Sixty-three years ago this week one of the earliest commercially available computers was delivered to the US Government by the Remington Rand Corporation, UNIVAC-1. The joke that circulated for years afterward goes like this:
A bunch of scientists created a huge machine capable of complex calculations and called it UNIVAC. Eager to test their invention, they asked it, “Is there a God?” The vacuum tubes hummed and the tape spools spun for several minutes. Finally, the machine spit out a little card, on which was written, “THERE IS NOW.”
Underlying much of the last year’s most visible aviation accidents has been the notional idea that contemporary flight crews have grown increasingly dependent on technology and automation to the exclusion of airmanship. In response, regulators and oversight organizations, aviation businesses, manufacturers, academics, and aviation journalists have taken up the cause in search of an answer to this publicly declared imbalance between human and machine. Their early conclusions have been divided between calls for more technology, and calls for less.
We pilots and flight crews – so often left out of the argument – remain the last line of defense between all of the forces of nature and technology that bear down on us every time we set takeoff power. It doesn’t matter how much automation is added or how much oversight is placed on flight crews, it’s the crew that ultimately makes the critical decision at the critical time; whether to continue an unstable approach or go-around; if it’s safer to divert to an alternate or press on to the planned destination as weather minimums begin to plummet; accepting a clearance from ATC that requires unusual airmanship to comply with or opting for an alternative that adds time to the flight leg. Maintaining the appropriate balance between automatic control and human intervention is, without argument, one of the most important front-line skills of modern aviators. If you or your organization has not thought long and hard about the relationship between the human operator and the technology in use, then perhaps you should set the brake and reconsider how technology and automation fit into your SOPs, proficiency checks, and the daily personal practice of airmanship.
Computational technology has come a long way from the UNIVAC-1 in just 63 years; during that timeframe we’ve witnessed changes in the way flight operations are managed and executed that few would have thought possible in 1951. What began as uncertainty in the early days of computer design has become an essential aviation tool, with specific roles divided between the hardware & software and the “wetware” of the human operator. Ungoverned by airmanship, technology and automation are only powerful forces that we’ve turned loose in the cockpit. Maintaining an appropriate balance between the hardware/software and the wetware takes discipline and requires purpose – both easily overlooked in the day-to-day competitive, fast-paced, and high-risk endeavor we are all part of.
Until our next post, fly safe and fly first.
*References: Wikipedia: Univac. 2014.