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they didn’t see it coming

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Alicia Pickering, a Sparknow associate, is working with us on cultural alignment/ethical auditing. Here she writes about empty field myopia, a pilot’s term that applies to any boardroom.

Her article is based on a discussion with her father, Alex Pickering, Victor pilot, instrument rating examiner and in-flight refueling instructor, RAF 1960s. Previously she has written a blog about counterheroism, as part of our thinking on the importance of different points of view.

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One of the many interesting features of the recent financial crisis (and, indeed, those which have gone before) is the element of surprise. It would appear that a diverse range of entities, including governments (Icelandic, British and American to draw three at random) banks, regulators, other financial services institutions and many respected commentators and journalists were apparently unaware of the impending crisis until it broke. They just didn’t see it coming. There were some notable exceptions to this groupthink – but they had to fight hard to be heard and ultimately failed to be heard enough – or by the right people – to avert the crash.

So were there no signals that the banking crisis was brewing? This cannot be true as there were dissenters from the mainstream thinking. Did all of those entities fail to spot the signals? Were they arrogant? Was there too much hubris? Were they willfully blind? Or was something else happening?

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photo | tuchodi

Another world in which crashes are serious – often fatal – is that of aviation.

Two aeroplanes, a Piper and a Cessna, were flying straight and level on a cross-country flight at an altitude of 1500’ AGL… Visibility conditions were seven miles in haze. The two aeroplanes collided almost directly head-on. There were no survivors. (1).

Each pilot just didn’t see the other coming. The analysis of this incident identified “empty field myopia” as a contributory factor in the accident. 

Empty field myopia has been recognised and documented in the field of aviation for over 60 years. It is defined as a condition in which the eyes, having nothing specific within the available visual field upon which to focus, focus automatically at a range of the order of a few metres ahead. Detection of objects outside this restricted field of view is delayed – in the case of the incident quoted above, delayed until it was too late to take evasive action. In other words, it is so difficult for the eye to discern objects in the Big Blue Yonder that it rests on something closer (like the dashboard) instead.

Scanning the horizon for other aircraft is difficult, just as scanning the economic horizon for indications of a brewing crisis is difficult. If there is nothing substantial to focus on, the “eye” (both physical and mental) reverts back to something more comfortable – the dashboard or this month’s profit report. And since this month’s profit report is easier to see and may well require immediate attention, it will get the focus. The issue is not one of recognition – pilots know what aeroplanes look like, senior financiers (presumably) know what a financial crash looks like (it’s not that long since the dotcom bubble (2) burst after all) – it is one of actually spotting it. The problem of empty field myopia is more pronounced with high altitude flying (above 30,000 or 35,000 feet). It would seem that the higher you fly, the harder it is to find the right things on which to focus.

Military pilots are trained to help them overcome the problems of empty filed myopia. Firstly (and arguably most importantly) they are educated that it is a real issue and it does impact them as individual pilots. Every pilot has a responsibility to their crew to take this issue seriously. In the corporate world, the issues of long-term financial stability for individual organisations (far less the financial system as a whole) did not seem to be anyone’s problem. Certainly not that of the CEO, the Director of Finance or the Chairman – arguably the pilots and navigators of their organisations. Indeed,  the UK Parliamentary Commission’s report “Changing Banking for Good” identified a lack of anyone actually taking responsibility for corporate actions at all as a key issue in the current financial crisis (3).

Military pilots are trained to look for secondary signs – condensation trails (contrails), clouds, their own wingtips – anything that forces the eye to focus on something further away than its natural resting position. Indeed, the myopia problem became more pronounced with the introduction of aircraft with swept-back wings, such as the Victor and the Lightning, where the pilot could no longer see their own wing tip when strapped in the cockpit. Forcing the attention of senior staff in banks away from their comfort zone of monthly and quarterly results and onto something further away could be a highly valuable discipline – especially if senior staff can no longer directly see all of that for which they are responsible.

Looking for contrails is especially helpful to pilots since if there is a contrail, there must be an aeroplane. The pilot can calculate where the plane is from the end of the contrail – even if the plane is still not visible. 

Using these types of techniques, military pilots can overcome empty field myopia to the extent that two aircraft can meet, high up in the Big Blue Yonder with extreme accuracy – enough accuracy to enable one to refuel the other. This is possible as pilots are trained to use all possible information from every available source – ground radar, in-aircraft radar, other navigational information, visual clues (for example contrails) and – even – talking to the crew in the other aircraft. Perhaps a better use of information from a wider range of sources in the corporate world might enable some of the known problems to be overcome.

A final thought: accidents do happen, and then there is an official investigation. The investigators of an aircraft accident are cautious – extremely cautious – of evidence provided by the pilot. Pilots, it would appear, interpret what they saw, in particular rejecting what they feel might be unlikely and (sometimes) replacing this with something more likely. Conversely, eye witness evidence from a child would be taken very seriously indeed.  One has to wonder to what extent evidence provided by senior bankers to various investigations and inquiries was interpreted. And whether there might have been more to be gained by interviewing the interns.   

With thanks to Alex Pickering.

further information on empty field myopia

Empty Field Myopia is a reaction of the human eye to having insufficient detail in a field of view upon which to focus. It can be a problem for pilots who don’t maintain a suitable scanning technique when looking for other traffic. This example from a flight training manual explains the issue.

Two aeroplanes, a Piper and a Cessna, were flying straight and level on a cross-country flight at an altitude of 1500’ AGL. Neither aeroplane was under radar contact. Visibility conditions were seven miles in haze. The two aeroplanes collided almost directly head-on. There were no survivors.

Analysis:

  • The haze conditions produced empty-field myopia in both pilots’ eyes. Therefore, each aeroplane appeared smaller and more distant than it actually was. With limited visibility, the danger did not become apparent until it was too late for evasive action.
  • Since the frontal area of the aeroplane profile is small, an aeroplane viewed directly from the front shows little relative movement. Hence, detection by either pilot was difficult.

Transport Canada’s Human Factors For Aviation—Basic Handbook, pp 77–78

A pilot who experiences empty-field myopia is a pilot who is unable to see an aircraft in the distance, despite the unrestricted visibility.

To see something, the lens of the eye must be capable of physically focusing light from the object on the retina. To do this, the eye must be stimulated by an image. If the eye lacks this stimulation, the lens shifts to a resting state some three to five feet away.

When the sky is featureless—as is the case with unrestricted visibility, with hazy conditions, or dark night conditions—you effectively become near-sighted when you look out the windows as your eyes tend to resort to their natural resting state.

To counter empty-field myopia, it is a good practice to focus quite frequently on your own aircraft wing tips. Also, when scanning, focus on distant visible objects or outlines at or near the horizon, stimulating the eyes to establish long-distance focal points.

Consider that a target (another aircraft) on a collision course appears fixed and increasing in size to the observer. Changes in size are difficult to perceive, so a pilot who observes any fixed target should first immediately alter course, then assess its direction.

© Langley Flying School Student reading material

footnotes

(1) From Langley Flying School Student reading material.

(2) Dotcom bubble broadly ran from 1997 – 2000 with the “crash” running 2000 – 2001.

(3) Changing Banking for Good, Vol 1 page 8, Vol 2 paras 94 – 105.

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