Sabin Russell Science Writer


A Spot of Bother

Spot of Bother: Eyjafjallajokull Volcano, as seen from space


"Ladies and Gentlemen, we are in a spot of bother." 

 So said Capt. Eric Moody, addressing his passengers as pilot of British Airways Flight 009, enroute to New Zealand from Heathrow Airport in London, when just west of Jakarta, at 37,000 feet, all four engines stopped. It was June 24, 1982.    

  Long before Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger pulled off his Miracle on the Hudson, Capt. Moody landed The City of Edinburgh and 240 passengers and crew safely in Jakarta after flying through a cloud of volcanic ash over the Indian Ocean. The unexpected encounter in the middle of the night clogged all four engines of the 747, and the plane glided silently to 13,000 feet before one engine, then two, three and four restarted. With three still going, their electronic instruments failing and a windshield sand-blasted opaque, the crew threaded through a mountain range and made their happy landing in Indonesia.

  The current spot of bother, of course, is the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano, the laughably unprounceable spewer of ash in Iceland that has shut down air traffic all over Europe. It was the experience of Flight 009 -- and a repeat performance in 1989, when KLM 867 glided for five minutes with all four engines out after a run-in with the plume from the Redoubt volcano over Alaska -- that led international air traffic controllers to take the latest navigation hazard so seriously.    

I still remember the quote from from 28 year old wire service accounts of Capt. Moody's awesome display of British reserve in a crisis.  "We're in a spot of bother." It's a silly and ironic turn of phrase, and it strikes a chord for that coolness under fire that we admire about Brits. Capt. Sully didn't have time for irony when he struck that flock of Canada geese over New York City, but we admire that same sense of cool command and decisiveness.  And let's face it, in all these kinds of situations, we tend to feel we are witnessing something miraculous, something lucky. Luck, we hope, is something contagious. We love it when we see it. Think about buzzer beaters in basketball.   

When the Barack Obama presidency was six months old, he paid a visit to the troops in Iraq-- another spot of bother.  In an Army base gymnasium, he shot some hoops with soldiers in front of TV cameras. There's a well-known clip of him snapping the net, with a perfectly aimed shot from the three-point line. Coolness under pressure. Lucky. 

     Photo: NTV/EPA

Not every encounter with a spot of bother has a happy ending. There is a place in Russia known as Katyn Forest. It was a very unlucky place for 22,000  Polish Army officers in 1940. When the President Lech Kaczynski of Poland, his wife and 94 others were killed in a plane crash there last week on their way to an April 10th commemoration of the massacre, luck did not favor the pilot or the President. The Poles once again refer to the place as "cursed."    

 The results of the investigation of the Polish air disaster are still pending, but it is not hard to imagine the pressure the pilots were under to land the plane in time for the ceremony, despite the wave off from the Russian air controllers. No comments about "spot of bother here." There probably wasn't time for reflection. Yet I doubt this was an example of coolness under pressure, of decisiveness and command. Kaczynski had raised hell with Polish pilots earlier, when they refused to land him in Georgia, during the conflict there with Russia.   

According to Egyptian backgammon players, luck is "the just and inevitable reward of the skillful." Baseball wise man Branch Rickey called it "the residue of design." To put a little science in this, Louis Pasteur famously said "Fortune favors the prepared mind."  If I ever encountered a spot of bother, would I have the coolness and command of a Capt. Moody or Sullenberger? I doubt it.  That's why we admire people who do. We call them Lucky. We call them heroes. They are leaders we tend to follow. I guess we harbor the hope that, in our spots of bother, a little of their luck will rub off on us.  

If we were to pan out from the satellite photograph of  Eyjafjallajokull, we'd eventually see another spot of bother: 

  Here is a place that is heating up, and cries out for coolness under fire. It's a place where people are trying to wave us away from danger, while others are denying or belittling the risk and demanding that we press on. It will take the right kind of leadership to get us through this jam, to  remain calm, and make the right decisions. It's reassuring to think we still have the capacity to choose between a a safe landing and a rising plume. We will need some skilled leadership, some good design, and as the great scientist once said, "the prepared mind." 

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Posted by Sabin Russell

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  1. Great stuff, Sabin. Sobering, but…

  2. As a result of this volcano in Iceland a group of students from England were turned back at Boston’s airport since their flight could not land back in England. As a result of this dilemma, they were accepted back at Jay Peak in northern Vermont where they just vacationed for several days skiing. The resort stayed open to accept them back for more skiing. Your article sheds more light on the story of the stranded skiers here in Vermont. Great writing!

  3. Great writing, Sabin! A Cosmically Developing Blog Voice (CDBV)! The discourse on luck is … illuminating. What a very strange concept when you think about it. We have always tried to figure out how to manipulate ourselves/the outer world to obtain it, and we seem to have SOME idea, but … hmm … at the very least, we know that panic does NOT summon luck! Nor does browbeating the pilot.

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