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earFlight AF447 was a commercial Air France flight which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean just after 2am on 1 June 2009 en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, killing all 216 passengers and 12 aircrew. The final report established that the accident process began with the formation at high altitude of ice crystals in the pitot tubes, which are devices attached to the fuselage and which send air pressure information to computers which then calculate the plane’s airspeed. These crystals and the conflicting information they were sending resulted in the computers becoming confused and sending erroneous and contradictory speed indications to the pilots, whose reactions consequently became confused. This was compounded by the fact that they were flying in total darkness and with no spatial references, that which can easily lead to spatial disorientation.

So confused were the computers that they then sent out all kinds of conflicting warning signals to the pilots not only about speed, but about other flight parameters too. They began to shut down one by one because they could no longer handle all the data incompatibilities, and the pilots had become so totally overwhelmed by all the information that they lost effective control over the aircraft. The report found that the pilots had been insufficiently trained to deal with this particular situation and thus took hands-on piloting decisions which led to the plane crashing into the ocean.

I was talking to a friend earlier today who is getting over a bout of a relatively rare condition called Vestibular neuronitis. Now I’m no expert on this condition so I’ll let Wikipedia do the talking for me.

Vestibular neuronitis, also called Vestibular neuritis, can be a paroxysmal, single attack of vertigo, a series of attacks, or a persistent condition which diminishes over three to six weeks. It is a type of unilateral vestibular dysfunction and may be associated with nausea, vomiting, and previous upper respiratory tract infections. It generally has no auditory symptoms, unlike labyrinthitis. Vestibular neuronitis may also be associated with eye nystagmus. […] It appears to be caused by an imbalance of neuronal input between the left and right inner ears.[2]

Well, if they say so… Anyway, she was telling me how weird it was to suddenly lose her balance and not know where she was spatially, which meant that when it was at its worst she couldn’t even stand up, and if she was standing up she either had to sit down immediately or she would simply fall to the floor. She said that her doctor told her that the imbalance is caused by a kind of ‘crystal’ type material forming and falling off the vestibular nerve, which results in erroneous information being sent to the brain.

So she, who is French and thus quite familiar with some of the broader details of the AF447 disaster, said;

“I was like AF447. The crystals meant false data was sent to my brain’s computers, which couldn’t sort it all out and give me a clear picture of where I was so I made bad decisions about how to stay standing up, they didn’t work, so I just lost control and fell.”

Now I know that the families of the victims of the disaster wouldn’t appreciate her amusingly off-the-wall comparison, and I am also aware that the Supreme Court of Politically Correct Humour would find her guilty of bad taste and insulting the victims of a tragedy before sending her off to the Goulag.

Still, as a Brit who loves dark humour, unlikely and imaginative parallels and unlikely metaphors I found her description of her condition to be rather amusing. But it was more than that. It was also a very effective way of making me understand what she had experienced.

What do you think?