Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

The Crash : What the Irish Economy has in Common With an Airline Disaster

“In some respects the Euro crisis is like multiple plane crashes occurring at the same time where manufacturing design faults, exceptional conditions, pilot errors and mistakes by air traffic controllers all led to disastrous and unexpected results.” Brian Cowen [March 2012] 1

On the 1st June 2009 Air France flight AF447 crashed into the Atlantic en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, killing all two hundred and twenty eight people on board. The disaster was a turning point in aviation history that led to improved instrumentation and pilot training. Yet the black box flight recorder, recovered from the ocean floor after a two year search, tells a human story that transcends the technicalities of air crash investigation. It reveals that conditions on the flight deck conspired to produce a particular effect in the mind of one co-pilot, which led him to unintentionally act to the detriment of everyone on board. His behaviour and the conditions that produced it connect flight AF447 to a very different kind of crash that happened months before thousands of miles away, on dry land.

The problem was not how little money was going into Anglo but how much was leaving it. The economy stalled as Anglo haemorrhaged money. At a certain point the counter intuitive solution that would have got the economy back up to speed – letting the bank fail – stopped being an option. The economy’s fate was inextricably linked to Anglo’s; they were strapped in together, waiting for the bottom.

On the 29th September 2008 a group of politicians met in Dublin to address a crisis in the banking system. Like the Air France pilots they came together late at night in a sealed environment. Like the pilots they had one inexperienced individual in a key role. And like the pilots they lacked a crucial piece of information that could have averted disaster. Although the 29th September 2008 bears scant resemblance to the Air France disaster in real time, if the Irish economy 2008-2012 were compressed to four minutes, it would track the last moments of flight AF447.

There were three pilots on board the Airbus 330 on the 31st May 2009: Marc Dubois, David Roberts and Pierre Cedric Bonin. Dubois, aged fifty eight, had eleven thousand hours of flight experience. Perhaps because we expect captains to be gruff, he emerges from the recordings as something of a curmudgeon. The expression of boyish curiosity he retained into late middle age suggests he was good company off duty. His co-pilot David Roberts, thirty seven, had six and a half thousand hours flight experience. With his floppy hair, pointed teeth and well fed air, Roberts might have been a Formula One race car driver or a playboy, a contrast to the serious individual he appears to have been. The third pilot Pierre Cedric Bonin, thirty two, had three thousand hours flight experience. Something in the set of his brow and line of his jaw made him look older than Dubois, and more authoritative than Roberts. Together they looked like the kind of team you’d want flying you over the Atlantic. They exuded a rugged, manly confidence.

The cliché goes that Airbus 330 flies itself. Certainly with takeoff complete autopilot navigated the plane better than most humans could, leaving the pilots with little to do. They monitored information collected by sensors such as the pitot tubes: small tubes on the hull that measured the speed and temperature of air rushing over them. The data from these generated a flight path displayed on the backs of passengers’ seats in the cabin. The crew and passengers could relax with the flight underway.

Captain Dubois and co-pilot Roberts were sensitive to co-pilot Bonin’s relative lack of experience. Roberts supervised his junior pilot throughout the flight. Shortly after leaving Brazilian airspace, Roberts pointed out the equator.

“Ah,” said Bonin, “I thought so.”

There were more severe challenges to his spatial awareness ahead. A short while later the Airbus’ instruments detected a storm in their way. Bad weather brought out the best in the curmudgeonly captain.

“We’re not going to let a pile of cloud bother us,” he said.

Several earlier flights had diverted around the storm, but AF447 went straight through it. Captain Dubois could afford to be bluff; modern airliners are built to withstand lightning, never mind turbulence. The captain’s attitude reassured the crew a storm was nothing to worry about.

Confidence in a leader can be inspiring. Misguided confidence, on the other hand, can lead him down the wrong path. In 2007 Taoiseach Bertie Aherne was so confident of the government’s economic policy that he wondered why those who questioned it “didn’t commit suicide” – a remark he immediately retracted. Mired in a series of unrelated controversies, Ahern retired in May 2008, leaving the top position open to his successor, then Minister for Finance Brian Cowen. When Cowen took Taoiseach’s office he appointed a trusted advisor to his former post: Brian Lenihan bore a passing resemblance to Captain Marc Dubois. Lenihan came from a political family, but he was a lawyer by profession. The new Taoiseach dismissed objections to his inexperience. It may have been a period of turmoil for the party, but the economy was running smooth, for the moment.

Co-pilot Bonin realised Flight AF447 had a problem when the sensors detected a much larger storm behind the first one.

“There’s something ahead,” he said. “There’s another one behind.”

They may have had a choice in navigating around the first storm, but not with the second. It was too big, too close and deep to avoid. They’d have to fly through it, a prospect even the experienced Captain Dubois didn’t relish.

“Ah shit,” Dubois said. “No.”

Realising that a problem is merely a symptom of a bigger one is disconcerting, but it’s better than not knowing it at all. Brian Lenihan had been Minister for Finance for four months when two bankers visited him in his office on the 28th September 2008. They told him that Anglo Irish Bank had borrowed heavily in previous years to make cheap credit available to its customers. When its debts fell due after the collapse of Northern Rock, Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers banks, Anglo Irish Bank couldn’t roll over its repayment date, or get more credit. A run on withdrawals by nervous customers left them facing the prospect of customers not being able to withdraw cash from ATMs next day.

Brian Lenihan still had time to steer around the storm at this stage. Had he refused to engage with the banks it would have had the unintended yet happy effect of exposing the depth of their financial problems without entangling the State. However his captain, Brian Cowen, leaned towards a different solution. They steered a course to confront the storm head on, unaware that the illiquidity crisis hid a much bigger problem behind: Anglo Irish Bank was insolvent.

Pierre Bonin dimmed the cabin lights to see the plane enter cloud cover. At 01.51 the windscreen crackled with light, frustrating his attempts to see out of the darkened cockpit.

“What is it?” he said.

Captain Dubois greeted the development with the eye rolling disdain he’d shown the first storm. “That’s all that was missing,” he said. “Mister Saint Elmo.”

If sarcasm was supposed to set Bonin’s mind at rest, it almost certainly failed. The co-pilot had been unsure of the equator and the plane entered turbulence shortly after. He now encountered a spectral glow he’d never seen before. His senior pilots were familiar with the phenomenon from flying through tropical zones. Highly charged ice crystals struck the windscreen, discharged energy and created a miniature lightning storm on the glass: Saint Elmo’s fire. Electric blue patterns rippled through the dark outside at thirty thousand feet. If ever there was a sign to mark hostile territory, Saint Elmo’s Fire was it.

“I didn’t think there was going to be much of a storm,” Bonin said.

Brian Lenihan didn’t think there was going to be much of a storm, either. He predicted the Irish economy was in for “a soft landing” in May 2008 – an appropriate metaphor, given that it had been flying high on credit for some time. Credit is the autopilot of finance, where the economy flies itself based on mathematical predictions. The Minister for Finance would need an experienced hand to steer things if the supply ran out. The problem was finding one; the government was so used to the economy steering itself that few ministers had any recent experience of manual control. Circumstances would expose the deficiency ruthlessly.

“Who’s going to land this thing?” Captain Dubois said. “You?”

Pierre Bonin agreed. He may not have had as many hours flight experience as the others but he may have had an advantage over them: Captain Dubois had one hour’s sleep hour the night before – “not enough”, as he drily noted; Roberts may not have had enough either.

“Did you sleep?” Dubois asked the co-pilot.

“So, so,” Roberts replied.

Dubois persisted. “You didn’t sleep?”

Bonin interrupted the exchange. “He said so, so.”

Nobody asked Bonin, who now had control of AF447, whether he’d slept.

Pushing beyond physical and mental limits is risky. Late Wednesday September 17th 2008 Brian Lenihan visited David McWilliams, economist to discuss the developing banking crisis. By McWilliams’ account, they met at 10.20PM and broke at 02.00AM. McWilliams observed the effects of sleep deprivation on the Minister:

“Taking note of his twelve o’ clock shadow and red eyes, I suggested he should catch a kip, too. He said he’d doze off in the car on the way home (…) I felt sorry for Brian Lenihan that night. He looked exhausted.”

By the time Brian Lenihan met politicians and bankers on 29.09.08, he’d been working for another two weeks. That night the meeting started at 9.30PM and broke at 03.00AM, an hour later than the one with David McWilliams that left him exhausted.

Six hours into the flight, Captain Dubois retired to quarters back of the flight deck to sleep. Roberts supervised his junior, who sat in the captain’s seat with the sidestick in reach.

“You can possibly go a bit to the left,” Roberts said.

Bonin agreed, and steered the Airbus 330 twelve degrees left. Meteorologists later established he made this adjustment in the thick of the tropical storm. A strange odour filled the cockpit.

“What’s that smell?” Bonin said.

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