CEO of the Cockpit #32: Great Expectations

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We all assumed technology would make life easier and safer; and save time and paper. Nice try. Welcome to the hurry-up-and-wait world with bugs in the software, reams of computer printouts, and people who couldn't calculate a weight-and-balance to save their life (and wouldn't have pencil and paper to do it anyway). AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit wants his slide rule back.

Computers have made aviation so much easier. A mere decade ago, flight engineers were trained to compute weight and balance figures on something called "a piece of paper." These figures were then used in the operation of the aircraft.

Then a major breakthrough happened and the airlines came up with a radio dispatch system that was designed to save time and energy. The ramp people would transmit the final weight and balance numbers over the radio to the crew as they taxied out.

Today in the modern world we don't have flight engineers anymore or paper and pencil weight and balance. We live in a progressive, computerized world. When we say "paperwork," we mean printouts generated by computers.

This system works very well. The airline doesn't have to waste a lot of time training crews on how to do paperwork. The crews are grateful for any lessening of their chores and the flying public can sit back in their tight little airline seats, secure in the knowledge that even though they tip the scales at 230 pounds, the "big giant head" computer in our main base thinks of them as svelte 170 pounders.

Everything goes just "ticki-boo" until the computer goes down. Then our entire airline system goes belly up, all for the want of a pencil and paper addition problem and solution.

On the Job, Not On the Clock

Now we are sitting in the cockpit of a modern Boeing 757 jet on the ramp in BWI. We have a huge load of Baltimorons awaiting transport out of town, but we can't budge because the computer is down.

The gate agent pokes his head into the cockpit to give us the latest update. "It looks like it'll be at least six hours before they can get the computers up to speed again," he said.

Our erstwhile agent was being kind because he didn't mention the obvious -- that years ago, even gate agents were also trained to do weight and balance so the airplanes could get dispatched. He also didn't mention that only a few short years ago we had quite a number of passenger service agents. Now we mostly have phone lines connected to service experts in Bangalore, India.

"What do I tell the folks?" asked Greg, my cockpit co-captain and layover coordinator. "We can't just sit here in the gate for six hours. I mean, we don't even have the rotating beacon on and the ACARS doesn't show us out. We're not getting paid, dude!"

So we are being foiled by technology yet again. Computers onboard tell the company through a data link when we have all the doors shut and the beacon on. This signals that the airplane is pushing back and it also is the beginning of the flight in terms of pay for the crew. Even with every crew member at their station, they don't get paid until technology says that they do.

Sometimes when our few passenger service agents are right up against a push-back deadline, they'll ask us to turn the beacon on a few minutes early so their figures will work out and the company won't spank them for being late. No problem -- we get a few minutes more of pay, the agent gets to keep his or her job and the company shoots itself in the foot by trying to blame their systemic problems on the poor agent.

Enter The Matrix

Meanwhile, technology is keeping 108 people oblivious to the fact that their flight out of Baltimore hasn't budged. They are all enthralled with the little television screens that are in the backrest of the seat in front of them. Games, movies, news and trivia are all there -- inches from their faces. It is like having an X-box or a cable television right in front of your nose.

I glance back through the open cockpit door and it looks to me like a scene from "The Matrix." You know the one. All the real humans are in pods but they don't know it because they are all also hooked up to a virtual reality provided by the "big machine." I have to break into their little world and tell them the bad news about today's technology -- that sometimes it sucks.

It is always convenient to blame one's problems on technology. When our company computers aren't messing up we can always shift the blame over to the ATC's East German Military Surplus computers. That is usually what happens. Their little Tandy tape drives, buried somewhere in Cheyenne Mountain I would imagine, snarl up, or perhaps their batteries run down. Then the whole system goes kablooee and we have another delay.

Blaming every ill that befalls aviation on technology is a bogus argument because we are really arguing against ourselves. Aviation is, of itself, technology. We wouldn't have wanted the Wright Brothers to simply say, "Screw it, that plane is good enough," and walk away from the whole enterprise.

Slide-Rule Aviation

Holding a C-5 wiz wheel in the air that he had just fished out of his flight bag, Greg said, "This computer is a little piece of technology we can probably do without, too. It's still required equipment in our flight bag and its been 10 years since I've done anything with it."

Ah ... Greg? They don't require us to carry wiz wheels anymore. We still have to carry two flashlights, but not a flight computer or a plotter. I think they still require a pencil, although since we can't do weight and balance anymore, I don't know what we're supposed to do with it. Maybe we're supposed to defend ourselves against terrorists with the pencil because they sure as Hell are dragging their feet on arming pilots.

Looking a little chagrined, Greg dropped his cardboard flight computer and a scratched-up plotter into the trash bag behind his seat. He then fished out a 1992 issue of the AIM and dropped it in as well. He tried to break the spell of embarrassment by complementing his captain -- a bold and laudable move.

"So," he said, "You flew the triple-seven didn't you? How did you like the technology on that plane?"

Too Much Automation

The 777 had so much modern stuff on it that we pilots would just sit and soak it all in. I could regale you with tales of automatic checklists, schematic diagrams that magically appear when you want them and even the over-bank and over-pitch protections built into the flight control system. You want to know the biggest technology problem?

"More than you can possibly imagine," Greg said.

When you go to recurrent training after flying this thing for a year, you have no idea what is on the overhead control panel in the cockpit. That is because during normal operations you never even look up there. Most of the procedures you'll run don't send you to the overhead panel. The fuel panel run's itself; ditto for hydraulics, electric systems, pneumatics, pressurization, and a host of other systems.

Then you go to the simulator and have a simulated problem that requires you to, say, find the hydraulic pumps. This is when you'll have a problem, because you have to find the switch and only have a fuzzy idea of where it is.

After flying such "start-of-the-art" technology like the 727 and the DC-9 -- where we were real excited to have the little flippy-floppy switch on the HSI that would automatically give you the reciprocal heading -- the 777 was almost magical.

If you want to spend an hour in the la-la land of technology, just read the manual on the ADIRU, or try to. I attempted it once and felt like a caveman trying to microwave a bag of popcorn with a heavy club and a bad attitude. The ADIRU is pure Star Fleet stuff. (By the way, it's the Air Data Inertial Reference Unit. Please don't ask me what it's for.)

Paperless Paperwork

The agent came back in carrying a wad of computer paper the size of a Mamma Cass Mu Mu.

"You know what improvement in technology I'd like to see?" He asked.

"Automated passengers that you can use once and throw away?" asked Greg.

"No, I'd like to see about a dozen fewer trees die every time we dispatch one of these here airplanes. Why, with all the high-tech communications gear, can't they just send the fuel slip, the final weather, the weight and balance and a host of other crap out to your ACARS? I mean, they can beam insipid interactive games to the passengers, why can't they send you guys a simple accurate passenger count?"

"By the way," he added with a grin. "The great company-wide computer melt-down is over, at least for now, evidenced by this rainforest worth of paperwork. Now, go and sin no more!"

Give Us A Push

Time to push back. Calling my tug guy revealed another weak point in our technology matrix. Either he or I had plugged our headsets into the wrong plug. I checked just now, so I know it's not me. On the pointy end of the airplane there are two jacks: one for the tug driver's microphone and one for the earphones. They are different diameters and it is physically impossible to get it wrong. But he did. Technology strikes again.

Some people think we should automatically go to a hand-signal push-back at this point but they never offer to share my fine from the FAA if we run into something. Our books tell us we have to have a face-to-face briefing before we can do that, and besides, I think he just found the right hole.

"Hello, Cockpit?" he says.

Hello Nose wheel! I shout. We're cleared to push, the brakes are released.

"Cleared to start."

New/Old Tech

As we wait for our two huge, round engines to spring to life, I'll share with you two or three technology improvements I'd like to see. I think we can already assume that I want tug drivers with headsets that work. I know that is a petty thing, but after you've been a captain for a while you tend to get that way. It is like having a drip of water hit you on the head. The first couple hundred of times it doesn't bother you. The second couple hundred of times it can drive you nuts.

A low technology fix for the terrorist problem, at least on the 767/757, would be to simply move the cockpit door back behind the most forward bathroom and then weld it shut. Give the pilot crew their own entry door to the outside of the airplane and we could forget about all the silly cockpit-door guarding, and bathroom monitor rules we have to follow now.

A slightly higher technology thing I would like to see is now available on every Cessna 172 in the world. I would like to see a real-time weather uplink/downlink service in the cockpit of my airliner. I'm not knocking the on-board radar system. It works great, but it would be really nice to see the whole weather system from a global viewpoint before we get to the site of the thunderstorm encounter.

The agent had left and Greg groaned, adding the final word to the technology conversation of the day.

"You know what I'd like to see?" Greg asked as he rubbed his sore lower back. "A copilot seat with a cushion."

Both engines were lit, the flaps were out, and we got to taxi almost a hundred yards before Ground Control told us that there was a ground stop for our destination. At least now we were on the clock and could blame the problem on the government. Not that the passengers seemed to care. They were into game three of "flight trivia" or perhaps were enthralled with the re-run of "Friends" our onboard technology was providing to help them pass the time.

Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.