Who's minding the store?

In 1972, Eastern Airlines flight 401 was flying from New York to Miami.

As they began their descent, they lowered the landing gear.

There was a thump as the gear came down, but the locking indicator didn’t light up.

They were held in a holding pattern while they investigated the problem.

They put the plane on autopilot while the pilot, the co-pilot, and the flight engineer all concentrated on the indicator light.

But while they all studied the indicator, no-one noticed that the plane wasn’t on autopilot.

The plane was in a very slow descent, too slow to notice.

Up until the last 10 seconds, when the voice recorder heard the crew spot it.

Just before the plane flew, at cruising speed, into the ground.

In 1977, United Airlines flight 2860 was flying from San Francisco to Chicago.

As they began their descent they lowered the landing gear.

Like EA flight 401, there was a thump as the gear came down, but the locking indicator didn’t light up.

They were also put in a holding pattern while they investigated the problem.

Like flight 401, they put the plane on autopilot while the pilot, the co-pilot, and the flight engineer all concentrated on the indicator light.

This time the plane stayed on autopilot, but they didn’t notice they were flying too low.

When they did, it was too late.

They flew, at cruising speed, straight into a mountain.

In 1978, United Airlines flight 173 was flying from New York to Portland.

As they began their approach, they lowered the landing gear.

Like the other flights, there was a thump as the gear came down, but the locking indicator didn’t light up.

They were also put in a holding pattern while they investigated the problem.

Like the other flights, they put the plane on autopilot while the pilot, the co-pilot, and the flight engineer all concentrated on the indicator light.

They circled for an hour trying to fix it.

But, while they had enough fuel for an hour of regular flight, they were circling with the landing gear and the flaps down, burning up much more fuel.

So, because no-one looked at the fuel gauge, they ran out of fuel.

They fell out of the sky six miles from the airport runway.

The ironic thing is that those three aircraft were all found to have their landing gear locked in position, it was just the bulb that had failed.

And, in each case, everyone’s attention had been on the bulb, not on flying the plane.

You would have thought someone would have concentrated on that, but no.

They assumed the plane would stay in the sky while they found the fault with the bulb.

So they ignored the most important thing because something newer distracted them.

We can learn two things from those crashes:

1) Someone should have concentrated on the big job.

2) The most recent event isn’t always the most important.

Those are good lessons for us in our job.

1) Someone should be concentrating on the big job: will anyone, in the world outside advertising, even notice what we’re doing?

2) The most recent event isn’t always the most important: like VR, or AI, or whatever gimmick is currently fashionable. It’s not as important as getting a campaign, that people will notice and remember.

Where we’re at now is symptomatic of how we behave.

While we write articles about, and sit on panels discussing, the importance of the indicator light, we have a more fundamental problem that we’ve all forgotten about.

 Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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