Blog: LETTING GO OF THE FLIGHT CONTROLS
There are few things we do with our hands today that can’t be done better, faster, and safer with smart technology. Uniform tasks with predictable variables don’t need innovation and imagination, so until recently we let the machines do the work while we did the thinking and came up with the ideas. Now we can write it all into software. One man’s innovation and imagination is no match for everyone’s, instantly available in the memory of the machine. The time has come for some things to change, and one of them is to really let the autopilots fly the airplanes.
We have the same hand controls, levers, pedals and cranks in cockpits today as we had a hundred years ago. All to accommodate the weakest link in a chain of ever improving technology that has all but eliminated any need for that link. Accident reports are a grim and damning indictment of pilots in the number of final conclusions citing their errors. On the other side of this coin, a rush to judgment from the manufacturers of airplanes, avionics and engines, to the airlines and the underwriters seeking to blame the most vulnerable and least defendable, the pilot.
Every significant detail of every accident flight is safely stowed in the crash survivable recorders. This information is compiled, analysed, digested and utilized in the manner for which it was intended, to reduce the number of accidents from the same cause. Not, however, by programming it into the autopilot where all of it would remain fully intact and instantly recoverable ever after. It is instead applied to every aspect of aviation from designing better hardware to lowering the cost of insurance, while the pilot, who needs it most, gets a copy of the accident report like everyone else, and a simulator scenario. All that information, paid for with countless lives, sits in limbo while the same accidents from the same causes, primarily pilot error, happen again and again.
Before the current global surge of affordable air fares, and high demand for new airplanes and experienced pilots, it was a buyers market for the airlines looking for talent. General aviation and the military were there to provide experience and weed out the incompetent, so additional training by the airline was pretty much a guaranteed investment. Not so today, as airlines are hiring from the flying schools and making the hard decisions themselves when lack of motivation and flying skills become apparent too late, and the bottom line favors making the best of what you have. Standards are lowered on the grounds airplanes have become easier to fly. But accidents never did happen because airplanes were hard to fly. They happen because pilots make mistakes.
How hard airplanes are to fly is an argument the pilot will win every time. Very hard if you don’t stay well ahead of it, and potentially lethal if you fall the least bit behind. Automation as it is now can take up some of the workload in an emergency but none of the pressure. Until that changes, mistakes will continue to be made as pilots, accustomed to years of event free flying and faced for the first time with a crisis, may not necessarily do the right thing. This has always been the case, but we did not always have the means to rectify it. Now we do. The teachable autopilot.
Autopilots that can actually fly airplanes in any situation may soon be available, but strong and apparently viable argument will be made in favor of keeping the pilots in control. Pilot’s unions, the airlines and the industry will likely win this argument as public opinion will side with them in spite of the logic pointing so clearly in the other direction. “We know those pilots” they will say, pointing to the one who represents all in speaking engagements and media interviews. “ What kind of autopilot could have done that?” No argument there. Just put a pilot like him in every airplane.
Sixty years ago, when the jet age was new, no one wanted airline safety mentioned in any context. No safety briefings, nor any crew discussion of the subject that may be overheard by the passengers. Crashed airliners had company logos and identification painted over before any photos were taken. We knew how to deal with a touchy subject then. Apparently we haven’t forgotten. Don’t hold out too much hope for a change in attitude toward pilots having control of airplanes for the foreseeable future. No one wants to talk about it.