Posted by: harrisonjones | December 15, 2011

Automation Complacency

This is the term currently used by academic soothsayers to explain why some pilots tend to doze off during a flight. The idea is that aircraft have become so automated and reliable, it is no longer necessary for the pilot to remain intensely engaged in the process. I think they called it something different when Lindberg dozed off during his solo across the Atlantic—probably blamed it on tension, brought on by lack of automation. Be that as it may, the Colgan crash in Buffalo and Air France 442 in mid-Atlantic, (both caused by stalling the aircraft and losing control) have called into question the basic flying skills of pilots who fly highly automated aircraft. The soothsayers opine that when the human has to take over and fly manually, the ability to recognize and recover from a stall is just no longer there. If that’s true, the solution would be to simply remove the automation and force pilots to always hand fly the airplane.  

While I sometimes enjoy injecting sarcasm and barbs in my blogged opinions, I can’t completely disagree with the shrinks in this case. An airline pilot normally practices real stick and rudder skills only twice a year. Every six months, a proficiency check is required in the simulator and stalls, steep turns, terrain avoidance maneuvers, V1 cuts, and engine out approaches are performed to a tight training standard. The rest of the year your criteria is smoothness and if you fly long haul trips, 90% of your seat time is in straight and level flight. The simulator training is excellent, but number one, you’re in a simulator, and number two, you know what’s coming and you’re prepared for it. There is no excuse for not being proficient in the training maneuvers, but the point is, your job is to avoid stalls and steep turns in the airplane. Passengers tend to complain about such things.  

Reading the shrink’s articles on the subject, it occurs to me that my stick and rudder skills were probably at their peak when I was a flight instructor in light airplanes. Almost every flight involved teaching or demonstrating training maneuvers and they were second nature. We didn’t need no stinkin automation. My first experience in airliners was flying copilot in DC-9s, B-727s, and DC-8s. Those airplanes had excellent autopilots, but did not feature LNAV or VNAV. We tracked VOR radials by use of the turn knob mode and made wind corrections the same way. The autopilot was capable of tracking a radial, but the wings waggled so much, no one used that mode. VOR frequencies were embedded in our brain and we used charts to stay ahead of the airplane. Believe me, you were fully engaged in navigating and a left-right course indicator along with a compass and a needle pointing at the station were your constant companions. There were actually two needles pointing at the station (two nav radios) and the unspoken competition was to try to split the needles when you crossed the station. If one needle spun to the left and one to the right, you had defeated the zone of confusion and passed directly over the station, even though you were four or five miles above it.  

Some of the airplanes had auto-throttles, but they were erratic and no one used them either. Power settings were constantly monitored to maintain the proper speed and sync the engines. Climbs and descents were made by adjusting the vertical speed and moving the throttles and the point at which you began the descent was computed in your head. If you lost focus for even a brief time, the airplane would humiliate and embarrass you. My point in relating this trip down memory lane is that you were intimately involved with the machine all the time and skill, technique, and focus were points of professional pride. Now, the airplanes are almost totally automated and the only required manual flying is the takeoff. The only unspoken competition is how fast you can program a flight plan into the flight management system. It is easy to become complacent, while watching the computer fly the machine and do all the work (mental and physical). It takes self-discipline to force yourself to scan and monitor and stay intimately involved. Airline pilots, hired in the last few years, received their initial training in fully automated glass cockpits and will spend their entire career in that environment. What I considered valuable experience in DC-9s and DC-8s, they would deem a pain in the butt, however those habit patterns remain with me today and I believe that discipline wards off complacency. I could be wrong. 

My conclusion is that there are two computers on an airliner. The company bought one of them from Boeing and hired the other one. One is contained in a black box and the other is between the ears of the guy they hired. One of them has to be programmed and the other has to be trained. I have to go now; I have my recurrent training with the shrink in lieu of practicing stalls.     

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