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GPS Down For The Count? Bust Out The Charts And The Eyeballs, Navigator! And, While You’re At

GPS brownout? Holy deteriorating critical infrastructure, Batman! News flash, fellow mariners, perhaps those amazin’ satellites in the sky aren’t quite as infallible as we would like (desperately want) to believe. Maybe our slavish worship at the alter of GPS/LORAN/DECCA/OUIJIBOARDS/WHATEVER is a bit misplaced. Maybe we’ll all have to bloody well fend for ourselves (as many of us still do) relying primarily on radar, charts, our eyeballs, local knowledge and some seat-of-the-pants piloting like back in the day. Or maybe not. Maybe the techno-wizards will pull a rabbit out of their hats and keep the party rockin’ for a while longer. Perhaps we’ll just continue on as before, getting gradually more and more dependent on progressively more complex and mysterious technology which can erode our traditional skills and may or may not be there for us in our time of serious need.

This article by James Fallows in The Atlantic reveals the sordid state of affairs up in satellite space, and where we may be heading. Here we go again, into the void…..

Technology and how we relate to, use and abuse it is the in-your-face issue. But the deeper back story here is manning and fatigue: what it does to all of us in the transportation industry, and how we keep trying to get around it with more technology and gizmos. Mariners, aviators, truckers, railroad crews… gets all of us no matter what we do as long as minimizing crew sizes at all costs remains the prevailing religion, and no amount of technology can change the simple fact that we humans have physiological limits, and we’ve been seriously pushing, ignoring and exceeding those limits for quite a while now in an often counterproductive attempt to squeeze every last drop of operational efficiency/profit out of our system. Pilots spacing out and flying right past the airport? Yup. Fatigued pilots making fatal mistakes and killing everyone on the plane in Buffalo? You bet. Don’t forget the day in 2002 that the I-40 Bridge in Webbers Falls, OK was knocked into the Arkansas River by a seriously over-tired towboat captain who passed out at the sticks (helm), causing the deaths of 14 people. The NTSB had a smoking gun but punted big-time on that one, with a wishy-washy finding of a previously-undetected heart  murmur as the probable proximate cause of his loss of consciousness. They, and the Coast Guard, essentially ignored the stark fact that the man had a major crew change-related sleep deficit of between 10 and 11-1/2 hours in the 72 hours prior to the allision. But I’m sure that the NTSB’s finding that it played no role on that tragic morning was correct. Right…..and how this affected his overall health (short-term and long-term) and fitness for duty never seemed to enter the discussion either, but it should have.

Regardless, it has been and will continue to be a complex issue with far-reaching economic consequences. Even the transportation safety and regulatory agencies seem conflicted or confused as to what their role should be, usually shying away from the bigger issues rather than showing political courage and leadership. When a conscientious aviation inspector tried to do his duty he got punished for it by his own agency. When a diligent marine surveyor, serving as an AWO Responsible Carrier Program auditor, tried to document the many serious deficiencies aboard vessels operated by DRD Towing (remember the T/V Mel Oliver?) so that they might be corrected he, too, was removed from his duties and replaced with a more “cooperative” auditor (who still, ultimately, flunked DRD). A shipyard designs, builds and proudly advertises a new 74-foot HandySize Series tugboat (2,800 to 3,200hp) specifically created to take advantage of regulatory loopholes that allow, among other things, “optimized” crew sizes (optimized for whom?) of just two mariners, which is inherently unsafe, and minimal professional qualifications. The list goes on and on. Here’s the deal: you can move stuff/people for the lowest possible cost-per-mile, or with a reasonably high level of safety, but you can’t have it both ways at the same time, no matter how much we might all wish it otherwise. The Colgan Air crew that lost control of their aircraft while on final approach into Buffalo was, literally, set up to fail long before they ever touched the flight controls. Interesting how the regulators wouldn’t or couldn’t bring themselves to even attempt to tackle such an obvious and important issue for aviators, and the rest of us, as commuting to work and how it affects our ability to be rested enough to do our jobs safely. That transportation workers should show up for duty rested and able to perform the duties required of us so that we don’t endanger the public, ourselves, the transportation infrastructure and the environment sure sounds reasonable, but apparently it’s just not practically or economically feasible…..or so we’re told. People’s attitudes must change. That is the primary obstacle to a safer transportation system.

Way-big Towmasters mahalo to Kennebec Captain, fellow working mariner and kindred spirit of the blogosphere for the original hot tip on the Atlantic article.

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