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There are no secrets

When I think back to my early days of aviation, I can’t help but think of some of the less-than-brilliant things I did while flying. That doesn’t mean that I flew around intentionally breaking federal aviation regulations, but I had a bit of a carefree attitude about some things. Given that I was in my late teens and early twenties, this is no surprise, since we all think we are invulnerable at that age. Why would I be any different?

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As my career (and age) progressed, the airplanes became more and more sophisticated, which meant that they had the ability to record more and more information. At the airlines, cockpit voice recorders (CVRs) and flight data recorders (FDRs) are prevalent. Modern FDRs record hundreds of different parameters, and CVRs now record well more than the FAA required 30 minutes of conversation. In addition to more advanced equipment, I became less convinced that I was unsusceptible to my own stupidity bringing me down.

Modern aircraft record so much information because they can. The recording devices are small, lightweight, and can pack a ton of information in a relatively small amount of computer memory. They also record so much information because they are so expensive, and airlines and operators want to be able to get on top of any potential negative trends as quickly as possible. The miles and miles of wiring and plumbing also mean that repairs can be timely and costly if not properly diagnosed from the beginning.

What does this mean for pilots? It means that the airplane tattles on you constantly. Virtually nothing goes unseen or unreported. For instance, on the Boeing 737, if the air conditioning panel is not configured as it typically should be for takeoff, the airplane will spit a report out on the printer telling the crew what the airplane thinks is wrong. It may have been a deliberate setup, but the airplane doesn’t know that. The same airplane can also produce a report of takeoff and landing target pitch exceedances. If you think the company won’t find out about your inadvertent landing with the flaps at the wrong setting, you’re mistaken. Not only will they find out, but they can produce an animation of the flight, and see exactly what you did right or wrong.

Fortunately, there are safeguards in the system to prevent the company and the FAA from using this kind of information for disciplinary purposes or to go on a crusade against one or more pilots. However, the processes that are in place do allow the company to utilize the data produced to educate pilots and improve procedures and safety. For example, if a company sees a trend of crews appearing to fly outside the bounds of standard operating procedures in certain circumstances, they can use that data to try and determine why. Some airports have approaches or even local ATC procedures that make SOP compliance difficult for some or all fleets. As a group, the airlines can lobby the FAA at a local or national level to make any changes that will lower the risk of an accident or an incident.

There is a lot of trust and faith on both sides of this equation, and we are lucky enough to live in a society where the collective need (and desire) to enhance safety overrides everything else. It also helps that the pilots know that nothing they do is secret, so any temptation to do anything dumb is all but eliminated. By the same token, the FAA and the airlines know they need the buy-in of the pilots to continue to make the system better, and this is the way to get it.

Chip Wright

Chip Wright is an airline pilot and frequent contributor to AOPA publications.

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