Repost: Middle Ground Essay : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

Note: This is a repost of an essay I originally wrote last spring. I re-read it today for the first time in several months and realized that, by and large, my views today are essentially unchanged from the time I originally wrote it.

Best wishes to all the forum regulars and lurkers for a happy and quiet Thanksgiving with your family.

Y2k and Erosion of the Middle Ground

By Arnie Rimmer

Somewhere between "a bump in the road" and "the end of the world as we know it" lies the Middle Ground. It is a place where bad things can and do happen but where people with courage, skills and determination work together to overcome difficulties. They don't always succeed -- for The Middle Ground is not a fairy tale universe where everyone lives happily ever after. Sometimes success is only partial and is often bittersweet.

The Middle Ground not a pretty facade, a bedtime story or a marketing campaign. It is not a place where denying reality helps you to see the next sunrise.

It is a place where risk must be assessed and fears faced. It is a place of suprises, not all of which are pleasant. It is a place where luck can be just as important as prudent preparation.

The Middle Ground is where Captain Alfred Haynes and the crew of United Flight 232 landed their DC-10 aircraft that July afternoon 10 years ago.

At 3:16pm on July 19th, 1989, United Flight 232, suffered a catastrophic engine failure while cruising at 37,000 feet. The fan rotor of the aircraft's number two engine disintegrated, causing the loss of all three of the aircraft's redundant hydraulic flight control systems. This made the aircraft nearly impossible to control.

"Everyone was confident that the complete loss of all flight controls was impossible."
But everyone was wrong.

The companies responsible for the aircraft were so confident, in fact, that pilots were not even trained for such an "impossible" scenario. The designers were very proud of their design and their attention to detail, safety and redundancy. When first reports of the loss of control systems were broadcast, company PR reps rushed to say how "impossible" this was. It had to be something else. The odds were said to be "one chance in a billion". But the odds were not flying the aircraft that day, Captain Haynes was.

The crew soon knew that the aircraft was in very serious trouble. The crew of United 232 did not deny that the problem was real nor did they waste time "thinking positive thoughts" or telling passengers and air traffic controllers "everything will be OK". Neither did they give up and let the plane fall from the sky. They walked the Middle Ground. It can be a very narrow place to find your footing sometimes. But through a combination of luck, skill and preparation of the flight crew, the air traffic control lers and the emergency response personnel, the aircraft and its passengers took the only path that remained for them that day. Without the prudent preparations of all these people, the Middle Ground would have vanished.

There were 285 people on board United 232. For 111 of them, it was indeed the end of the world. For many who lost loved ones, it was also the end of the world as they knew it. But had the crew not stood on the Middle Ground, somewhere between denial and despair, 174 more people would have perished that day.

As a professional software developer, I know that the Y2K problem is real. I also know that the potential for disruptions of our infrastructure is also real. What I cannot tell you is precisely what will happen and how bad it will be. There are just too many variables. But I am convinced that serious preparation by all people is a prudent and wise thing to do. It adds a resilience that allows us to collectively withstand moderate disruptions without panicking. I am also convinced that we will face nothing so horrible in Y2K that it cannot be overcome by prudent preparations. But lacking those preparations, we needlessly erode the Middle Ground. Could Y2K be a 'bump in the road'? I suppose it could, but I am becoming increasingly pessimistic. I think somewhere in the middle is much more likely.

But as I have watched Y2K unfold over the last several months, it is the continuing erosion of the Middle Ground that concerns me the most. Companies and goverments have rushed to deny that such a ridiculous possibility exists. They worry only about their own corner of the universe and seek to protect it at all costs. Perceptions become more important than realities and the danger signs are ignored wherever they occur. Missed deadlines seem to mean nothing. They have collectively brought their public relat ions guns to bear in a war to convince everyone that significant infrastructure disruptions are absolutely impossible. They point to the extreme in a short-sighted attempt to discredit the middle. They collectively discourage significant preparations by the masses. In doing so, they dangerously erode the Middle Ground.

For if it turns out that such disruptions are anything more than a "bump in the road", they will surely regret their folly. So will we all.

-- Arnie Rimmer (, November 23, 1999


to the top for the middle grounders.

Thanks Arnie

-- Brian (, November 23, 1999.

Also see this from Critt Jarvis on the Y2K Middle Ground:

-- Linkmeister (, November 23, 1999.

Outstanding Arnie, thanks for re-posting!

-- prudenthere (, November 23, 1999.

For what its worth wasn't the plane saved by the "happenstance" of a third pilot. A pilot who was aboard for the ride but provided the key information to the operating crew of what the catastrophic failure was (he saw through a window) and also that third pilot by operating the throttles helped to control the plane to the ground.

Not to be picky but they landed left of center :-). Just kidding the pilot asked if they "hit" the center of the runway because he knew that was the planes only hope. They did and many people are alive today.

A few pieces that I take from that event is 1. In a crisis accept help from any available person. 2. The whole is greater than the parts. Without all these very steady individuals (pilot, co-pilot, extra) there would have been no survivers. 3. You can plan for everything except what life sometimes throws our way.

In any case be available to helpout

-- squid (, November 23, 1999.

I understand that when this situation was set up on a flight simulator that NO ONE was capable of successfully landing the plane -- that all pilots who tried to do this crashed the plane in a manner that could be expected to kill everyone aboard the aircraft. Hope that this isn't TOO indicative of what a "middle" Y2K situation would be like.

-- MinnesotaSmith (, November 23, 1999.

Arnie, I remember well that essay of yours, still relevant and still thought provoking today! Thanks for reposting it.

"I understand that when this situation was set up on a flight simulator that NO ONE was capable of successfully landing the plane -- that all pilots who tried to do this crashed the plane in a manner that could be expected to kill everyone aboard the aircraft. Hope that this isn't TOO indicative of what a "middle" Y2K situation would be like."

MS, what this shows to me is that computers (flight simulators) are still short of the "real thing" in many ways. Survival is 1/2 luck, 1/2 brains. There's no luck programmed into computer simulators. Many second by second events piled on top of each other that day, forming a chain of events which was this "luck" ingredient needed to land that plane, that "1 in a billion chance". Perhaps if they simulated that same flight a billion times...

-- Chris (#$%^&, November 23, 1999.

Thanks Arnie.

Sometimes we need a reminder.

the simulators can not simulate ALL of the aerodynamic variables nor can they simulate the virtually intangible sensations and cues the veteran pilot receives from the airframe. Or so I'm reliably informed. I DO know that you can't simulate a race car sufficiently for the sensation to be truly accurate.


-- Chuck, a night driver (, November 23, 1999.

Excellent reminder Arnie!

It stands the time test, as well. True then, true now, true for whatever the future holds.

Got friends 'n neighbors? Got strangers you treat like friends 'n neighbors?



-- Diane J. Squire (, November 23, 1999.

squid: The 3rd pilot you refer to was Capt. Denny Fitch who was flying as a passenger that day.

In a speech given after the accident Capt. Haynes indicated that a large number of prepared professionals as well as a significant amount of luck (having Capt. Fitch on board, good weather, etc.) all played key roles in saving as many lives as they did.

So yes, preparedness + luck = half a chance, which by any yardstick is better than no chance at all.

-- Arnie Rimmer (, November 24, 1999.

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