Saturday, September 17, 2011

No Time to Think: Nevada Air Show Crash

Yesterday, a small plane participating in the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, crashed into the box seats of spectators. Three people were killed on the scene, including the pilot. More than 50 were injured, many of them critically.

The still pictures of this crash are the sort that make me think, "That would be a really amazing shot if I didn't contemplate what's happening in it." The one displayed here, which is from the Associated Press (click here or on the picture to see a larger version), is particularly jarring for a number of reasons. First is the realization that it must have been taken literally the moment of the crash. This is not the aftermath, this is the event. Given how horrifying this must have been to watch, I admire the photographer, Ward Howes, for how clear and steady it is. If he was holding his camera, he wasn't shaking. If it was on a tripod, he managed not to knock into it in the excitement.

The other thing that I notice in this picture, and which I found somewhat disturbing, is that people are just standing there. From this angle, it does not appear that anyone at all is running away. How is that possible? If a plane were headed straight for you, wouldn't you run?

There are two major reasons that no one is running in this picture. The first has to do with visual perspective. It is very hard to judge where an object traveling in your general direction at high speed is going to land. Some people are much better at this than others, as evidenced by the fact that, at a baseball game, a foul ball hit pretty much anywhere into my side of the stands will make me duck, while other people don't even move unless it's coming within two rows of them.

If you look up and see the plane headed in your general direction, you may want to run. However, unless you're really good at figuring out where the plane will land, it's hard to know which way to run, or even if you should run at all. Clearly you'd rather be a mile away, but that's not an option. And while running ten feet to either side might save your life, it might also mean running directly into the path of the plane.

The second reason has to do with our natural reactions to an immediate threat. While most of us are familiar with the "fight or flight" response, you may not know that "freeze" is also a natural, involuntary reaction to danger. Evolutionarily this makes some sense. If you can get a predator not to notice you, your chances of survival are actually much greater than if you try to fight it or run from it.

People who experience this natural "freeze" reaction often feel horrible after the event. They say things like, "I just stood there. Why didn't I try to help? Why didn't I try to get away?" The answer is, they could no more avoid freezing than they could avoid their heart rate going up. It was not in their conscious control.

If you watch the video of this crash, you can see that no one had much time to move. By the time it registered with the spectators that the crash was occurring, it was pretty much over. Couple that with trying to figure out where it was going to land and the freeze response, as well as the fact that the crash was somewhat further away than you might think looking at this picture, and you get a photograph that captures what all of us feel in considering this tragedy -- stunned horror and complete helplessness.


Colleen said...

Was this the sort of air show where planes do tricks? If so, people might be expecting exciting "buzzing of the audience", type manoeuvres....and not realise it wasn't that, and therefore take longer to get actually scared.. But I haven't seen the video, so this may not be part of it.

There are expected optical illusions with planes vs ground, when a plane flies over you for a landing, they look a lot closer than they are, looking just like they will hit a light pole, if not you, and perhaps the people at the show expected that, until it wasn't. (I've had this happen in a sailboat by an airboat many times....sure the plane would hit our mast!).

But, I bet I'd freeze, too.

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