Maybe Man Wasn’t Meant to Fly


Remember the movie, Wall-E, a Pixar animated tale whose subtext was that technology eventually evolved to be so all enveloping that humans were reduced to quivering mounds of fat conveyed in bins attached to a mechanical belt? If that future awaits us all, are airline pilots leading the way?

In the midst of its investigation into last summers Asiana crash at San Francisco, the NTSB has once again raised concerns about airline pilots relying on automation to the extent that their hand flying skills diminish. If this is true, I think its been going on for a number of years but maybe were just now reaching some sort of critical mass. Whatever the case, its alarming to me to hear anyone supposedly qualified to sit on the flight deck of an international 777 say hes really uncomfortable hand flying a visual approach. The only rational response to that is: seriously?

In general aviation, we have a related problem, but it may be due to too little automation rather than not enough. Bluntly, some people just fall apart at the man-machine interface and simply lose control of the airplane. And Im not talking about, say, skidding off a slick runway or botching a crosswind touchdown. Weve all done that. Im talking about flat out losing control of a perfectly functioning airplane on a clear, VFR day and driving it into a smoking hole. Or losing it on landing and taking an excursion through a line of parked aircraft before coming to rest in someone elses hangar, co-habitating uninvited with the current resident.

This sort of thing isnt rare. In fact, it happens every week, if not every day, in some form. Just the ground chaos is enough to fear for the future of civilization. Every time I go to the airport, it seems, something else has happened. Last winter if was the runaway Malibu that sheared off its legs in a ditch after the owner decided it would be okay to prop it with the throttle open, the mags on and no chocks. The other day, Im told, a pilot lost control of a golf cart-yes, a golf cart-and ran into the wing of a turboprop. And we havent even gotten to the flying part yet.

Not that Im claiming any immunity. While Ive never lost control of an airplane seriously enough to bend metal, there was that incident with my truck on the way to the airport to fly an early a.m. charter. I needed gas and the pump was situated on the wrong side of the nozzle, so I backed into the slot, not seeing one of those big heavy steel bumpers they bury in 30 tons of concrete to protect the pumps against… people like me. I backed into it unseen and smashed the left tail light. I pulled forward to get a better position and hit one on the other side, smashing the right tail light. This was being observed by the kindly Indian owner of the store who I suspect was soon online booking one way tickets back to New Delhi. When I got to the airport, the line boy asked if I was aware that both my tail lights were broken. Yes, I was, but thanks for asking.

But back to the airplanes. In general aviation, loss of control is by far the most common cause-or perhaps result-of GA accidents. The Society of Aviation and Flight Educators recently sent me a link to a resource page devoted to educating pilots about loss of control with suggestions about what they might do about it.While Im all for education and awareness and parting the curtains of ignorance, Im doubtful that were going to move the needle on this in any noticeable way.

First of all, this problem has been with us forever, even during periods when pilots were averaging more than 100 flight hours a year. Now that were averaging half that, how can we rationally expect to do any better? While SAFE is doing good stuff, Im not sure the will is there in the pilot community to do the training and currency necessary to build the skill base. And I definitely think its skill deficiency. Some pilots will run into stuff no matter how much you train them; theyre just inept with machines.

But I suspect most of us are inept only in certain circumstances and increased awareness and more practice-you know, actually flying-would reduce the odds of catatonia in the cockpit when the slightest novel situation arises, say the airplane veers a little left when the power is applied or that noisy damn gear horn makes it so hard to think.

The automation part is interesting. I think its different for GA pilots than for airline pilots. GA pilots tend to lard the cockpit up with more digital stimuli than they could possibly ever need and so the problem may be distraction. The airlines have achieved a remarkable safety record partly because relying on automation can reduce errors like busting altitudes or wandering off headings. And we all know a coupled approach will almost always be more precise and safer than a hand flown one, which is why airline training emphasizes the automation. The NTSB questions whether thats gone a beat too far.

A couple of weeks ago I reported on the research done by Carolina Anderson at Embry Riddle that revealed some interesting points in the accident scatter plot.She concluded that older aircraft certified under CAR 3 are overrepresented in loss-of-control accidents, quite possibly because the FAA has made it too difficult and expensive to install autopilots in those airplanes. In other words, regulation has retrograded safety. I dont doubt the theory. As explained in our previous coverage, the ongoing revision of FAR Part 23 is supposed to make it easier to install avionics in general and autopilots specifically in older aircraft. If that eventually leads to installations of Garmins new line of experimental autopilots in certified airplanes, that might represent meaningful progress against loss of control by GA pilots. But it may be years before we can measure the results.

In the meantime, my strategy is two fold: Im flying as much as I can with an emphasis on landing skills and I always use a guideman when backing my truck for fueling. It seems only prudent.

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