Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

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

“It’s ozone.”

“What’s that, something to do with the tropical zone?”

“No,” Roberts said. “Ozone is air charged with electricity.”

Bonin had now experienced three unusual stimuli: first, the novelty of crossing the equator; second, the sight of Saint Elmo’s fire; and now a sharp, chlorine like smell. There’s a reason people spend billions on perfume every year: the nose connects directly to the brain, making it a powerful source of arousal. It doesn’t have to be relayed via the nervous system, like touch, turned the right way up, like sight, or amplified, like hearing. It takes immediate effect. Bonin smelled something most humans never do: Ozone, O3.

Novelty is exciting in the right circumstances, but in the wrong ones it’s distracting, even unsettling. Brian Lenihan said of the two bankers that visited him on the 28th September 2008:

“I’d never met Mister Drumm before. It was most unusual for them to call to my office.”

Brian Lenihan encountered a lot of novelty in the run up to the 29.09.08, lots of new concepts to grasp and differing views to parse. David McWilliams had given him a crash course in economics at their midnight meeting two weeks before.

“This must have been very difficult for a man who’d spent all his life in law,” McWilliams said later of the Minister. “He told me he’d been breaking himself into the job and economics by reading Alan Greenspan’s autobiography. “Sweet Jesus!” I thought. That was the worst place to start. That epoch was over. It was like a Minister for Transport a hundred years ago trying to learn about cars by reading a book about fast horses.”

Or, David McWilliams might have said, like a Minister for Transport a hundred years ago trying to learn about planes by reading a book about fast birds. Brian Lenihan had to deal with new faces, new voices and ideas in an historic meeting. He had to listen to them, understand them and come to a decision, fast. Later he said:

“What surprised me at the meeting was how great the funding pressures were throughout the system. The fact was that the funding available to any of the banks in the system was at best a number of weeks.”

Brian Lenihan had awoken from a dream of a prosperous Ireland to find himself in a strange new country.

At ten past two in the morning large ice crystals struck the nose of the plane, making a banging noise. An alarm sounded. The autopilot disengaged and handed control to Bonin. He grabbed the stick with his sense of sight, smell and hearing overwhelmed.

“I’ve got the controls,” he said.

“Alright,” Roberts replied.

Unbeknown to the pilots the pitot tubes had frozen over. The manufacturers would later insist they were safe, that they’d been tested, retested and passed. But without the pitots, the plane couldn’t collect information about speed or progress. In the absence of reliable data with which to fly the plane, the Airbus’ computers shut down autopilot and handed over to Bonin. The pilots were flying in the dark without instruments.

The controls of an Airbus 330 differ from the culturally more familiar Boeing in three important respects. First it’s controlled by a joystick rather than a “steering wheel”. Second, the pilot and co-pilot’s controls are not linked, as in a Boeing, but move independent of each other. In a Boeing if a pilot pulls back on his “steering wheel”, the co-pilot’s moves too, as though an invisible pair of hands were on it. The pilot steers left, his co-pilot’s wheel moves left too and so on. The result is that the co-pilot sees what the pilot is doing at all times, and vice versa. In the Airbus 330, on the other hand, Robert’s sidestick stayed still when Bonin moved his. The third difference is amplification. The size of the Boeing’s steering column, which extends from the floor to above knee level, exaggerates pilot input, whereas the Airbus 330’s Coke can size stick masks it. Moving the stick back an inch has a huge effect on trajectory, yet is unlikely to be noticed unless the co-pilot watches the pilot’s hand. Watching it for the duration of the flight is not only impractical but unnecessary; the instruments tell the co-pilot what the pilot’s doing anyway. But once AF447’s pitots froze, its instruments were useless. There was no way for Roberts to know what Bonin had done with the sidestick.

There were probably a thousand things Bonin could have done. He could have held AF447 on course, waited for autopilot to re-engage and continued on to Paris. He could have handed the controls to Roberts and gone to speak with his wife Mrs Bonin, who was a passenger on board. He could have ordered coffee from an attendant, whistled La Marseillaise or phoned a friend. If he’d done any of those things and more we might not know his name. Instead he did the one thing, maybe the only thing that would circumvent Airbus’ safety features. He pulled back on the stick. He pulled up.

Each of us carries within him a genius for self destruction. In times of crisis it’s as though an evil intuition guides our hand to do not only the wrong thing, but the only thing that’s absolutely, unequivocally guaranteed to bring us down. Had Brian Lenihan stood back and taken a deep breath, he might have seen that for a brief window in time tiny Ireland had the whole of Europe over a barrel. He could have demanded billions of EU aid with no strings attached, with the threat of letting the banks fail, and the country with them, which would have had disastrous consequences for Europe. Or he could have anticipated what the Chinese authorities did a few months later when their economy slowed, and ordered the banks to “open wide your wallets.” China’s banks obeyed and lent out money. Credit autopilot re-engaged and the country returned to growth. As a result China is expected to supersede America as the world’s leading economy by 2020, if its experiment in eternal autopilot succeeds. Or Brian Lenihan could have done nothing, and let the banks fail, which they did anyway. Instead he did the one thing, perhaps the only thing that would allow them evade their responsibilities, pass the burden of their mistakes and fraud to the Irish taxpayer, and reduce the country’s credit rating to junk status: he announced a blanket guarantee to cover customer deposits at all the banks for a year. Not only did he do so on the night of the 29th September 2008, but he did so again and again for a second and a third time in successive years. This is the equivalent of Bonin’s death grip on the stick. He believed he was doing the right thing, and kept on doing it. The secret saboteur takes great delight in giving his victims plenty time to turn things around to make his big reveal the more agonizing. The only difference is that everyone knew what Brian Lenihan was doing; even David McWilliams thought it was the right thing to do. Not so Pierre Cedric Bonin.

“I think we’re flying too fast,” he said.

His comments about speed suggest he understood the problem to be the opposite of what it was in reality. As the Airbus approached its max altitude of thirty eight thousand feet the angle of its wings in the air – the angle of attack – was too steep to hold it up. The thrust of its engines helped, but that wasn’t enough, either. AF447 started to go dangerously slow, yet Bonin thought it was going too fast. Why? Because that’s what he felt inside – out of control and dangerous – feelings associated with going too fast. He would persist in his belief even when the aircraft’s stall warning sounded fifty eight times. The plane’s autopilot may have disengaged, but Bonin’s was fully on.

David McWilliams noted that Brian Lenihan was “euphoric” after announcing the bank guarantee – high when he should have been low. He’s reported to have said:

“The Brits are furious, so we must be doing something right.”

Both Brian Lenihan and Pierre Bonin seemed to feel the opposite of what they should have given the realities of their situations.

AF447 started falling from a height of seven miles. The pitot tubes defrosted returning confusing information, at best.

“Do you understand what’s going on?” Roberts said.

“Fucking hell I don’t have control of the aircraft,” Bonin said.

Roberts might not have known what was happening, but he knew to call the captain.

“What the bloody hell are you doing?” the Captain Dubois said, returning to the flight deck.

He sat in the jump seat behind the co-pilots.

“I think we’re flying at some crazy speed,” Bonin said. “What do you think?”

Bonin tried to apply the airbrakes, guided by the secret saboteur. Roberts shrieked:

“No! No! Don’t put the airbrakes on!”

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