Turbine Pilot: Is HAL on board?

Who’s in charge of your aircraft?

April 1, 2009

Do you remember the computer, “HAL,” attempting to take over the spacecraft in the 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey? (“Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave? Dave?”) That movie gave voice to our fear that we would one day become slaves to our technology. In many cockpits, that has certainly become true.

Back in 1983, when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, I was hired to fly my first “all glass” airplane, a new Canadair Challenger 600. It was a marvelous display of technology, with its too-cool TV screens, blinking lights, magic buttons, and an annoying, disembodied voice we called “Bitchin’ Betty.” At first, we wondered what we needed all that technology for. Turns out, that question was quite prescient.

While we integrated all this computer magic into our everyday flying, attempting to rise to the challenge of operating it in spite of its quirks, “operating logic,” limitations, and engineering misses, the technology became more common, refined, capable, and helpful; we began to take it for granted, yet few paused to question its role. “Who is the master here? Who is the slave?” That failure led to a whole new category of pilot error. Here’s what often happens when we get the master/slave relationship confused.

Altitude busts. Pilots are often busy typing on the computers instead of ensuring that the autopilot will make the crossing restriction or level off at the proper altitude.

Missed ATC calls. “Was that call for us?” has become even more common in our cockpits as we are distracted by the magic in front of our eyes. This can lead to clearance errors and loss of separation from other aircraft.

Near collisions. Let’s face it: Given a choice between staring at a “blank” sky and an ever-changing TV screen, pilots will choose the TV. Every time. But not all traffic appears on the screen.

Taxi errors. When you are moving about the taxiways with your head down, it’s quite easy to miss your turn and pull into the path of a departing or landing aircraft.

Establishing who is boss in any technology relationship is a crucial first step, one that’s often missed in the rush to play with the new toys. We’d rather play with the buttons and knobs than decide how (and if) we want them to serve us. That’s understandable, because technology is compelling, exciting, amazing, and endlessly fascinating.

But when we try to serve this “slave” we discover that it has no brain; cannot plan; does not have the big picture; does not “think” or reason with the complexity of a human pilot; does not know how to prioritize; cannot hear ATC calls; does not know the danger of non-TCAS airplanes that get too close; has no concept of time management, or even why time is important; has no consciousness; may not comprehend spatial relationships with other aircraft, terrain, or weather; and has no experience to draw from.

It does not ask questions; does not learn from its mistakes; has no awareness of itself or things outside; knows only what someone (mostly programmers, not pilots) taught it; does not know the limitations of the machine to which it’s bolted; does not know the FARs, the AIM, or the POH; does not know how to fly; only knows one way to do things—its way; and, perhaps worst of all, constantly solicits and demands your complete attention. Still want to serve that “slave”?

In the headlong rush to learn and conquer our electronic flying world, we somehow lost sight of the reason that this equipment was added to our cockpits: to make flying easier by giving us a better way to display and manage information. All cockpit protocol should boil down to this: If the magic serves us, use it. If it doesn’t, minimize, ignore it, or turn it off.

Next time you go heads-down to type on the keyboard, twist the knobs, or just stare at the display, ask yourself: Is what I’m doing really necessary? Am I doing this because it makes the display pretty, or because it’s satisfying to prove I know how to do it? Do my actions serve me or am I serving the slave? More simply: “Do I need to do this now?” Often, the answer is no. Are you listening, HAL? HAL?

Michael Maya Charles is an aviation writer and commercial airline pilot.