The Shimmer Of Autoland


The world is all agog over the news of Garmin’s Emergency Autoland. I’ll admit that any news from Garmin is usually impressive—and possibly discouraging to competitors—but when I first heard the radio commercial, I thought it was the name of a used car dealership in Oklahoma City. But was surprised to learn it had an aviation slant: “C’mon down to Bob’s Autoland! No license? No training? No problem! Every Autoland pilot is a hero, so black out the PIC, push a button and enjoy uninterrupted Netflix all the way to your awaiting Uber.”

(Music up)

“Autoland, Autoland

The future is nigh

In Au-to-laaand!”

OK, there was no commercial. And parody is protected under the 1964 Supreme Court decision, Irving Berlin, et al. v. Mad Magazine, but I tell ya, the future is here and none too soon. With the touted “looming pilot shortage” and related instructor shortage, teaching “pilots” to “fly” airplanes that land themselves is exactly what our connected world needs and exactly what didn’t bring me to aviation back when leaded exhaust fumes were lowering my IQ and permanently sealing my brain cells in the 1960s.

For some weird reason I’ve always wanted to be at the controls, making the decisions and accepting the inevitable consequences of my incompetence. Granted, I no longer fly IFR (where I’d take every high-tech advantage possible) and have never flown airliners except as a passenger in Fate’s hands. So, yeah, automated assistance sounds good, provided there’s a human who once taught aerobatics in a Stearman up front to say, “This doesn’t look right,” before things don’t look right.

A while back, I was invited to participate in a study, conducted in a flight simulator with scientists in Clockwork Orange lab coats measuring my eyeball reactions to stressful situations, including one where a mechanic hands me the bill for my airplane’s annual. Part of the simulation involved electronic checklists. Since it’s proprietary stuff, I can’t give details. Plus, I don’t speak Russian so was never certain what was going on. This wasn’t a pass/fail simulation, but I’m certain had it been real, all on board would be dead, because after several emergency approaches on instruments and running through digital checklists, I noticed that I was good at ticking off the items but had absolutely quit flying the airplane.

I was embarrassed and apologized, saying I was just a tailwheel instructor from a grass strip in Iowa, but the evaluators explained that they wanted to test a wide range of pilot types from highly experienced ATPs to “guys like you who should never be allowed to fly anything with systems more advanced than a starter button.” I asked them to show me, again, which one was the starter button. When they make simulators that need to be hand-propped to start I’ll show more interest.

I respect high-tech. I just don’t get it. Literally don’t have much high-tech stuff. My lack of understanding of tech’s potential emerged around 1978 in California when I was with my friend John, who was a student pilot, struggling to master landings in a Piper Archer. Crosswinds vexed him as they have so many of us since Orville first said, “Wilbur, unless every runway is pointed into the wind this flying thing isn’t going anywhere.” They then hired a law firm to sue the wind, won, and the rest is history.

John, who later went on to make his fortune in Silicon Valley, asked, “Why can’t they make airplanes with computers that will land themselves or at least correct for crosswinds?” Then, using expansions of Schrödinger’s Equation, he postulated that if you knew the wind velocity and direction plus the runway’s orientation (heading, not sexual) it would only take simple quantum math and applied engineering to guarantee perfect—or at least acceptable—landings every time. He then tried to define time. I’d stopped listening because a pretty Cub taxied past with the clam-shell door open and took off on the grass between the runways, where it vanished into the parallel dimension where I usually fly, thus eliminating any need for high-tech crosswind apps.

Here’s the point. (You were thinking I didn’t have one?) John saw and embraced the Autoland future. I saw the past in an old taildragger on grass, flying back in time. There is no point in looking to guys like me for a clear vision of how to handle the marvels of what is no longer yet-to-come but is already here and rapidly becoming yesterday’s headline.

Autoland for GA strikes me as the greatest safety and marketing advancement since Ballistic Recovery Systems (BRS) made arrivals in any questionable situation terrifyingly possible. If Autoland gets more people to go aloft, comforted by high-tech assistance, then I’m all for it. How they come down is irrelevant. Because as the old saw goes, “Any landing you can call your attorney from is a good one.”

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  1. Unlike your other correspondents, this is not something I view with any enthusiasm. I enjoy controlling an aircraft, and I do not want autonomous aircraft or driverless cars, or crewless ships. Does absolutely everything have to be automated? With the advance of AI and Expert Systems we are rapidly dumbing down the human race. And lest you think I am a Luddite, I’m not, I spent 40 years designing hardware and writing software, but I really do not want a world where machines do everything. In a short time I foresee huge social upheaval as millions of people become both unemployed and unemployable. The consequences of this will make the present social problems seem like a walk in the park by comparison. I firmly believe that there should be sentience on the bridge, in the cockpit, and in the driver’s seat. Computers have never had an original thought, and merely follow an algorithm. When the S**T Hits The Fan, you will need a human being at the controls, not a mindless piece of silicon. A totally automated world is not one I wish to live in.

    • “When the S**T Hits The Fan, you will need a human being at the controls, not a mindless piece of silicon.”

      Tell that to the families of the victims of the two recent 737 MAX events.

      • Please don’t show your ignorance. I’ve been flying for over half a century with upward of 30K+ hours. I have seen what automation has done. I currently fly an A330 which I consider to be a great airplane for someone that does not know how to fly. I believe training today has gotten away form basic training. We have glass cockpits that show everything possible. The Max accidents were not caused solely by a system that probably would never have activated in normal operations. Lion air installed and never checked the AOA. The pilots did not respond correctly to a runaway stab. When things go wrong, it would be nice to be able to go back to your primary instruments and FLY the plane.

          • Except it’s that very automation—taking control AWAY from pilots—that has increased aviation safety.
            Machines are better than people at most non-artistic endeavors.
            Not to mention that the autoland system is primarily for pilot incapacitation, though there’s one very expensive landing that I made that I may have pressed that button had my airplane had it.

    • “In the year 2525″… Enough said about my views of all-autonomous everything.

      However, emergency autoland as implemented by Garmin doesn’t look half bad. As Paul says, if that gets more people in small airplanes, even if just as a passenger, that’s a good thing.

  2. This will be one of those things that you will either love or hate. Personally I would rather have someone trained who could at least oversee the process or a controller who could tell that something was really not going well. I know that the system was designed to be entirely autonomous once the button is pressed, but I can say with some level of confidence, that telling a passenger that they can press that button in the case I am incapacitated might not be the most reassuring thing they hear during my pre-departure briefing. Even with a BRS, people are still reluctant to fly.

  3. It’s all good. I love tech. I think it’s great, but whenever a device gets confused about whose in charge, I can get rather angry.

    One of these things tries to kill me, and the boys in charge better watch out. I’m coming to see them. And, if I have to fly commercial to get to them, they really will not want to meet.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to fuel up and head to Redmond or Cupertino. Unbelievably, the only computers that never let my down were from companies no longer around.

    The world is nuts.

  4. The families would still be alive if it weren’t for mad MAX and it’s mad MCAS.

    As for “training” as a solution for everything is not. There are, people I’ll call them, that should not act as PIC, period. You train dogs, parrots and monkeys to do repetitive tricks.

  5. The last time I was in a plane I was certified to fly – except for being way out of date on my BFR (that’s what it was called in 1999; has that changed, too?) it had one of those new-fangled GPS recievers. The display was a digital alpha-numeric readout of the bearing to or from whatever navaid, waypoint or airport that was selected by scrolling through a long list of identifiers. The pictures of current glass displays show too much density of information in a small space, without proper delineation between bits of information. Vertical tapes with numbers oozing past a fixed index bar is just not a good way to present information. Sure, you CAN get used to it, but round dials with fixed numbers and a moving pointer just seem more logical to me. .

    • Of course the new correct terminology is “FR” not “BFR” (even though they’re the exact same thing – sometimes I think the FAA changes things just to keep instructors on their toes).

      Analog/round/steam gauges are easier to read at a glance without additional training, but even they can be prone to misinterpretation, particularly in reading the altimeter with its multiple hands. The trick to reading vertical tapes is to not focus on the continually-changing digital readout, but to watch the tape’s movement in relation to the set altitude (and if you aren’t using altitude bugs with vertical tapes, IMO you’re doing it wrong), and to watch the trend vector (applies to both altitude/VS and airspeed). The digital readout should only be used when once established at the desired airspeed/altitude/rate-of-climb.

      The point being, you can’t simply transfer what you know about round gauges to a glass cockpit, because the two are used very differently. And I find this is often true of most new technology – you can’t simply transfer what you’ve done in the past; it requires learning new techniques and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the new system. Sometimes on the whole, new technology is a step backwards, while sometimes it’s a step forward. But it requires an objective view to rate the whole.

  6. I suspect that age and experience dictate whether you love or hate the new display systems versus round gauges. I recently completed my (B)FR involving two flights with an instructor. One was in a 172 equipped with a G-1000 system, while the other was in a 172 with steam gauges. Owing to my advanced age, I found the round gauges easier to fly VFR, but on the instrument exercises under the hood, having all the data on one screen made those maneuvers easier. I suspect younger people who grew up playing video games are more comfortable with G-1000 style displays.

    One thing I find distracting about display tapes and numerical readouts versus analog gauges is the tendency to “chase numbers”. With analog gauges, you get used to where the needle normally points and don’t sweat the exact number. With numerical readout, one tends to try and get the value precisely as directed, which is distracting as the numbers dance back and forth. Setting 2400 rpm on a fixed-pitch prop is frustrating as the number bounces from 2390 to 2410 and back. Altitude and airspeed tapes offer similar distractions that pull your attention away from looking outside. It’s just something one needs to recognize and get used to.

    As for autoland: Cool idea, but something most of us will never experience firsthand. Just one more step on the road to autonomous flight.