It'll be all right on the flight...;Talkback;Opinion

26th February 1999 at 00:00
Childish clumsiness may be symptomatic of a more serious confusion - but that needn't stop you being a high-flyer, argues ex-pilot David Beaty

Most of us get left and right mixed up at some time. Learner drivers put on the accelerator when they mean to brake; people turn left when their route requires they turn right or have difficulty with east and west.

We need to seek out the underlying causes of these silly mistakes. But of all the human factors, confusion over laterality is the one which is least studied, perhaps because of our innate antipathy.

Children often get the letters b and d mixed up. (The good old stand-by for many teachers is the word "bed" because it makes a picture like a bed.) Some teachers get the class to raise their left hand with their thumb extended to form the shape of the letter "L" as identification.

Children can also have difficulty mastering simple skills, such as tying shoe laces. These are put down to clumsiness when they probably arise from laterality confusion. I had difficulty tying my tie at school and had to face the indignity of getting a prefect to do it for me. My middle daughter occasionally set the table with the knives and forks the wrong way round (and still does).

Flying aircraft must be one of the least tolerant environments for "silly" mistakes; one where, in emergencies, the real person with his or her hereditary capacity for error emerges. It is in over-learning in that profession that safety lies. A pilot carries out the same actions in the cockpit during his regular checks. The more often an action is carried out correctly, the less chance that a mistake will be made.

Over the years, leftright confusions that may have contributed to an accident have taken a heavy toll. Think back to the Kegworth disaster of 10 years ago when the computer of a Boeing 737-400 which took off from London was programmed to take the aircraft north. Climbing through 28,300ft the whole aircraft began to shake. Smoke filled the flight deck.

Having checked the instruments, the captain took over from the first officer and disengaged the autopilot. He asked the first officer which engine was at fault. He replied "It's the's the right one."

A further human factor sometimes complements laterality mistakes. Once something is identified, it becomes fixed in the mind and people subconsciously don't like to alter it. Horrified passengers had seen sparks and smoke coming out of the left engine.

When the captain made an announcement that they were diverting because of trouble with the right engine, the cabin staff did not appear to have noticed the discrepancy. And though many of the passengers did - and were deeply troubled - they did not bring the discrepancy to anyone's notice.

Laterality can also manifest itself in number and direction reversals. Many of us reverse telephone numbers. Sorting offices in ancient towns which have streets named from a time when the city was walled, such as Eastgate and Westgate, find correspondents reversing the correct addresses.

Many of us make these leftright mistakes but learn to guard against them. Some of us learn sooner than others.

Last summer I saw a young, eager would-be pilot climb into the cockpit of a training plane for what transpired was her fifth lesson.

I saw her well-manicured left hand first, the nails painted in what I thought was a hideous bright red. Her right hand outdid the other. The nails were painted in psychedelic green (port and starboard colours).

"I have to think which is which," she said apologetically. "Just to be on the safe side!" I felt she would be on the safe side. I felt she would fly far.

David Beaty is a psychologist and former pilot.

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