Cockpit blues

Has automation made flying easier? Or are pilots forgetting how to fly?

Topics: Ask the Pilot,

Cockpit blues

You probably heard the recent news about the FAA study claiming that airline pilots are suffering from “automation addiction.”

Reliance on the high-tech autoflight systems found in today’s jetliners, we’re told, has resulted in a decline in basic flying skills — a decline that has possibly manifest itself in several tragic accidents.

This was red meat for the media. In too typical fashion, reporters took the studies’ findings and reshaped them into caricature, in the process reinforcing the tired old fallacy that it’s computers, not pilots, that actually fly airplanes.

For me the timing couldn’t have been worse, coming directly on the heels of a series of automation-related, myth-debunking articles I’d published on Salon. No sooner had I put the topic to bed when it explodes across the headlines.

All right, but what of the general premise? Is it true? Have the sophisticated cockpits found in today’s Boeings and Airbuses brought on an erosion of fundamental piloting skills?

Probably, yes. I imagine my own stick-and-rudder skills, as we call them, aren’t as sharp as they used to be.

My gripe isn’t with this conclusion itself, but with presumptions about what it means, and the manner in which it is being presented. Yes, the autopilot is turned on shortly after takeoff, and it isn’t turned off again until shortly before landing. Automation does most of the actual flying.

But what is automation? What is the autopilot? For that matter, what is “flying”?

We often hear of this proverbial “computer” that flies the plane. There is no such thing. Rather, there is an autoflight system, for lack of a better description, that contains multiple subsystems and components, each with a different function. Some or all of these components are at the crew’s disposal. The “autopilot” is one of these components (the plane I fly has three autopilots). Loosely put, it’s the device that allows you to take your hand off the wheel.

Together, this automation is merely a tool. You still need to tell the airplane what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. There are, for example, no fewer than six different ways that I can program in a simple climb or descent on my 757, depending on preference or circumstances. The automation is not flying the plane. The pilots are flying the plane through this automation. They are telling it which routes to follow, and how to follow them; which speeds and altitudes to fly, and when to fly them. And a thousand other things over the course of a flight, from configuring the airplane on approach (deploying flaps, slats, landing gear at the appropriate speeds, altitudes and times) to performing the takeoff and landing, both of which are almost always a manual exercise.



In a radio interview the other day, the well-known aviation commentator John Nance spoke of pilots needing to “take over” should the automation fail them. This was a terrible way of putting it. Regardless of what level of automation is selected at any given time, the pilot is the one in control.

“Pilots use automated systems to fly airliners for all but about three minutes of a flight: the takeoff and landing,” read a piece from Associated Press airline reporter Joan Lowy, discussing the recent FAA report.

I beg to differ on the three minutes part, but however long it is, this passage is extremely misleading. People envision a crew taking off, then clicking a button and spending the next four hours sitting there, arms folded, while the plane “flies itself” from New York to Los Angeles. This is absurd.

During flight, duties will ebb and flow; the amount of workload goes up and down. But the flight deck is often a very busy place. Even on the most routine, trouble-free flight, task saturation isn’t uncommon. That’s task saturation with the autopilot on.

And when it’s off? What of those deteriorated hands-on basics — the things a pilot learns in a Cessna on his very first lesson?

There have been a number of recent accidents in which a failure of elementary airmanship seemingly played a critical role, the 2009 crash of a Colgan Air turboprop outside Buffalo, N.Y., for example, and the Air France 447 disaster. A pilot responds to an impending stall by raising the nose rather than lowering it. Errors like this smack of complacency, and of a pilot who has, to put it one way, “forgotten how to fly.”

But is that really what we’re seeing? Perhaps the trouble is actually something else.

The Canadian magazine MacLean’s recently published a very good piece suggesting that automation itself is part of the problem.

The article isn’t perfect, but I do think it’s on to something. In some respects automation has reduced pilot workload and made flying easier. In other respects, it has made it much more complicated than it needs to be.

It’s not for nothing that when a pilot transitions from one aircraft type to another, the classroom and simulator training often take several weeks. He isn’t relearning how to fly in the traditional sense, so much as learning to manage and make sense of the airplane’s systems. And many of those systems are overly complicated and over-engineered.

If you ask me, the modern cockpit hasn’t sapped away a pilot’s skills so much as overloaded and overburdened them, in rare instances leading to a dangerous loss of situational awareness.

To some degree, maybe, this is saying the same thing. And in the end, it’s pretty simple: A crew needs to know what its plane is doing, why it’s doing it, and how to stop it from doing it if need be.

But as important as they are, the raw, hands-on skills of flying — “driving” the plane, so to speak — are only a part of this, and not always the most critical part. As aircraft have changed over the years, expertise has come to be measured through a somewhat different skill set. But it’s wrong to suggest that one skill set is necessarily more important than another.

Both are critical to safety.

For pilots, meanwhile, this constant stream of misleading articles, the testimony of supposed experts and the fantastical predictions of researchers all leaves us feeling a little undervalued, if not depressed.

It took me the better part of 20 years from the day that I became a licensed pilot to the day I finally got a decent job with a decent airline. During that span I accumulated more than 5,000 logbook hours and half a dozen advanced ratings. I enjoy what I do for a living, but there’s nothing easy or “automatic” about it, and I wish the public could better understand, and the media would better represent, the human effort that goes into getting a plane from one city to the next.

A few days ago I worked a trip down to Brazil. At the conclusion of the flight, as the 200 or so passengers disembarked, I stood in the doorway and watched. They offered tired half-smiles to the purser and, every tenth passenger or so, a cursory nod toward the cockpit. I could hardly expect them to jump up and down, slap us on the back or ask for autographs, but just the same I had to wonder: How many of these people believed it was the airplane — “the computer” — and not the three of us, that had gotten them safely and soundly to South America? How many of them assumed we’d been sitting up there for nine hours with our hands folded? How many travelers out there have any idea what we actually do for a living?

- – - – - – - – - – - -

Do you have questions for Salon’s aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his website and look for answers in a future column.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>