Michael Parfit is a pilot, honorary board member of the Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation, and a documentary filmmaker.
The loss of the Titan submersible with its crew will lead to a storm of criticism over OceanGate Expeditions’ decision to avoid certification procedures. That storm was building before the catastrophe, and the company had defended its choice of increased risk to early critics, writing that a slow inspection process would have been “anathema to rapid innovation.”
The sorrow of loss and anger at the embrace of risk will obscure a long-term truth about the nature and uses of experiments like this one: both sides of this often-anguished debate are right.
The far edges of innovation and exploration are always raw, driven by brave enthusiasm and overconfidence, and marked by error, tragedy and sometimes overwhelming triumph. This is not an excuse. It’s human nature. In tragedy we blame risky behaviour, and in triumph we praise daring.
But it is also vital to recognize that bringing the knowledge born on those raw edges into use by the rest of us requires exactly what angry critics are demanding: regulation, rules, rigour and, yes, bureaucracy.
The world has been at crossroads of innovation and safety before, with similarly dangerous but exciting technologies. And the way that one such technology was developed, with overt worldwide enforcement of rules like the ones OceanGate avoided, enabled the most striking technical accomplishment of the past 100 years.
The technology I’m talking about is human flight. People like the Wright Brothers and Charles Lindbergh took risks that led to many tragedies and some hard-fought victories. But without a rigorous set of standards, today’s highly safe system would not have happened. Without that bureaucracy, aviation would have remained just a gruesomely risky way to get around.
The system was created starting at a conference of representatives from 54 countries, held in Chicago in 1944, when planes were mostly fighters, bombers and troop transports. Aviation visionaries were convinced that a world soon to be at peace might be able to fashion a system, starting with these planes, that would eclipse all other means of travel.
But that required a level of safety that planes could not yet deliver. Technology offered hope, but aviation was such an overwhelmingly international technology that any rules for safety would have to create a globally level playing field of regulation that no single country or company could undermine with cheap, dangerous planes.
The Chicago meeting and ones that followed created a strong international bureaucracy. Politicians love attacking tough rules, but this bureaucracy was magnificent. It came to be called the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and is based in Montreal.
ICAO was not the first entity to make international rules for technology, but it became one of the best. It helped establish ground rules not just for international regulation of construction and protocols for inspection of planes, but also for air traffic control and airspace regulation.
Largely because of the ICAO, it takes a long time for an aircraft to be certified for full access to the sky, it has to be inspected constantly and you have to train longer than feels necessary to be a pro pilot. But the result is flat-out astonishing. Altitudes of six miles and higher are as inhospitable to human life as ocean depths, yet it is routine for people to go there for hours at a time, crossing half the world in less than a day, just to visit friends or watch a track meet. Free-ranging minds and ICAO boundaries made that happen.
We take the ICAO and its results for granted, but Titan reminds us that we shouldn’t.
First, we need to make sure systems like the ICAO stay flexible but robust while generations pass and technology adapts to new realities. Second, we should celebrate the fact that we humans actually have the ability and foresight to co-operate in the creation of highly functional bodies like the ICAO that make organized achievement possible.
The lives of innovators show us what is possible. Their failures and sometimes their deaths show us where the structure of rules has to be built. In a way, the rules honour them.
Bureaucracy that levels playing fields and ensures safety is not anathema to innovation. Those two forces of human intention, working together, can open doors that neither can get through by itself.
That was the only way to learn to live in the sky, and is still the key to the deep blue sea, which we must also keep exploring.