Cockpit blues

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


Patrick Smith
September 16, 2011 4:20AM (UTC)

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.

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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"?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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