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Automation: Friend or Foe?

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Automation is a routine part of our lives now, dictated by sweeping new technologies and consumer preferences. Arguably, the trend toward automation began in aviation in the 1970s. It has been debated and resisted by many in the aviation community, but the game has recently changed for both the airlines and general aviation. Yet, our culture is still firmly grounded in the Lindbergh white scarf era, aided and abetted by a pilot training system with roots traceable to the period just after that epic flight. 

Recently, a growing awareness has come to the fore: Our training regime hasn’t changed to accommodate the new equipment pilots are being forced to use. One individual noticing this include Flight Safety Foundation President Bill Voss.  

“Five years ago we passed the point where automation was there to back up pilots. Clearly, today, the pilot is there to back up the automation,” said Voss at the Corporate Aviation Safety Seminar (CASS) in San Antonio in April 2012.

It isn’t hard to understand why industry experts like Voss are making statements on this dilemma in public forums. It boils down to safety and money.

Situational Awareness

Let’s look at the impact of two high-publicity airline accidents, the Colgan Air 3407 crash in Buffalo, N.Y., on February 12, 2009, and the Air France 447 crash in the equatorial Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009. In both cases, their crews flew the aircraft into a stalled state resulting in a crash. These accidents drew great interest from the aviation community, the FAA and the press. Congress stepped in and legislated a requirement for first officers to have an airline transport pilot certificate, dramatically increasing the amount of flight time needed to get into the right seat. This was in addition to arguments for more good old-fashioned stick-and-rudder skills with greater emphasis on stall recoveries and upset training.

This is all well and good but obscures what, in my humble opinion, is the true root cause of both the Colgan and Air France accidents: a massive but subtle loss of situational awareness (SA) by the flight crews. I will note right now that I consider good SA to be a higher-order pilot skill, rather than a stick-and-rudder skill, and it depends as much on understanding the automation as it does on stick-and-rudder prowess. A stalled condition of both aircraft was perhaps the last event creating the smoking hole in the ground (or water), but it was a loss of SA that precipitated these tragedies.

Furthermore, a fundamental timely adherence to an even more fundamental skill—“pitch plus power equals performance”—would have saved the day for both aircraft. The Colgan crew merely had to add power. The Air France crew needed to reduce the jet’s angle of attack to save the day.

Meanwhile, operators at all levels are becoming increasingly concerned their bottom line will be the next victim of faulty crew performance precipitated by deficient pilot training. Primarily for scheduled operators, increased first officer requirements will drive up costs at about the same time a pending rash of mandatory retirements hits. Crew shortages could develop and/or operators may need to increase starting salaries to ensure attracting qualified candidates. Additional training requirements are one thing, but the airlines are concerned about pilots getting the right training. With all the emphasis on stall recoveries and upset training, they’re probably worried that better automation training will get lost in the shuffle.

It isn’t just the safety implications of automation training that has the airlines worried. They are betting the farm that new flight technologies such as required navigation performance (RNP) will help reduce their fuel costs, and they expect tech-savvy flight crews using the latest automation will be able to harvest these gains. Other technologies that are part of the FAA’s Next Generation Air Traffic System (NextGen), such as automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B), will also figure into this equation.

The problem in the airlines’ view is these technologies and automation in general are poorly covered or not covered in typical ab initio pilot training programs. In my view, their fears are justified.

Safety Vs. Utility

Most of these benefits can be obtained by modest levels of automation, including portable equipment. Each pilot needs to decide what is affordable for his or her own situation. In my own case, I fly a 1980 Beech V35B Bonanza that basically comes with the avionics it was born with, which were state-of-the-art in that year. The exception is that little piece of portable glass affixed to the control yoke. I use this airplane for virtually all my intercity travel for my consulting practice and other business transportation. The portable device increases the “safe-utility” of my operations. That term probably requires some explanation. 

Some people in the general aviation community fear we have used the new technologies solely to expand the utility of our operations and that many pilots push the envelope further, and thus do not achieve a safer operation. These folks cite the Cirrus safety record as proof new technologies haven’t improved safety. Indeed, the Cirrus fatal accident rate is a bit worse than other high-performance general aviation aircraft. It’s also true, however, that many Cirrus owners fly their airplanes on long missions and are in the IFR system, and IMC conditions, a lot more often than most general aviation aircraft. Thus, they may in fact be exchanging their level of safety for expanded utility, as the accident record suggests.

Is it possible to obtain more utility while simultaneously improving safety? Of course it is. One group of Cirrus owners, represented by the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA), claims their members have a safety record three times better than Cirrus owners as a whole. The COPA mantra centers upon training as a way to simultaneously improve safety and utility, and most of this training centers on higher order pilot skills such as risk management and automation management. For example, their Critical Decision Making (CDM) course emphasizes risk management techniques.

GA’s Automation Debate

The simple model I just described is intuitive and should be easy to grasp. Yet, some members of the GA community just don’t get it. Some of them write frequently on this subject (though not often in this publication). In one column, the writer brags about how he shuns all forms of technology and extols the virtue of navigating without radio aids. That’s fine, as far as it goes, since J-3 Cub drivers and the like do this all the time. I understand this, having years ago soloed in a Cub and operated a Cessna 120 all over the Western U.S.—neither of which had radios. I will add this type of flying or flying experience has limited appeal to the new tech-savvy generation that we need to recruit if GA is to sustain itself.

Far more worrisome to me is the columnist who downplays “electric maps” and emphasizes that pilot- age navigation should rule, even in a Cirrus. It’s time for us to recognize that such techniques are reversionary forms of navigation, not primary, in aircraft like the Cirrus and other TAAs. The technology has evolved that much and it’s that good. It’s not free, and many valuable aircraft don’t need it. This “do it the way we’ve always done it” mentality has its advantages: It’s inexpensive, reliable and always available.

But this new-vs.-old debate has been around since low-cost VOR receivers first appeared around 1949; we need to lose the Lindbergh aura and move on. Yes, we need to teach basic navigation concepts like time-speed-distance and teach pilotage as a reversionary form of navigation in most applications. For those who stay in simple aircraft, even those without electrical systems and radios, their transition training should include pilotage as the primary navigation system.

While I’m at it, I’ll assert that the primary mode of operating the Cirrus is on the autopilot, except when landing, taking off and maneuvering in the pattern. Heck, that’s how I operate my Bonanza, except for periodic proficiency to maintain my manual flying skills. I’ll go further and say that an inoperative autopilot is a huge risk factor in any high-performance aircraft. One’s absence requires mitigation, such as higher minimums, shorter trip legs and/or a co-pilot. The other bromide I constantly read is that everybody should “always keep your head out of the cockpit, where it belongs.” Yes, there are times when that’s true (like in the pattern) but it sure won’t help when you’re in solid IMC. The NTSB in a few recent accident reports has scientifically discredited the effectiveness of “see and avoid” in many settings. If you’re flying VFR in the Los Angeles basin when it’s four miles in haze and you are depending totally on see-and-avoid for collision avoidance, you are taking some extraordinary risks. When I have to operate under these conditions, I always use some form of risk mitigation, usually by operating IFR to reduce (but not eliminate) the risk. I’ve recently advanced in priority adding collision avoidance equipment to my Bonanza. However, even this equipment has limitations and may not detect all traffic threats.

This discussion is bound to turn off some readers, but I respectfully urge you to consider what Bill Voss and others are saying indirectly about general aviation when they complain about how we train pilots today. It is time to move on with training reform.

21St Century Skill Sets

To be sure, automation management isn’t the only higher order pilot skill you should be focusing on. Also, don’t despair: Basic physical maneuver-based skills will be crucial for some time to come. Someday this could change, given the progress being made with drones and other technology, but I don’t expect it to happen in an affordable way in my flying lifetime. That said, I have no doubt that the Jetsons will eventually rule.

As for the complete inventory of higher order skills, they collectively come under the title of single pilot resource management (SRM) and include the following elements:

  • Risk management
  • Automation management
  • Task and workload management
  • Situational awareness

Some members of the community also include aeronautical decision making (ADM) as one of these skills. The ADM concepts have been around awhile, but I prefer to think of them as the theoretical origins for actual practical SRM techniques that you can and should be using in all of your flight operations.

Recommendations

Regardless of the type of aircraft you operate, your training and proficiency program and normal flight operations should include a mix of traditional physical flying skills and higher order skills. I recommend the following emphasis areas.

  • Take a risk-management course and use the suggested techniques in all of your flight activities.
  • Know your automation cold. That includes autopilots. You should be familiar with all the procedures and limitations in the owner’s manuals for all of the equipment you have, including portable equipment. Take supplemental equipment-specific on-line training to enhance this knowledge.
  • Alternate your use of automation and manual flying. For example, it’s okay to fly coupled approaches but consider hand-flying every other approach.
  • Even though your airplane may be automatically flying the “magenta line,” you need to stay constantly in the loop. That means being continuously aware of your position and your proximity to weather, special use airspace, terrain and other hazards.
  • During flight reviews and other proficiency events, ask your instructor or training provider to structure the event around a scenario that emphasizes both conventional and higher order pilot skills.

Automation is Staying

The simple fact is that greater—not less—automation is in our future. Pilots who use personal airplanes for transportation and commercial crews will see more and more of it. It allows more efficient operations, better presents critical and advisory flight information and relieves crews of the need to constantly mind the store as well as fatigue.

That last point is important. When automation insulates pilots from the constant need to manipulate the flight controls, we can tend to become disengaged from what the airplane is doing and where it is going. In the Colgan accident, the twin turboprop got too slow due to the captain’s “failure to effectively manage the flight.” Sadly, the pilot's were not fully aware of what was going on in front of them and lost situational awareness.

This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Aviation Safety magazine.

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