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Headmaster's Address

The Dunning Kruger Hijack

(This assembly is an abridged version of an episode from a podcast by the brilliant broadcaster and economist, Tim Harford, well known to listeners on Radio 4 for his regular programme, “More or Less”.  I highly recommend to all pupils – and indeed staff – his excellent podcast, “Cautionary Tales”, which is where I came across this account of the ‘Dunning Kruger Hijack’ which links nicely to the themes of ‘Mount Stupid’ and of ‘confident humility’ which I explored last week and last term.)

November 1996, and a Boeing 767, Ethiopian Airlines flight 961, is flying from the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, to the capital of Kenya, Nairobi, when it is hijacked.

It’s not a particularly sophisticated hijacking: three somewhat drunk young men charge into the cockpit, grab a fireman’s axe from the wall, and threaten the captain and co-pilot, claiming to have a bomb. They beat up the first officer and push him out of the flight deck and then make their demands. The pilot, Lael Abate, was an Ethiopian Airlines veteran. He’d dealt with two previous hijackings; both times, he’d eventually managed to talk the hijackers into giving themselves up; both times, nobody had been hurt – perhaps this new hijacking was manageable also.  But outnumbered three to one in the cockpit, Leul plays it cool. As it turns out, the hijackers don’t want money or attention – they just want the plane to re-route somewhere else. Namely, Australia.

There was just one problem: there wasn’t the slightest chance that they could fly the distance – there wasn’t enough fuel on board. Ethiopian Airlines flight 961 was in the middle of a Dunning Kruger hijack.

I should probably start by reminding you what the Dunning-Kruger effect is, so in preparation I dipped into the original paper by David Dunning, in which he defined it as when “the scope of people’s ignorance is often invisible to them. This meta-ignorance (or ignorance of ignorance) arises because of lack of expertise and knowledge”.  So people who are suffering from the Dunning Kruger Effect aren’t just incompetent, they have no idea that they are incompetent.

Back on Flight 961 and things aren’t going well. The hijackers are threatening the pilot and demanding that he fly them thousands of miles to Australia.  The three hijackers are a strange bunch: they’re in their mid-twenties, clean shaven and nervous. One of them has a stocking cap pulled down over his face to conceal his features but the other two haven’t bothered. The leader has grabbed the public address system. He warns the passengers that they have an explosive and that if anybody moves, they’ll explode it.  Two of the hijackers grab bottles of whiskey from the duty-free cart.

The men are not easy to understand: they’re drunk and what they are demanding seems crazy, but there are three of them and there’s only one pilot, so he’s trying to communicate with them. He points out to them that there is not enough fuel to go to Australia (it’s around 7,000 miles to Australia, and less than 800 to Nairobi), but they reply by threatening him.

“Don’t lie to us,”, they say, punching him and threatening him with a now broken whiskey bottle. He repeats: “There is not enough fuel to go to Australia; the plane is only fuelled to fly to Nairobi. If you want to go to Australia we have to refuel; we can land in Mombasa and refuel.”

“Stop lying! We know you’re lying!” they respond. “Take us to Australia; we are not landing in Mombasa. We know the plane can fly for 11 hours without refuelling.”

That, theoretically, happens to be true: they had read this in the airline’s magazine, as they inform the pilot.  Sure enough, in the Ethiopian Airlines onboard magazine, there was an article explaining that Ethiopian Airlines was the very first airline in the world to place an order for the extended range version of the Boeing 767.  But just because a fully fuelled extended range Boeing 767 could in theory get you from Addis Ababa to Australia, 7 000 miles or so away, didn’t mean that this particular plane, fuelled for a short hop to Nairobi, a 2 hour flight rather than a 16-hour one, could do so.  It couldn’t.

The pilot tried again and again to explain, but they simply responded: “Don’t lie; we’ve done our research”. These drunk young men thought they were so smart but they had no idea how stupid they were.

But before we all get too sneery about these incompetent hijackers, let’s remember: the first rule of the Dunning-Kruger Club is that you don’t know you’re a member. And the second rule is that we’re all members: we all drop in and out of the clubhouse without knowing it, from time to time. One moment we know what we’re doing, the next moment, we’ve strolled into the Dunning-Kruger clubhouse: we still think we know what we’re doing, but we don’t. Any of us can step over that threshold at any moment and, like Wily Coyote walking over a cliff and standing suspended in mid-air, it might take a while before we realise that we’ve wandered away from solid ground.

Meanwhile, back on board Flight 961 and the pilot is trying to hug the coast of Africa to make sure he didn’t get out of reach of an airport. Time and again he was ordered to call Australia; time and again he took the opportunity to inform air traffic control of his situation.  For the hijackers, this was the last straw. “Turn left, fly away from the coast, we are going to Australia.”

By now fuel is running very low, but Leul was now heading towards the Comoro Islands, which lie midway between Madagascar and the African mainland.  He knew there was a runway there.  The chief hijacker was sitting next to the pilot, drinking whiskey, messing with the controls and kicking the rudder, as Leul pointed to the now empty fuel gauge. The hijacker kept prodding away at the controls.

With the Comoro Islands now in view, Leul begged again to be allowed to land. The right engine ran dry as the lead hijacker got up to talk to his friends. The pilot grabbed the intercom and warned the passengers: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot speaking: we have run out of fuel and we are expecting a crash landing and that is all I have to say. We have lost already one engine and I ask all passengers to react to the hijackers.”

The hijacker returned and knocked the microphone out of his hand. Leul descended to try to prevent a stall with a hijacker screaming at him to maintain altitude.

“The fuel is gone; the engines have no power,” Leul replied.

The hijacker responded: “If you touch those controls, I will kill you.”

Leul replied: “I am already dead because I am flying an airplane without engine power.”

By this time the plane was gliding down within sight of the shore – there is some amazing video of this taken by holidayers on the beach – but there’s so little power that only the most basic controls are working. The hijacker is still trying to operate the flaps himself from the co-pilot seat – even though he’s not a pilot.  He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He is ignorant of how ignorant he is.

At that moment, the First Officer forces his way back into the cabin; the cabin now contains two airplane staff and three drunk hijackers fighting for control of a dead airplane. Whilst the First Officer wrestles with the attackers, Leul wrestles with the plane. Somehow, he manages to get her down in shallow water, the landing witnessed by aghast holidaymakers, sunbathing on the beach, presented with this extraordinary drama just 500 yards offshore.  The first touch is gentle, the left wingtip slicing into the water at about 200 miles per hour. For a moment it seems like the plane might just make it.  Then the engine scoops into the water, dramatically slowing the plane. She hits a reef and then she cartwheels and breaks apart.

50 people survive but the Dunning-Kruger hijack kills 125 people, including six of the twelve crew, and all three hijackers. Both the pilot and co-pilot survive, and amazingly, both of them continued to fly for Ethiopian Airlines until their retirement – in Leul’s case, almost twenty-five years later, in 2019.

So: people who don’t know what they don’t know can be dangerous. When they refuse to listen, to take in real-world evidence, when they dismiss it as lies and fakery, they can be deadly.

The antidote: confident humility: that’s the learning zone.  Be confident enough to ask questions, confident enough to think that there’s nothing wrong with admitting that you don’t know everything.  Be humble enough to know that we all have those pockets of ignorance – we’re all in danger from time to time of wandering into the Dunning Kruger clubhouse. Confident humility just ensures you won’t turn into a permanent resident.