MIND TRAPS: The fatal mistake of hanging on too long

Small miscalculations can snowball into fatal tragedies

Posted Jan 05, 2011

Most of the mistakes that we make in life are survivable. We suffer our punishment, painful as it may be, and then move on. But there is a different category of mistake that exacts a penalty of another error. The small miscalculations, seemingly insignificant errors of judgment that can snowball into a life-threatening crisis. These mental traps can occur in all sorts of situations, but many a great majority can be lumped into just a handful of categories. Here, I'd like to consider one of the most pernicious: hanging on too long.

When a ground crew is getting ready to launch a hot-air balloon, they have to hold on to the basket to prevent it from taking flight prematurely. They grasp the edge of the basket with both hands and plant a foot on a hold near the base. Only, ever, one. The one sacred unbreakable rule of balloon ground handling is: always keep one foot on the ground.

Why?, I asked the ground handler who first revealed this wisdom to me.

"It's a mental thing," he said. "If a gust of wind catches the balloon and it starts to rise, and you get lifted six inches into the air, you think, 'Oh, that's no big deal, I can just step down if I need to.' Then before you know it you're at six feet, and you think, 'I could twist an ankle, I'd better hang on and wait 'til it gets lower.' Then you're at thirty feet, and if you jump you're going to break a leg. But if you don't jump..."

This is the mental trap of hanging on too long: hoping that a bad situation will get better, without contemplating the potentially fatal outcome that will result if it doesn't. This terrible conundrum was never more gruesomely played out than one morning in San Diego back in the spring of 1932.

Thousands of people had gathered at Camp Kearny, a military base that is now part of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, to witness the arrival of the world's largest helium airship, a 785-foot long floating aircraft carrier called the USS Akron. The enormous ship, which had been launched just the year before, represented the apex of aviation technology. Not only was it able to travel from New Jersey to California in a single hop, but it carried a complement of five fighter planes that it launched and retrieved from retractable trapezes that hung from its belly. Remembering the terror that bomb-dropping zeppelins had brought to London in the last war, many experts were sure that the Akron and its sister ship, the Macon, were the harbingers of a new age of aerial warfare.

Also awaiting the airships arrival was a complement of 200 naval recruits, there to catch the spider lines that hung from rings on two dangling cables and hold down the massive, and massively buoyant, ship.

As the morning fog began to disperse, the Akron as last hove into view. It descended toward the field, then was caught in a gust of rising air and floated away. Twice more it drifted downward, and finally on the fourth attempt drew close enough to the surface that the ground crew was able to grab the spider lines and hold it down.

A cable from the airship's nose was attached to the mooring mast, and slowly the Akron was winched in. Then a gust of air lifted the tail steeply. The airship was tilted nearly vertical, a dangerous position. Water spilled from its ballast tanks. The Akron began to rise.

In desperation, some of the sailors climbed up onto the ropes to better haul the ship downward. But it was no use. The ship continued to rise. Two feet, three, five-what to do? The crew was young and inexperienced, unfamiliar with the danger of this huge craft's tremendous power. As the craft rose through ten feet men jumped off, falling on one another in a big pile. One waited until he was 20 feet up before letting go, and broke his arm.

As the Akron rose higher and higher, out of control, the crowd on the ground realized to its horror that three men still remained clinging to the lines. Wrote Time magazine a week later:

Struggling to keep their grip, they lashed about desperately. On the ground women screamed, men wept, officers shouted, sailors ran around wildly. Then Sailor Edfall shot down like a bag of sand, 150 ft. to his death. Two figures still clung to the end of the swinging ropes. One of these soon let go.

"It's the acrobat!" shouted an enlisted man. Kicking and waving his arms as he fell, Sailor Nigel M. Henton, the training station's best gymnast, bounced on the hard-packed earth in a little puff of dust. Ambulances which soon came shrieking up were not needed at all.

Now amid the dangling lines just one man remained alive. The crowd watched dumbly in the growing heat as the Akron rose to 2000 feet. How long could he hold on? The tension was terrible. At such a height, the last man could be seen as little more than a motionless lump. It seemed only a matter of time before he, too, would plummet.

But the sailor on the rope had not given up. The man-or rather, the boy, since he was only 16 years old-had managed to straddle a toggle at the end of the cable, and then to tie two bowline knots around his waist. Charles "Bud" Cowart was an unusually tough and strong fellow, a welterweight boxer who was training for the all-Navy championship. More importantly, he managed to keep from panicking. Several times, the airship's captain tried to bring his ship back to the field, and firemen on the ground lifted nets to catch him. But the air turbulence was too great.

Soon it was evident that the only hope for salvation was in going up. Wrote Time,

After two hours the lump at the end of the Akron's cable began to rise slowly spider-wise, toward a port in the forward part of the lifeless, floating ship. As the cable shortened Sailor Cowart's oscillations grew more violent. When he disappeared into the port, the crowd murmured with relief but no one cheered. Aboard the ship Sailor Cowart spurned spirits of ammonia. Said he: "Gimme something to eat."

Other sources supply a less dramatic ending to the story: that once the Akron's crew realized that they could not land with Cowart dangling on his line, they sent a man down in a bosun chair to attach a line to the sailor, then hauled him up with a winch. Either way, Cowart's remarkable perseverance was the only thing that saved him from the mental trap that killed his two fellow sailors. I would love to know what became of him, but so far have been able to find no record of his later life. If he's still alive, he should be around 95 years old.

As the for the Akron, its great promise remained unfulfilled. Less than a year later, on April 3, 1933, it was flying off the New Jersey coast when it was caught in a storm, broke up, and sank. All but three of its 76-man complement were killed. Two years later, its sister ship, the USS Macon, sank off the California coast, effectively ending the age of the airborne aircraft carrier. (Though a civilian zeppelin flies today from the Macon's former home base.)

Is there a lesson in this story for the rest of us? If you happen to be a balloon handler, the answer is obvious. But I think the rest of us can find a moral in the parable as well. When a situation starts to turn bad, it's easy to delude yourself into thinking that it might get better on its own-until suddenly we find ourselves in such dire straits that our only hope is to cling on for dear life. (A lot of retirees found themselves in a financial equivalent of this predicament when their life's savings started to evaporate in the stock market crash of 2008.) It's sound advice, I think, to follow the example of balloonists and come up with an equivalent of a one-foot-on-the-ground rule: a hard-and-fast decision point beyond which you will never go.