look right to them.”
Looking Without Seeing: Inattentional Blindness
Neuroscientists would refer to this Air Canada incident as an example of inattentional blindness (IB). IB is a failure to see objects while our attention is attracted elsewhere, even if they are in our direct line of sight and clearly visible.
Although the definition of IB may not be intuitive, its validity is supported by empirical evidence. For example, Mack and Rock (1998) have concluded from their study “…there seems to be no conscious perception without attention.” In an earlier well-known experiment (Neisser 1979) participants viewed a video of two groups of basketball players. One group was dressed in black uniforms. The other group was dressed in white uniforms. The players in each group were passing a ball among themselves. The researchers told the participants to count the number of passes between the members of one of the groups. The researchers also arranged for a woman carrying an open umbrella to walk through the basketball court while the groups were passing the balls. At the end of the experiment the participants were surveyed, and only 21% of them noticed the woman with the umbrella walk on the court, while they were performing the counting task the researchers assigned to attract their attention.
The pilots of Flight 759 certainly could have experienced IB by having their attention attracted elsewhere. In preparation for landing at SFO, they had to transition 142,000 pounds of aircraft from an altitude of over 30,000 feet and an indicated air speed of over 500 mph to 1,000 feet altitude traveling at 155 mph. This occurred over a relatively short period while they were also complying with heading and altitude directions from Oakland Center (a regional area control center) for sequencing and separation and also were handed off by Oakland Center to the SFO control tower for landing.
There is much still to be determined about the events surrounding the Flight 759 incident. The NTSB won’t complete their investigation for some time. They may find deficiencies in the performance of one or both pilots, or in the training they received, or in a myriad of other flight related matters.
Likewise, the NTSB may find the pilots should not be criticized for their performance, except for being human. If this is the outcome of their investigation, the NTSB would likely seek aviation industry-wide remedial action of some sort to reduce the probability of similar incidents in the future. The “…except for being human.” part would be a conclusion that inattentional blindness was at least a contributory factor, if not the sole or principal cause of the pilots “looking without seeing.”
Whether or not the pilots were indeed looking without seeing, their comment (“…something did not look right…”) reported by the NTSB suggests they were also “seeing without looking.” This would be an example of unconscious perception, which could have primed them for an immediacy of action the instant the need to pull up and go around was recognized. This is speculation, of course, but that may have contributed to the narrow margin by which they avoided disaster.
The ability of “seeing without looking” is a powerful capacity at the core of syntheney, and a source of problem solving and creativity available to all of us.
Seeing Without Looking
Researchers estimate our brains have the conscious ability to process 120 bits of information per second. This is the limit of what we can pay conscious attention to at any one time. For example, understanding two people speaking simultaneously to you would consume nearly all of your conscious processing capacity. Ordinarily, you would not be able to understand a third simultaneous speaker at all.
With this limit how can our brains handle the myriad of remaining responsibilities that are essential to our physical reproduction, growth, and maintenance of life, to our survival in environments of external threats, to maintaining our memories, to enabling our relationships and all other aspects of our human identity? All of this falls largely within the domain of unconscious-processing, the default for times our conscious processing capacity is consumed.
The Processing Capacity Of Our Brains
As we learn in “Who’s In Charge?” by Michael Gazzaniga Ph.D., Psychobiology, “The human brain has on average 86 billion neurons, but 69 billion of them are located in the cerebellum, that small structure at the back of the brain that helps refine motor control. The entire cortex, the area that we think is responsible for human thought and culture, has only 17 billion, and the rest of the brain has a little less than one billion.”
Dr. Gazzaniga estimates we experience consciously as little as 2% of this processing capacity, with the remaining 98% devoted to unconscious processing. Other neuroscientists have calculated we experience consciously as much as 5% of our brain processing capacity with the remaining 95% devoted to unconscious processing. Whatever future research might establish as the “final” percentage, there is a clear consensus today that an overwhelmingly vast percentage of our brain processing activity is entirely unconscious.
Considerable research indicates events we do not consciously perceive when they occur may still influence our behavior through unconscious perception. Even when we are inattentive, we still unconsciously record input from basic perceptual processes such as vision and hearing. This includes stimuli that never captures our attention and that we never had any intention of pursuing.
“If We Did All Of The Things We Are Capable Of Doing, We Would Literally Astound Ourselves” Thomas Edison
The Air Canada pilots on Flight 759 most probably were looking without seeing as they approached for landing. If so, even with their conscious perception overwhelmed, the power of their unconscious perception took over enabling them to recover in time to avoid an unimaginable disaster.
That degree of insight is available to all of us. It is how we are wired. To see how to access this natural capacity for syntheney visit our posting Not All Wandering Minds Are Lost, and prepare to astound yourself.