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P&E: Technology paradox

Are you ready to embrace the change?

October P&E
Illustration by Peter Horvath

We posed the question to esteemed colleagues Rod Machado and George Perry—how has technology helped or hindered our flying skills? Machado, a longtime CFII, addressed the affects of changes in training, and Perry, senior vice president of the AOPA Air Safety Institute, looks at technolgy from a safety perspective.

Liberty or slavery?

Avoiding cockpit dependence

By Rod Machado

Last year I spied a woman pointing and jabbing a car key at an automobile while exclaiming, “Come on, open up!”

I asked what was wrong and she said, “My remote won’t unlock the door.”

I responded with, “Have you tried putting the key in the door and unlocking it that way?”

Apparently, she had never unlocked a car door by putting the key in the lock.

Generally speaking, technology either liberates us, or enslaves us by increasing our dependence on its use. It liberates us if it helps us to think and behave better. It makes us dependent if we allow the behavioral skillset replaced by that technology to atrophy or disappear. Key Lady’s dependence on her key’s remote function prevented her from entering her automobile once she lost access to that technology. She became a ward of the state—the state of technology, that is. Does the same apply to those of us who fly airplanes with modern technology? You bet it does.

Consider the relatively recent stall/spin crash of Colgan Flight 3407. Would anyone suggest that cockpit technology made the captain of this airplane less dependent on its use? The airplane was on autopilot during an approach when the captain mishandled the throttles and stalled his Bombardier Q400. He took over manually and attempted stall recovery by moving the throttles forward and raising the nose. That was his ticket to spin city. It’s most likely that this captain had little experience hand-flying his airplane, much less with practicing proper stall recovery techniques. Reliance on autopilot technology appears to have diminished his basic stick and rudder skills. The same can be said for those of us who depend on autopilot equipment to help us fly our smaller, general aviation airplanes.

Technology can have a negative effect on our cognitive flying skills, too. An early NASA study on autopilot technology revealed that a sophisticated two- or three-axis autopilot is best used by multi-pilot crews, while single-pilot operators are best served by heading-hold or wing-leveler units. According to NASA, use of a multi-axis autopilot by single-pilot IFR operators tends to remove them from the control loop. In other words, it takes their head out of the game. Isn’t that just another way of saying that these pilots have become more dependent on the technology they’re using?

Autopilots aren’t the only type of technology that can increase our cockpit dependence while decreasing our cognitive, physical, and perceptual flying skills. Today’s pilots seem to rely more on their traffic alerting equipment (TIS, TAS, and ADS-B) to identify traffic conflicts. Their see-and-avoid perceptual skills certainly have atrophied, if not completely disappeared. And what about pilots who have lost their skill at “tracking” a course? Instead, they home in on the destination by tilting their wings until the moving map’s symbolic airplane moves toward the GPS’ magenta course line. In these and other instances, technology increases a pilot’s dependence on its use at the expense of maintaining basic flying skills.

Ultimately, each of us is responsible for maintaining the flying skills that are in danger of being usurped by technology. If we do, then technology liberates us. It helps us think better, fly better, and fly with greater confidence. However, failure to do so often leads to anxiety (if you have to hand-fly an airplane using atrophied flight skills) or calamity (if you no longer have access to those skills when they’re needed).

On the bright side, airplanes don’t have door keys with remote controls. So pilots will at least have access to their airplanes.

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Automation sedation

Avoiding technology’s trap

By George Perry

There’s no denying that sophisticated glass-panel avionics and autopilots have made their way widely into the cockpits of GA aircraft. With them come new capabilities that until recently only airline pilots enjoyed. However, this begs the question: When we engage the autopilot, do we disengage our brain? Like the skeletal muscle structure of a weightless astronaut, do our basic stick-and-rudder skills atrophy when we relinquish flying duties to a computer?

There’s been a lot of discussion about the effects of automation on a pilot’s ability to actually “fly” when needed. It’s easy to cite some fairly recent examples that have drastically different outcomes. Everyone is familiar with the “Miracle on the Hudson,” where Capt. Chesley Sullenberger was able to quickly revert back to basics in an emergency, hand-fly his Airbus, and successfully ditch after suffering a dual engine failure.

Other airline pilots have not been so fortunate. The Asiana 214 accident involving a Boeing 777-200 at San Francisco International Airport is such an example. In this case the NTSB found that the pilots’ overreliance on automation, lack of systems understanding, and inadequate monitoring of the airplane’s airspeed all were significant causal factors. In laymen’s terms, the pilots of Asiana 214 crashed a perfectly good airplane on a VFR day. In the aftermath of this accident, the chairman of the NTSB, Christopher A. Hart, noted, “It’s well documented that skill can decline because of automation.”

Consider this—with growing numbers of technically advanced aircraft (TAA) entering the fleet, what are the safety implications for general aviation? The short answer is that it’s a mixed bag.

Both AOPA and the NTSB have conducted TAA studies. Both studies show that glass cockpit-equipped aircraft experienced proportionately fewer total accidents than a comparable group of aircraft with conventional round-dial instruments. However, TAA accidents were more likely to result in a fatality. Additionally, one could argue that these trends tend to be more a function of how the aircraft is used rather than how well pilots adapt to the technology. Older traditional cockpits tend to be used more for basic flight instruction, and newer glass-panel-equipped airplanes tend to be used more for travel.

There is no universal standard for a TAA cockpit. Throughout the GA fleet, there are a variety of systems, each with different capabilities and limitations. How do ADS-B information and iPads factor into the discussion? The issue of TAA and safety isn’t simple and drawing any substantive conclusions is difficult because of all of the variables. So where does that leave us?

To answer that question, I think it’s important to look at how and when we use technology as part of our flying, and a pilot’s level of familiarity with the system and its failure modes and limitations. As pilots we should try to strike the right balance. Automation, autopilots, and advanced glass cockpits serve a valuable purpose, but like any tool each has its appropriate time and place.

For new pilots, learning to fly should be just that—flying. A new pilot should spend as much time on the controls hand-flying as possible. Advanced glass cockpits and autopilots can be a distraction. Pilots who hand-fly are mentally engaged; it helps them build a fundamental scan, learn task management, time sharing, and they learn to look outside the windscreen at the Earth’s horizon to keep the shiny side up. Pilots new to flying who overuse automation aren’t doing themselves any favors, as they are not learning the fundamentals they’ll need as their flying advances. Seat-of-the-pants flying, stall awareness, and being able to “feel” an aircraft’s energy state can’t be learned when the black boxes do the flying. Once a pilot has a solid foundation, automation can play an important role and provide some pilot relief during certain phases of flight.

All this is not to say that automation, autopilots, and technology are bad. Quite the contrary. With the availability of crucial information such as traffic, near-real-time weather, terrain awareness, envelope protection, and advanced engine monitoring, there’s absolutely no doubt that advanced cockpit technologies enhance safety and situational awareness.

Experience tells us that stick-and-rudder skills are exactly like an astronaut’s muscles; they will atrophy over time if not used regularly. Whichever side of the debate you come down on, whether you believe hand-flying is a relic of the past or that stick-and-rudder skills never go out of style, the important lesson learned is that technology has its benefits and is something to embrace—but we cannot lean too heavily on it, because it can fail. When it does, our stick-and-rudder muscles must be strong to ensure a safe outcome.

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