Monday, July 17, 2006

Kananaskis and the Raytheon Beechcraft 1900

I'm back from holiday. We spent a lovely week in the Rockies followed by a few days visiting family in Lethbridge. There's a lot to be said for Southern Alberta: sun, wind, and a noticeable lack of humidity. The mountains around Kananaskis are, of course, beautiful. I was very fortunate. Claire was speaking at a conference; Finn and I were just loafing.

One of the most remarkable parts of the trip was the flight from Calgary to Lethbridge. I had seat 1a on a Beechcraft 1900. Although limited in leg room, 1a provides a very good view of the cockpit controls. Viewing those controls--and the pilots' interaction with them--I began to feel very claustrophobic: not from the Beechcraft (which is very small) but from the awareness of the huge techno-cultural ensemble that enables the craft to fly.

The controls themselves are amazingly complicated. Viewing the actions of the pilots, I realized that their knowledge is largely performative and supported by the affordances of the devices arrayed before them. It was amazing to watch the way they caressed particular levers while gazing into various occult dials.

I remember watching some movie where the pilots of a large airliner are somehow overcome and the stewards ask if their are any pilots among the passengers. A kid who has spent hundreds of hours on a computer flight simulator comes forward and is able to land the plane. After watching the pilots, I realize that this movie fantasy is complete bullshit.

The controls themselves aren't the only element of the complex ensemble. I suddenly became aware of all sorts of questions: how were the controls designed? How was the plane designed? How were the pilots trained? How did all of their various charts, graphs, and reports become standardized? What about the laws and regulations that guided their behaviour? The plane itself was a marvel. What kind of structures were required to actually build the plane, never mind the everyday tasks of cleaning, fueling, and maintaining it. What processes are in place to ensure that aircraft have such a good safety record? What about airports, those supremely complicated engineered structures of activity? Even the financing must be complicated, both for the construction and maintenance of airports and for the development and leasing of aircraft.

And there I was, cruising at 13,000 feet, suddenly very aware of the very tenuous web that enables that Beechcraft to fly.