Walter Mitty Dreams - Embedded.com

Walter Mitty Dreams

An hour into the Hong Kong-bound flight an attendant came on the PA and apologized for the broken video system. “We're calling our maintenance people and will work with them,” she assured us.

As a confirmed nerd long cloistered in various labs my life is short on action stories. I have no tales of heroism under fire, nor have I performed an emergency tracheotomy with a pocket knife by flashlight. The President doesn't call when he needs urgent advice on complex foreign policy matters. Unlike James Bond I've never slipped into a country illegally, and my non-existent license to kill would probably result in an accidental suicide as I'm clueless around guns.

But I do know about embedded systems, and here was my chance to live a Walter Mitty dream! No, the aircraft wasn't in danger and there were no lives at stake, but 300 fuming passengers were facing 16 hours crammed into the A340 with the prospect of no entertainment. Things could have gotten ugly. Now an engineer could save the day.

But they'd probably never do a Hollywood dramatization (“based on a real story!”) of the rescue.

The lead flight attendant listened politely till she understood that I wanted her to cycle the system's circuit breaker. Then she backed away and lost her plastered-on “Can I help you?” smile and firmly suggested I return to my seat. Her arched eyebrows and now severe expression made it clear that just offering advice about messing with any part of the aircraft's electronics raises the terrorist specter. Fine; I had what turned out to be a beautifully-written 800 page book (The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald) to while away the hours.

Half an hour later maintenance apparently came up with a solution. The same attendant announced they were going to (surprise) turn the system off and then back on. The screens went blank for a moment till a penguin appeared which like a Buddha benignly presided over a command-line interface. Several hundred Bash-shell commands screamed off the displays. Twenty minutes later, the boot complete, passengers had their video back.

On the return flight last week we were again treated to a mid-ocean reboot of the same system, though this time I kept my mouth shut. My dream of leaping into the fray to save the day ” even if that meant nothing more than doing a routine reboot ” remains as much a fantasy as Walter Mitty's reveries.

Engineers rarely dramatically save the day. In real life it's Delta Force; in the movies count on Bruce Willis or the governor of California.

There still are those daydreams when I think that the bleating phone will be a summons to an emergency meeting with Condie Rice. But she'll probably just be looking for advice about rebooting her iPod.

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at . His website is .


I had one such emergency situation when having the typical frame of mind of an engineer saved the day.

I attended a lecture held at a private school that ran very late into the night. As people were leaving, some of them got trapped between an outgoing turnstile (that kind that has several sets of bars, going all the way from top to bottom) and a exit door – which, of course, was locked. No one got desperate, but the people who got stuck there were sure that they were going to pay for their hastiness with hours and hours of waiting. As I saw what was happening, I thought: “I'm an Engineer; I will not be beat by a mechanism”. So I climbed atop the turnstile and with the help of a piece of cardboard that I found in a garbage can nearby I unlocked the ratchet mechanism and let those people out.

It wasn't heart surgery, but it sure gave me a good feeling – especially as I saw the look on people's faces, “how the heck did he do that?”. Couldn't be simpler, but I suppose it does take the right attitude – namely, that of an engineer – to know that it was a trivial matter…!

– Michel Friedhofer


I agree with you totally with waiting for that moment that one can shine to save the day. I guess we will just need to keep dreaming like Walter. The interesting thing about that is I was talking with some of my coworkers and none of them recognized the name Walter Mitty. I went through about 6 people before I found one that recognized the name.

– John Schluechtermann


You forget the “Flight of the Phoneix” (find or rent the original — it is much better) in which Hardy Kr¼ger plays an aeronautics engineer and saves the day. Jimmy Stewart also gives an excellent performance as the pilot who creates the mess from which Mr. Kr¼ger saves everyone. Highly recommended.

– John Firestone


I used to work as Electrical Officer on reefer ship. Any fault on critical systems, if not fixed urgently, would cost company serious money and sometimes could cause injuries too.

Once I just joined new company and all equipment was completly new to me. I just arrived from the plane and had to repair ship's crane. Next night, at 1AM, alarms waked me up. Main control system crashed and (to make it worse) had very “social” evening which finished hour before.

There is many more events like that… If there is a problem, you go there and make things running again. You have drawings, Fluke handeld and well equipped mechanical workshop. Including 5kg sledgehammer and gas torch.

Now I am in embedded developement and missing sometimes those MacGyver moments, also most time it was just boring routine. But it did miracles for my confidence building…

– Mladen Matosevic


Last week my van's transmission started acting up (no forward gears). I called the tranny guy, waited 4 hours for the tow truck. 2 hours later got a call from them. “Um, its just fine.” So I drove it until yesterday, symptoms getting worse but unwilling to surrender till I knew it was broken. Finally yesterday evening on the way back from fixing computers at my daughter's high school, a hard shift and a squeal of metal and …no transmission. After I coasted into my driveway, I exited the van and did the dance of victory. My neighbor who was walking his dog asked me what was making me so happy. I said, “The transmission is out! Finally a reproducible case!” He shook his head and walked on muttering to himself.Well, I didn't mention that fact I also had an extended warranty on the transmission…

– Tim Combs


If you want to see the engineer as hero, rent Apollo 13. It is one of those rare movies that portrays engineers in a positive light.

– Jim Esterby


I am only the hero to my children when I make the computers work.

– Douglas DAtwyler


Interesting article, but before you take that much credit, do keep in mind that those video systems you speak of are notorious for needing a reboot. I just got back from a flight to England and they had to power-cycle them at least once. Interesting – one of the movies was Firewall starring Harrison Ford.

But your article does contain an important thesis. In my mind, the real engineers are those who can adeptly walk into a situation/crisis, understand the problem and come up with a timely solution (i.e. fixing that turnstile is a good example). More important, they can regularly do this – not just a one-off case. Along my line of interest, I'm thinking of the guy who can walk the pits of a motocross or motorcycle race, talk the talk and perform necessary repairs / performance tunes that are stumping the mechanics of the race teams. Such a guy could make some decent money with that skill – if you saw what goes behind a factory race team, you can easily see why. There's a reason why a performance Yamaha dirt or sport bike costs that much.

– Joe Sallmen

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