On 23rd July 1983, Captain Bob Pearson and First Officer Maurice Quintal were in the cockpit of Air Canada’s Boeing 767, Flight 143 to Edmonton. They were flying at 41,000 ft, through clear skies above the beautiful Red Lake, Ontario. It was 8pm and the sun was starting to set.
Suddenly a cockpit alarm sounded, warning that fuel pressure was dropping to the left engine. Unconcerned Captain Pearson switched off the alarm knowing that a pump failure shouldn’t be an issue, as the engine was also gravity fed. Shortly afterwards the same alarm sounded for the right engine and so Pearson and Quintal decided to divert to Winnipeg for checks. Within seconds of this decision the left engine failed and they communicated with the Winnipeg control tower to say that they would start a single-engine landing and try to restart the left engine. So far, all calmly under control and manageable.
Before they had finished speaking to the Tower, the cockpit alarm let out a sharp BONG, that neither pilot had even heard before, let alone trained for. It was the ‘All Engines Out’ alarm. Seconds later the right engine stopped and they lost all power to the cockpit instruments.
In the silence, sat two pilots desperately searching the flight manual for what to do when you lose all power. This section didn’t exist. Unbeknownst to them, their plane had just run out of fuel at 41,000 ft.
A series of extraordinary pre-flight mathematical and communication errors on the ground had caused the plane to be loaded with less fuel than it needed for the flight. These errors are described in the excellent book ‘Humble Pi’ by Matt Parker.
We started writing this post before the news came in about The Queen’s death and all of us at Altor would like to express our sadness at her passing. She and her husband both lived to a very good age (96 + 99), compared to the average person in the UK (83 + 79), so they are an example to us all.
So, short of being born into the Royal family, what can each of us do to live a longer life?
Firstly, for some of us, our bodies will rebel against us or will be involved in an action that we couldn’t foresee or avoid. All of us at Altor have lost people too early and as a result this year, in particular, has been one of fundraising for research into different types of cancer.
We can, however, control what we know about longevity and there are things that we can do to help ourselves. Averages are powerful things and just living better than the average person will immediately improve your outcomes substantially.
We use average Office for National Statistics data when we build life expectancy into our cashflow forecasts. Immediately though, most of the areas that our clients live in, mean that they are already above these averages. For example the average female life expectancy in the worst postcode (Blackpool) is 55.3 years and in the third best postcode (Wokingham) is 70.1. In case you were wondering the best postcode for females is the Orkney Islands at 75 but we don’t have any clients there.
Apart from moving to the Orkney Islands the other thing that we can do to improve our chances is work on our ability to stand on one leg for 10 seconds. If you can do this one thing, then your chances of being alive in 7 years’ time is 90%. If not then it drops to 65% which is a huge statistical difference. It is an incredible predictor of life expectancy.
Of course, as with most things in life, it isn’t that simple and training yourself to stand on one leg does not improve your chances, as this exercise is in fact a good test of a range of other health factors. Rather we need to work out what the average person is capable of and train ourselves to be better than that. You might be surprised, however, at what the averages entail.
If we take the other big predicator of life expectancy VO2 Max (the maximum Oxygen your body can take in during exercise) then we can see what the average target performances are. For a female in her mid-50s, above average is defined as being able to comfortably run at 10km/hr and for a male of the same age it is to be able to play a competitive game of football (local derby, rather than Premier League).
Peter Attia ‘The Longevity Doctor’, suggests that we train for the fitness level that we want to have when we are in our nineties. At this age we might not expect to be playing football but lifting up grandchildren or putting a bag in an overhead locker on a plane is a good target. This is called backcasting and is setting a future goal and working backwards to see what we need to start doing today. It is the same process that we use in financial cashflow planning – what is the future expenditure goal and work backwards to the expenditure/savings we need to target today.
So back to our airplane example, if we are training for what Peter calls the Centenarian Olympics, we need to know what altitude we need to be at now to be able to glide the plane into land. We need to gain that altitude now and be cruising above the majority, so that we are ready for our slow descent.
If Flight 143 was beset by an extraordinary series of bad coincidences, there was one good coincidence to end the story. Unusually, Captain Pearson was also an experienced glider pilot. The 767 was one of the first aircraft to have electronic controls powered by the now redundant engines but had an air turbine hydraulic back-up which gave basic manual control. He was able to glide the 767, at 250mph, into land at an abandoned airforce base, with no loss of life amongst the 61 passengers. By using common glider pilot techniques (unknown in commercial airline flying) to slow the plane on contact with the runway, he also managed to avoid the surprised go-karters who were using the converted runway.