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Inviting Disaster

James R. Chiles

Lessons from the Edge of Catastrophe

(HarperBusiness)

Frenchie Davis, the sassy basso profundo that made it to the second round in American Idol was bounced by producers when they learned she had performed in nudie flicks. Had the producers not caught Frenchie’s indiscretions, they would have had a disaster on their hands. Frenchie would have become the American Idol. She would have risen to stardom and appeared in Teen People. Then the pictures of her flashing her tatas would have shown up in Playboy and that would be it. Frenchie would ruin the American Idol franchise, creating a ripple effect that would cancel all of the other programs in development (Polish Idol, Armenian Idol, Vatican City Idol), the board game (American Idol: The Board Game), and the product tie-ins (Idol Brand Air Horns: Shrill, With a Lot of Stopping Power).


Now, imagine poor Frenchie is a front wheel on a Boeing 747. Had she failed somewhere down the line, there would have been real trouble, and not just the temporary media giant setback kind. That’s why they cut Frenchie off at the knees. The producers, like Boeing, just couldn’t accept the risks involved.


James R. Chiles, professional doomsayer, wrote a fascinating book on disasters like Frenchie. From the sinking of the Titanic to the downing of the Challenger, Chiles roots through the back rooms of history, hunting for the one point where it all went downhill.


In his book, Inviting Disaster, Chiles makes it clear that disasters rarely happen by accident. Instead, they occur when one link on a long chain of events fails, causing other actions that carry the course to its inevitable conclusion. But that doesn’t mean it all turns out for the worst. For example, a faulty cargo bay door in a DC-10 hadn’t been closed correctly on the ground and the plane took off from the East Coast to California. The pilot, Captain Bryce McCormick, felt a sudden loss of pressure and the passengers saw the entire rear of the airplane, containing a jet-setting wet bar, collapse into the cargo hold. The collapse broke the cables controlling the rear rudder. In short, the plane was on a collision course with disaster.


But McCormick had foreseen this problem. During his training on the DC-10 he noticed that the rear steering cables ran through the floor and felt that they could easily fail for even the most mundane reasons. During a ride in a simulator, McCormick disconnected the rudder to see if he could steer the plane with the engines. He could, and he used that experience to carefully bring the plane in for a safe landing.


This quick thinking and failure awareness is what, Chiles says, saves the day in most cases of catastrophic failure. But what does Chiles suggest we do to save ourselves?


Pay attention. Read the manual. Keep up on current events. What would you do if Frenchie swallowed lye? What should you do if you step on a nail? Which wire do you clip when a madman wires a bus to explode if its speed falls below 60 miles per hour?


>From reading Chiles’ book, you get the feeling that you won’t be the cause of many major disasters unless you’re a mechanic, engineer, or computer programmer. He peppers the text with a number of storylines, each interwoven to increase suspense. This technique quite often works, but in some cases Chiles flips from zeppelins to oil rigs a little too quickly.


Ultimately, we are to blame for our own sorrow. Chiles’ book bolsters this old adage with example after example, using his in depth experience in these kinds of stories as a guide. Ultimately, and miraculously, there aren’t too many Frenchies lurking in the world to trip us up. One might be chalk this up to design savvy or general human intelligence, and maybe you can even ascribe this to a divine power: Simon, the snarky British judge.

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