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A Plane Crash and a Pandemic Walk into a Bar

United Airlines Flight 173 was flying from Denver to Portland, Oregon, just after Christmas in 1978. The flight crew wasn’t sure the landing gear had deployed on approach to the airport, so they spent an hour in a holding pattern troubleshooting a faulty dashboard light. The plane ran out of fuel and crashed in trees, killing ten onboard and injuring many other passengers.

What can we learn from this tragedy in regard to the current COVID-19 pandemic?

The US is returning to business as (sort of) usual. Each of our fifty states has loosened up the constraints on the business community and restaurants and shopping centers and other retail stores and churches at a time when positive cases are rising, and Americans continue to die from complications of the virus.

The fear that had been palpable only weeks earlier seems to be less apparent in our communities even though the virus does not look at the calendar. In fact, there is almost a festive atmosphere in restaurants and salons and malls where patrons (many not wearing masks as recommended) seek normalcy from their social isolation.

Professional sports are eyeing a start to their season and training. College kids are thinking about dorms and classes in the fall. Summer camps are gearing up, and schools are figuring out how to distance and teach in the classroom.

This is an example of cognitive tunneling.

As the doomed airline crew tinkered with a malfunctioning landing gear light, they lost their focus on the all-important fuel gauge. Likewise, citizens of the US are eagerly anticipating some normalcy, despite prudent cautions from those of us in the medical community and poor leadership in many government offices, and have lost focus on the grave danger of the virus among us.

Cognitive tunneling in one study describes how an individual performs a task and simply fails to see what should be plainly visible and thereafter cannot explain his or her error in another task. Like for the distracted cockpit crew, cognitive tunneling seems to be especially prominent when you are overwhelmed with information and options or fatigued or panicked.

Here we have, right in front of us, scientifically validated, unquestionable data that if we gather together, if we do not wear masks, if we are in close proximity to each other, we are fueling this unparalleled pandemic.

The data have been analyzed and dissected by reputable scientific bodies, and although there is always some controversy, the weight of evidence and experience tells us what needs to be done to control the epidemic. Yet behaviors are exactly the opposite.

In almost every circumstance where social isolation was compromised or loosened, there has been a resurgence of the epidemic.

Experts are now predicting that as we get into the summer and early fall, we should expect a rebound of this nightmare. So what do we do in the meanwhile? We remain alert, engaged, and informed. We go back to the basics of hand washing, staying home, avoiding crowds, staying alert to symptoms, practicing meticulous social isolation, and remaining mindful of the risks of gathering.


The dashboard light is blinking. You’re running out of fuel. No second chances.

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