Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Arrival, the Movie: Helicopter notes

Enjoyed Arrival a great deal. Without giving anything away, here's my review of the helicopter in its supporting role in the first act. 
One of the trailers is here: 

As in the first act of numerous other action and suspense movies (such as Cliffhanger), a helicopter arrives with much ado to pick up the protagonist, played by Amy Adams. A helicopter in the front yard quickly establishes that this character is critical to resolving whatever conflict is looming. In the world of TV Tropes this falls under the category of surprise vehicle.

It's the civilian version of the sturdy Sikorsky H-3 model, an S-61 without the outboard sponsons that offshore models use. Here are the characters standing in front of it, upon arrival in the principal setting of Arrival.

Cabin noise: Arrival is one of the few movies I've seen that conveys the fact that it's very hard to talk with somebody inside a helicopter cabin and impossible if the other person isn't very close. That's why passengers wear headsets. With the exception of heavily-insulated VIP models, riding in a helo isn't like riding in an airliner. Here's a Richistan-review of the VIP version of the Sikorsky S-92: 

Range: Under normal circumstances helicopters aren't used for trips over 150 to 200 miles, so we're left to think that her lakeside house is within this distance.

Helmets: Every time I've ridden in a federally funded helicopter (as this one is supposed to be), it's been a no-exceptions rule that I had to wear a flight helmet. The reason is crash survival. Helmets are always good in a crash, and particularly important for anybody at the front or back of the machine. In a vertical crash the rotor blades can bend down so much they smash through the cabin at head level. Typically these carry a heavy weight at the tip, so the blades make good battering rams. 

Landing zone precautions: Not shown, but civilian helicopter crews who value their lives will dispatch an advance team whenever planning to land in a built-up area. This is critical for night landings. Before the helicopter approaches, these people scout for wires, trees, poles, and other obstructions, and mark a safe landing zone with strobes. They keep bystanders back and stay on the radio. Once the helo is down, they guard the tail rotor. Here's info on that. 

Rotor and turbine noise in landing zone: Seemed accurate. Medium and heavy transports make a tremendous racket close to the ground.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

WikiLeaks, Casting a Wide Net

My name's in WikiLeaks too ... My article on the Hughes 500P "Quiet One" stealth helicopter, built for a 1972 CIA wiretapping mission into North Vietnam, was copied into an email by a Stratfor guy. This was part of chatter about the stealth MH-60 used in the Bin Laden raid. 

Here's the WikiLeaks link:

Here's the article as it appeared in Air&Space:

Here's one of the photos that Shep Johnson sent me, showing the ship parked at the secret base in Laos:

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Fellowship of the Ring Finger: Safety tips from an oil-rig medic

I'm not a big follower of celebrity news, but Lindsay Lohan did a service by letting people know about a severe finger injury during a boating expedition. Apparently one of her rings snagged as the anchor line ran out, injuring a digit. It might make help people more careful. 

The word for the injury that can happen when a ring snags is avulsion. Think of eating a corn dog on a stick – the corn dog slides off the stick bite by bite. Among other celebrity-ring-finger sufferers are Jimmy Fallon and soccer star Kevin McHugh.

Prevention is a lot better than relying on surgery to make it right. I saw the prevention mindset in action minutes after I landed on a Transocean deepwater drillship far out in the Gulf of Mexico called Discoverer Enterprise for a magazine article. I spent four days watching the drilling and completion of a deepwater well for BP. It was an impressive vessel, with two drilling rigs:

As a first-time visitor, my first job upon leaving the helideck was to grab my gear and sit down with the ship's medic for a safety briefing, which I figured would cover just a few basics like my lifeboat station.

The medic did that, but there was a good deal more. He started by showing me around the clinic, which looked impressive enough, then made this case: “But this isn't for surgery and I'm not an MD. If you get seriously hurt out here it'll take at least four hours for a copter to come and fly you to a hospital, so you've got to watch out for yourself.”

He was not only persuasive, he was persistent. For one thing, he insisted I remove my wedding ring. I pointed out that the only time before that I'd tried to get it off, it wouldn't budge past the first knuckle. (That was before going up the the gantry at Cape Kennedy's Vertical Assembly Building to take a look at the Columbia. The main reason for this was NASA's worry about jewelry or other loose objects falling from visitors onto the delicate tiles. My NASA minder had accepted that removal of my ring was impractical, and had been satisfied with wrapping some tape around my ring finger.

Not good enough, the Discoverer Enterprise medic said. This was a working drill rig with a lot of moving parts, big ones, and a ring was an accident waiting to happen: it could catch on something and tear my finger off, or electrocute me if I closed an open circuit with it.

(Apparently he hadn't given much credit to the plot of Abyss, where a wedding ring is a lifesaver, not a life-taker: in the movie, the character played by Ed Harris saves himself from drowning in his undersea drilling rig by jamming his wedding ring into a bulkhead door before it closes, giving rescuers a chance to force it open.)

So the medic showed me how to get around the knuckle problem by wrapping the joint with waxed flossing string. That compressed it enough to let me work the ring off in good order.

Here's another tip he taught me, which I use daily: He said one of the most avoidable accidents he sees on board oil rigs is to fall down the stairs. It's easy to do, he said, because the stairs on ships are steep and made of metal, and tend to be slippery, given that everybody is wearing boots and the surfaces collect moisture.

“Just keep a hand on damn handrail, and you'll be okay,” he said. I did, and still do.  

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Hold the High Ground: Helicopter war at the top of the world

Watching this week's fighting across the Line of Control that separates the forces of Pakistan and India in Kashmir reminded me to post another excerpt from my book on the social history of helicopters, The God Machine. The section is about how helicopters participated in one of the more obscure exchanges of fire between the two countries, and it also concerned Kashmir. 

Note on this week's headlines: while there have been many high-stress moments between the two nations (such as after the attack on India's Parliament, or the massacre at Mumbai), the latest fighting has real potential to grow beyond anything we've seen in SE Asia so far, because there seems to be a feeling that the presence of nuclear weapons on the opponent's side shouldn't be a deterrent to escalation. It's a flashpoint that popped up when I was researching my article on the history of DEFCON alerts. 


Starting in 1984, a unique helicopter war took shape across the Karakoram Range. Called the Siachen Conflict, it lasted almost two decades, and was highest-altitude war in history.

The dispute dated to 1949 and a disagreement over the exact course of the India-Pakistan border where it passed through the old kingdom of Kashmir. The disagreement was academic until an Indian Army officer noticed in 1977 that the Pakistanis were issuing permits for mountaineering parties to climb certain high mountains that India claimed. A race was on to control the Siachen Glacier and three high passes. At 50 miles long and two miles wide, the Siachen was one of the world’s largest glaciers outside of the polar regions.

In a secret mission called Operation Cloud Messenger, the Indian Army used helicopters to reach the high ground first, in April 1984. Indian troops planted fiberglass igloos at altitudes as high as 22,000 feet in the Saltoro Range forming the west rim of the glacier.

Most of the fighting was conducted with cannons and mortars, which fired any time that the weather was clear enough to pick out a target. Indian Mi-8 helicopters brought light cannons to 17,000 feet and troops dragged the hardware the rest of the way, a few agonizing feet at a time. While the lower-altitude Pakistanis could depend on trucks and pack animals, Indian forces were totally dependent on helicopters for the last stage of their supply chain, and for lifting out hundreds of men debilitated by the conditions.

The machine of choice was the Aerospatiale Lama, along with an Indian-manufactured version called the Cheetah. For almost 20 years, each side attempted to leapfrog the other, looking for gun emplacements that could shell but not be shelled in return. One solution: the high-altitude helicopter raid. 

In April 1989 a Lama helicopter carried a squad of Pakistani troops one at a time and dropped them onto a saddle-shaped ridge at Chumik Pass, altitude 22,100 feet, allowing them to sneak up on an Indian post. 

The high-altitude war ended with a cease-fire in 2003.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Gunfights of the Old West: Not always cinematic

Occasionally trends in movie-making catch my interest. Not many studios make Western movies now, but two are in the theaters, a remake of The Magnificent Seven and something called Stagecoach

This return to the Western genre prompted me to think about a relative, an ex-guerrilla fighter of the Civil War named James J. Chiles. I knew Chiles died of gunshot wounds during a fight with a deputy marshal in downtown Independence, Missouri, in 1873. I knew the town had quite a reputation for violence at the time. Being just east of the Missouri River Independence was not the Wild West, but Wild Midwest.

And I knew James Chiles had a long and bloody record. He killed one man before the war and at least four people in fights following the Civil War. He certainly killed a lot more men during the war, because he rode with the rebel bands led by William Quantrill and “Bloody Bill” Anderson. He joined in the murderous raid on Lawrence, Kansas, which attempted to shoot down every able-bodied man in the Jayhawker stronghold. Chiles must have been comfortable with guns, lots of them: a typical horseman in Quantrill's group carried six revolvers and a carbine.

Here's a picture of Chiles taken during the war:

My great-great aunts were furious when my parents gave me the first name James, but my folks figured enough years had passed to let it go. Or maybe it was acknowledgment that for all his faults, Chiles was bigger than life. He was on a first name basis with Wild Bill Hickok and Frank and Jesse James. Harry Truman thought enough of him to note that James Chiles was his uncle by marriage. The character "Jack Bull Chiles" in Ang Lee's movie Ride with the Devil is based on James Chiles.

So ... did Chiles's death scene in Independence measure up to what we expect from Western downtown-showdowns? Local papers called him a "noted desperado," after all. First, the odds are against the fight being on an epic scale. There were surprisingly few movie-worthy street battles in all the decades of the real West, and even fewer walk-down duels. Among the authentic battles were the shootout at the OK Corral, the Lincoln County War, and a string of fights about county seats.

These are way outnumbered by fictional face-to-face shootouts, such as those featured in the two Magnificent Seven movies, Clint Eastwood's westerns, High Noon, The Wild Bunch, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Open Range, and heaps of others,

Chiles's death by gunfire was tragic but hardly epic. The newspaper reports don't agree on everything that happened on Sunday, September 21, 1873, but events certainly came quickly:

That afternoon Chiles was upset with a town deputy marshal named James Peacock, and he found Peacock and his son on a sidewalk in the town square. (The reason isn't clear but might have gone back to when Chiles was a lawman himself. Chiles owned a saloon called The Headquarters at this time.)

Chiles had his own son, named Elijah, with him. Chiles walked up to Peacock and slapped the deputy. Peacock struck back and as usually happens in real fights, the men lost their balance and fell to the boardwalk, grappling. 

It might have ended there except Chiles' son Elijah saw a revolver fall out of Chiles' pocket as the men separated and started to gain their feet. Elijah grabbed the gun and shot the deputy in the back, wounding him but not critically.

Peacock drew his own gun and shot James Chiles in the forehead, killing him instantly. Peacock's son Charles found another gun and shot Elijah Chiles, who died soon after.  Another shot winged the city marshal as he arrived. 

By Western standards Chiles probably would have been cast as one of the villains in a black hat, one who falls in the last scene, so perhaps he measured up to some of the fictional standard after all. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Powerful Machines Need Finesse

Last week I saw a set of land-clearing machines munch their way across a triangular vacant lot in less than a day. I'd heard about such equipment but had never had a chance to see them close up. 

Basically, the first machine (the feller-buncher) cuts down trees; a second machine, the skidder, drags the timber to a staging area; and a third machine, a tracked excavator with a grabber attachment, feeds the maw of a fourth machine, the horizontal grinder. The grinder shoots the chips into a semi-trailer. 

Later in the day, two more tracked machines went over the ground to prepare for parking-lot work: a stump-grinder and a mulcher.

The feller-buncher looks similar to a trackhoe, but at the end of its boom it has a hydraulic attachment with a really big circular saw and a gripper. The operator rotates and tilts the attachment to align with a trunk or branch, and pushes in the saw blade. Using the gripper above the saw, he can hold on to the newly-cut section to set it into a pile, or can push it over to land on the other side. 

Here's a view of the feller-buncher at work:

A newbie operator would be well-advised to watch a seasoned one at work, before taking the controls. A good operator learns more than how to handle the many levers; he or she needs to learn safety and economy of motion. Feller-bunchers can cost well over a quarter-million dollars and a careless operator can cause a lot of damage to the machine, nearby people, and structures. One challenge is that the feller-buncher is always working around stumps, which can damage the undercarriage or throw it off balance at a bad time.

While the machine is capable of taking down a big tree with a single saw-cut, instead this operator took down big and even medium-sized trees one bite at a time. This avoids overloading the feller-buncher and saves the skidder operator a lot of time in gathering up the felled timber. 

See this time-lapse of the feller-buncher, spanning less than an hour of equipment time:

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Exit Strategy

Operating a tracked skid-steer machine recently, gathering trees into piles, reminded me of a subject that gets too little attention: the exit strategy. 

The Cat model I was using is fully glass-enclosed, including heavy mesh guarding the side windows. It has a lot of safety features that make sense, many of which are aimed at preventing the operator from getting crushed.

It's front-entry, with a door that will open only if the lift arms have put the tool on the ground, level and lowered. That's because the loader bucket on the lift arms will block the door from opening more than a few inches if the controls haven't put the tool in a fully level and lowered position. 

And many emergencies might kill the engine in use, and keep the lift arms from reaching the rest position: sliding down a slope, or rolling over in a creek, or an engine fire. 

How to get out? There's an "egress window" behind the operator's seat, which can be dislodged by tugging on a lanyard. While much smaller than the door, it's big enough for an operator to slip out. In case of a fuel fire, which could put a wall of flame across the rear exit path, I'd be inclined to smash the front window and get out that way.  

A concept that stuck with me in the sinking-helicopter escape class was the need to look at escape options immediately on entering a helicopter, an airliner, or a building: meaning, before any sign of emergency. Once things start to go wrong, there probably won't be time. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Call to Adventure: When pax have to land the plane

If you've earned any kind of pilot's license, even the simplest single-engine-land license like me, you've probably thought about what you might do if called on to land a plane on which you're riding. It doesn't happen often (fortunately) but there are cases. Most common is when someone has to take the controls of a light plane after his or her spouse is out of action. But what about an airliner?

In December 2014 United Airlines passenger Mark Gongol heard such a call, because the aircraft commander had suffered a heart attack and was out of action. Gongol went forward and explained to the first officer that he had plenty of experience on Air Force jets. He helped her divert for a landing by operating the radios and acting as a backup. 

But what if both pilots are out of action, and there's no jet-rated pilot in coach or first class? Here's an interesting Quora answer, explaining how a steely-nerved passenger could land a late-model B737 in an emergency, with guidance from air traffic control:

While researching aerospace articles over the years, working with instructors in professional-quality training simulators, I've sampled a variety of jet-powered aircraft, and it was humbling!

One adventure was trying to land a simulated 737 at then-National Airport in Washington. I finally made it, but only after much assistance from a seasoned instructor. He handled the throttles so I could concentrate on the yoke, flaps, and rudder pedals, but it was still quite difficult; a critical skill turned out to be using the trim switches on the yoke. A later challenge was lining up a B-2 bomber with the refueling boom behind a KC-10 air tanker. (That simulator facility at Whiteman AFB had the strictest security precautions of any military installation I've visited, BTW.)

My takeaway: there's no substitute for small, well-timed inputs.  In the 737, the aircraft and its engines responded slowly to control changes, so it was easy to fall behind ... and fall to the ground. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

How to Park That Crane, Continued

Updating my post on the fatal crane mishap in Lower Manhattan last week ... 

The city has confirmed that the model was a Liebherr LR1300. Reporters at one of the city's press conferences asked if that meant the crane weighed 300 tons, or could lift that much; the answer is that in Liebherr's model numbers the "300" refers to the maximum hoist capacity under ideal conditions, meaning a short boom held at a high angle. It doesn't apply to the way the crane was rigged on Broadway and Worth Street, with a boom and a jib long enough to hoist HVAC gear to the top of a tall building. Here's the laydown zone (photo, FDNY):

Newsday did a good piece with interviews of crane experts on factors that investigators from the city's Department of Buildings will be checking ... things like, what operators should do to reduce the risk that a crane will overturn when lowering the boom and jib. And it may be that local wind-tunnel effects also played a role.

The proper procedure when weather-safing a long boom and jib is for the operator to run out the winch and set the hook block on the ground while the boom is still at a high angle. 

Doing that eliminates a big weight that would otherwise be hanging at the end of a very long arm as the operator lowers the structure to the street. That's a lot of leverage. 

Further, say the experts, the next smart practice is to lower the luffing jib (the smaller lattice structure at the end of the boom) into a vertical position, and only then lower the boom until the tip of the jib touches the street. The terminology makes more sense when looking at the diagram I did after the crane-overturning disaster last September in Saudi Arabia. The Liebherr that fell in KSA was a good deal bigger than the one that fell in New York, and it fell backward rather than forward, but from what I read, it had the same general rigging:

As with lowering the hook block to the street, lowering the jib goes far to reduce the crane's tendency to overturn. 

These two steps are particularly important when the crane lacks a trailer-mounted stack of counterweights. 

Due to the fatality the city's Department of Investigations will issue a report in months to come. 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Another Large Crane Mishap, NYC

About the fatal crane accident in lower Manhattan yesterday, which happened while the operator was lowering the crane boom and jib to reduce toppling risks from a rising wind ...  From the sparse photos, this unit looks like a Liebherr LR1300, which wouldn't be counted as a supercrane. The crane was rigged for a long reach and light pick.

It was carrying a lot of mast and jib, 565 feet of it according to reports, but it must have handled such a dead load before, since crews had put the sections together on the ground, after which the operator raised it to position. 

Given that the car body flipped over on its back, I'd guess that the luffing cables didn't snap; that is, the falling mast and jib dragged the car body over on its back, with the rising counterweights providing the momentum. 

Some things the NYC investigators will look at: was there extra weight on the hook, mast, or jib that would have overbalanced it; did the pavement collapse under the front of the tracks? I assume that the crane had been sitting on timber mats, but I can't tell from the photos, which show the crane after it overturned. Mats are important to keeping big cranes upright. 

Kudos to news reporters that call this a tip-over rather than a collapse. When a structure falls intact, as this crane apparently did, I wouldn't call that a collapse. 

Second note to reporters: nearly all the photos posted are of the mast and jib in the lay-down zone. Yes, these tell us the tragic damage such a machine can cause, but it doesn't convey much information compared to a close look at the car body, undercarriage, counterweights, crane mats, and hoist rigging. 

Terminology for big crawler cranes like this is available in my post about the crane tip-over near the Grand Mosque at Makkah.

Also, here's a reposting of my item "How to Park Your Super-Crane," fixing a broken photo link.  

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Institutional Memory and the Silver Tsunami, Part 2

How to forge a long-lasting, collective memory that leads to safer operations? That's the subject of this followup post to Part 1.

Physical markers can be valuable memory aids. Old stone monuments on hillsides in Japan, erected following long-ago tsunami, warn those who look for them (photo, CBS News): 

Even better are functional monuments, like this building in Banda Aceh that held up against the 2004 event (photo, Daily Telegraph):

Even temporary markers like lockout tags save lives if in conjunction with physical barriers like locks that prevent a valve wheel from being turned, or a blind being unbolted.

The New London explosion – the worst school catastrophe in US history – illustrates the most costly method to build a memory: high-profile, landmark cases that resonates strongly with the public and lawmakers. Soon after, laws were passed requiring odorants in natural gas for sale, and the registration of professional engineers. Also influential were the gas leak at Bhopal, the collapse of the Quebec Bridge in 1907, the Chernobyl reactor explosion, and the Northeast Blackout of 1965.

But even the most vivid memories fade, and the ranks turn over. How to keep them fresh? On July 6, 1988, Steve Rae was an electrical technician aboard the Piper Alpha rig at the time a chain of mistakes led to a natural-gas leak from a high-pressure pipe. 

The chain of events promptly killed 167 men. Twenty years later he took the podium in front of 130 students at a petroleum technician's school to relive the day, its aftermath, and its costly lessons like the importance of a safety-case approach to prevention. "I attended three funerals on the same day,” he told the newly minted graduates, “and that will never leave me.”

Assuming that institutional memory is important, we have to consider this tough question: Will it always make the critical difference? Not alone, it won't. The loss of Challenger seared across NASA and its contractors and made another solid-rocket booster failure very unlikely, it didn't prevent the loss of Columbia seventeen years later.

A common objection to proposals that would fire up a major effort to gather and preserve an institutional memory is that the effort will drain thousands of hours of otherwise productive time, in additional to consultant costs. And once it's done, who'll have the time to go through a mass of recollections that seems less relevant by the year? Won't the competition take advantage of our hard-won knowledge? That's short-sighted, according to Trevor Kletz: “If we tell other people about our accidents, then in return they may tell us about theirs, and we shall be able to prevent them from happening to us.”

I think two broad types of collective memory are achievable and worthwhile in high-risk industries, each in its way. And they don't have to be a time-burner.

The two types are motivational memory and working memory.

A motivational memory is less about technical details and more about remembering the need to work cooperatively and safely. 

Why do newly graduating structural engineers in Canada join in the ritual of the Iron Ring? It's not a refresher on statics and dynamics, it's a reminder that people die in collapses if experts don't sweat the details. Jack Gillum has given speeches about the catastrophic collapse of walkways at Kansas City's Hyatt Regency Hotel in 1981. Gillum, as the engineer of record, was found negligent in not catching a fatal flaw in revised shop drawings. He lost his Missouri license over it and 114 people lost their lives that night. Many more were injured in the collapse. A firefighter had to perform an amputation with a chain saw. I heard Gillum speak at an engineers' forensic convention fourteen years ago, and what he said that day remains with me. Further, I believe that when employees are injured on the job, managers who controlled the job site are obligated to visit them in the hospital, and attend funerals too.

Working memory: rather than taking aside all employees for long recorded interviews as they approach retirement, consider strengthening the day to day, functional memory as held in the minds of high-performance teams. Confronted with the need to design a new line of cars from scratch, Chrysler split the job among one hundred “tech-clubs,” each responsible for a key component or assembly. By forcing early companionship between design engineers, marketers and suppliers, Chrysler found it could speed development and cut costs. One advantage of a team approach is that expertise is broadly distributed, lowering the risk that a single employee's departure could cripple a critical operation. At its best, that's how the American military works, putting hugely consequential decisions in young hands, mentored by old hands.

Another argument for taking a team approach is that a team is, or can be, much more than the sum of its parts. According to psychologists who study memory formation both individual and collective, people remember an incident most vividly if they've participated in a group that discussed it afterward. Safety-oriented tailgate talks at jobsites are a good time to bring up lessons learned, fresh off the docket.

Group discussions about accidents and close calls also build up the motivational memory. Through such discussions, even people who weren't at the scene of an explosion feel the emotional impact, and it inspires them to go the extra kilometer. As Yogi Berra might have said, no one wants to experience disaster déjà vu all over again.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Institutional Memory and the "Silver Tsunami," Part 1

If I had to think of one topic that comes up during every public appearance I make, across all industries and specialties, it's the urgency of replacing the baby boomers now heading for retirement: preserving not just the technical skills, but the memory of what works and what fails. 

This story comes to mind. Two months after a wave from the Great Tohoku Earthquake demolished hundreds of towns in northeast Japan, the Washington Post described one that survived: Fudai, a community of 3,000 nestled in a narrow valley that was wide open to the sea. In 1972 its mayor called on the town to build a 51-foot-high floodgate. The project attracted much opposition over the cost ($30 million) and the land required to hold off a big wave -- the next big wave, in the view of then-mayor Kotoku Wamura. 

As a young man he'd seen the aftermath of a 1933 tsunami that killed over 400 in Fudai alone. As mayor, he led the project and faced a lot of hostile questions: Why did the town need it? Why so high? Other Japanese cities had put up gates and seawalls, but none were so high. How could Fudai pay for it?

Wamura was undaunted. A good thing, too: When that next wave arrived on March 11, 2011, water lapped over the top but the damage was inconsequential; the only death was one man who had climbed over to check on his fishing boat. Without Wamura's big wall, Fudai would have been reduced to bodies, trash, and rubble. Again. 

Memory – vivid and awful – carried Fudai's floodgate project forward against all opposition. It needed more than the mayor's individual memory: it was a collective memory of everybody old enough to have seen the effects of the 1933 wave.

The subject of memory and how to hold onto it is a hot topic because the baby boomers aren't babies anymore. Experts warn that the looming retirements, across all sectors of the economy, is a “silver-haired tsunami.”

However much fifty- and sixty-somethings look forward to retirement, they're equally eager for anti-Alzheimer nostrums, whether vitamin packets, red wine, Soduku puzzles, or online memory tests. Worries over memories that slip-side away extends to the largest scale. Consultants are wagging their fingers at companies and agencies like NASA, warning them to capture their “institutional memory” with extended videotape interviews and copious databases. 

They're referring to the unwritten knowledge held by skilled workers, seen-it-all foremen, and hands-on managers. It's trouble-shooting. It's the agility that strikes a balance between handling existing projects and taking on new challenges as conditions change. In short, it's the know-how that gets things done and heads off the ICE, the Imminent Catastrophic Event.

Before looking into what collective memory is, let's think about individual memory. While our brains are sometimes compared to a computer's storage banks, people are radically different from computers in how they collect and store information. In 1861 Abe Lincoln referred to the mystic chords of memory, and he wasn't far off the mark. Memory is not a predictable set of nerve connections. We know more about how it goes away than why it stays.

Experts in mnemonic techniques assure us that with training and jaw-aching concentration just about anybody can erect a memory palace in their minds and then wow their friends by quickly memorizing the order of an entire, shuffled deck of cards. Meanwhile, most of us still have not a memory palace but something more like a drafty house. Even without the affliction of Alzheimer's, facts blow out the back door when we're not looking, and other facts get mixed up like old keys tossed into junk drawers. Check out this “Jaywalking” episode from Leno, for a wacky stroll through history as feebly recalled by the man on the street. 

The good news is that humans are, or can be, quite good at building and holding a body of knowledge. Knowledge is what drives our decisions. It's a combination of skills, recalled facts, and insights, and is unique to each person. 

Recall my drafty-memory-house analogy? Now imagine a snug, warm greenhouse in the back yard, a place for plants to grow and thrive. For an amazing example of how people can amass huge bodies of knowledge when they must, check out Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi

He describes how each licensed pilot of the 1850s had to know the channels suitable for big steamboats along more than a thousand miles of unmarked river, storing the images for use by day, night, and in the fog … and then absorb new information as channels, snags, and sandbars changed.

Such vast collections fit into a few pounds of brain tissue because they're braced and motivated by personal experiences, vivid stories from trusted sources, reading, and certification courses. 

That's memory and knowledge at the micro level. What about macro: Can an entire company, or even the workers across a single plant, share a “collective memory”? Safety expert Trevor Kletz, author of What Went Wrong? and Still Going Wrong, believed so. 

The tendency of refinery and chemical plants to lose their institutional memory of past disasters, about every ten to fifteen years, has been a concern in the chemical-processing safety literature for years. Writing in Modern Railways, Roger Ford said that accidents happen “when the last man who remembers the previous disaster retires.”

On the other side of the memory-is-good question are advocates of extreme makeover, corporate style. If what Robert McMath calls Corporate Alzheimer's is the collateral damage, so what? To these skeptics, it doesn't matter whether anybody in the organization recalls past problems and how to avoid them, because the key is going forward. Here are their arguments:

Didn't the fabulously successful Henry Ford say in 1916, “History is more or less bunk.... We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history we make today.” 

Here's how Ford's thinking lives on:

  • “All damage and injuries are due to either (1) unpredictable flukes of fate, never to be repeated and therefore needing no attention, or (2) errors by low-ranking workers who recklessly flaunted their training and operating manuals. So there's nothing to learn.”
  • “Internal histories that capture damage incidents, close calls, and lessons learned would be expensive to assemble, and then plaintfiffs' lawyers might get hold of it, so why go to the trouble? It's better to plead ignorance after the next bad headline, and do it convincingly.”

Now for the other side of the coin. There's a museum called The Collection at New Product Works of Ann Arbor, Michigan, for which people pay a lot of money to tour. The shelves hold more than a hundred thousand products, most of which you can't find anywhere else because they flopped so quickly, like Look of Buttermilk shampoo, Male Chauvinist Aftershave, and a urine-colored bottled tea called “Tea Whiz.” 

Even the museum at Ann Arbor, big as it is, can't display all the ways that firms and governments forget at least as much stuff as we mere humans do. And about as fast. 

The problems of rapid employee loss and turnover are magnified by the loss of supervisors with long and plant-specific experience.It's been said that foremen and supervisors act like synapses of our brains. On the job, they link individuals into functional units that span the organizational charts; along with motivated higher-ups, they can press for prompt action to head off a disaster. Critics like Kevin Foster call the discharge of such experts not downsizing but dumbsizing. But the nation would still have a memory drain problem even if companies reversed direction, because there's a graying workforce that is sure to move on sooner rather than later. Mack Truck built an assembly plant for the Soviet Union, but when the opportunity came to win a contract to refurbish the facility in Russia, Mack lost the bid to another company because the company experts on the original plant had moved on and no working memory remained of how, or why, the truck plant was laid out. 

A plant doesn't have to be halfway around the world to turn into something dangerously unfamiliar, as employees change jobs and memories fade. Disaster annals are full of spectacular events triggered after an incoming worker looks at some pre-existing gizmo, decides it's getting in his way or slowing him down, and changes it without asking anybody. This can be a enormous hazard at an oil refinery, where an peculiar-looking vent stack might be essential to avoiding a vacuum that would cause two chemicals to react and mix at the wrong time. In a perfect world, a complete set of plans would not only show the machine in its actual, “as built, as modified” status, it would also have little tags explaining what the tubes and safety valves in a boiler room or refinery are there for, in case someone has the hankering to tinker.


How to forge collective memory that leads to safer operations? That's the subject of Part 2.