The (wo)man in uniform

On 20 October 1986, 87 people boarded a plane for a short-haul flight. I can almost picture them settling down in their seats as a calm voice greeted them with words such as “ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Aeroflot Flight 6502 to Grozny. My name is Alexander Kliuyev and I will be your captain.” About 2 hours later, that same voice could have come on the intercom and said “cabin crew, prepare for landing.” For the passenger, they had almost reached their destination. They would have felt the plane piercing through the clouds on its descend. Some could have been looking down from their windows to see the view as they came in to land. In all this, they knew they were in safe hands. The hands of two pilots. After all, what picture of professionalism is there beyond that of a pilot? Pilots can boast of having one of few careers that is almost universally respected, even by children. There is no reason to doubt that the passengers of flight 6502 were confident that the men behind the cockpit doors were such highly trained personnel.

Behind those cockpit doors and unknown to the passengers, the men at the controls were making a bet. The bet was for captain Kliuyev to land the plane blindfolded. Yes, you read that right. The captain made a bet with the first officer that he could land the plane on instruments only. Curtains in the cockpit were drawn. It was the two men and their instruments. No visual reference whatsoever.

As the plane was only a couple of hundred feet off the ground, there were audible proximity warnings in the cockpit. They were coming in too fast. These warnings fell on deaf ears. Air Traffic control told the pilots to abort the landing and go around. This advice was ignored as well. Captain Kliuyev was set on one thing: prove to his first-officer that he is able to land a plane with no visuals. Nothing was going to stand in his way.

The plane hit the ground hard, flipped over, caught fire and tumbled down the runway until there was no room left. It came to rest beyond the runway, still upside down. 70 out of the 94 people on board died. Captain Kliuyev, despite making this foolish bet, survived.

How can a trained pilot, professional as they come, make such a silly and costly bet? I do not know. There is a lesson we can get from this accident nonetheless. It is that behind any glamorous uniform is a man or woman who is just like the rest of us.

How do we look at people in elegant uniforms? How do we treat them? What is our behaviour around them? Do we think of them as gods? Contrast this with how we look at people in rugged uniforms? How do we treat them? What is our behaviour around them? Do we think of them as cavemen? What if this uniform was not made of cloth? What if it is someone’s skin colour? What if it was someone’s face, height or weight? What if it is the way they talk? Or perhaps where they come from? Their gender or level of education?  How much of our perception and treatment of people is based on one’s physical appearance? Of course what we see with our eyes can give us a lot of information, that is what eyes are for. However, it is worth noting that there is a person behind that uniform, whatever uniform it might be. Remembering this might just teach us compassion. Maybe, just maybe, we need to do this to avoid judging people unjustly. Maybe the uniform they put on does not define them in totality


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