The design of the U.S. military’s first airplane cockpit was based on average. Measuring hundreds of male pilots (no women), they figured out how wide the seat should be, its distance from the controls, the length of the windshield, the shape of a helmet.
The Problem With Being Average
All went somewhat well for approximately 25 years. Then, with more unplanned dives, messed up landings, assorted inadvertent maneuvers, and even 17 crashes in one day, the military wondered what was wrong. Although pilot error was typically noted as the cause, no one really knew why.
You could think here (as I did) that during the 1950s men were taller and weighed more than in 1926 so they just needed a bigger cockpit. This time measuring 140 different segments of the bodies of more than 4,000 pilots, the Air Force came up with a new average.
But one rather clever Lieutenant knew to think “outside the box” or…the cockpit (sorry). He compared the average for 10 different body parts to men’s actual dimensions. Among the 4,063 men who were measured, not one pilot was average for all 10 items on this list:
So, if no one is average, then one size can never be good for most of us. And that is how we got a cockpit with an adjustable interior that even fits a female fighter pilot.
Our Bottom Line: Statistical Averages
Last week I saw The Full Monty. About unemployed factory workers in Buffalo, NY, the story ostensibly is about a group of men who become strippers. For me though, it was about the agony and disfunction of unemployment. It was about very real people.
The Fully Monty started me pondering the dehumanizing impact of statistical averages. As with airplane cockpits, the averages obscure what really exists.
My sources and more: As always a 99% Invisible podcast made my morning walk a pleasure. The story of average, the podcast took me to Todd Rose’s TEDx talk and his HBR article. Having just seen a wonderful production of The Full Monty in Nantucket from their Theater Workshop, it all came together.