Are we there yet?

One of the most interesting aspects of my professional life in aviation is following developments in technology across our industry (and others related to it), and tracking the most promising advances into widespread operational use. I consider myself to be among the lucky few in our industry who not only help in adapting technology into broad and safe use, but one who also enjoys operating the new technology at the same time. Thinking about the wise and thoughtful use of modern aviation technology while also practicing it gives me an endless stream of ideas to reflect on—mainly because I never seem to be able to see the end of the innovation or safety arc. I’m always somewhere between the last innovation and the next great idea that science might provide.

In my assessment of where we are today and where we can expect to be in a few years, a few things stand out:

  1. Airspace, due largely to NextGen technology and efficiency schemes, is changing both globally and locally. Reduced vertical and lateral separation, for example, is now operational over the traditional North Atlantic tracks that are used by thousands of aircraft every day. Likewise, it’s probable that one or more of the hundreds of new RNP procedures published by the FAA is in use at an airport that you operate at routinely.
  2. Virtually every aircraft and pilot operating in controlled airspace in the coming decade will have to be modified (aircraft) and trained (pilots) to safely operate in closer proximity to other aircraft and terrain than they are capable of today—with wider safety margins made possible by new technology.
  3. The CRM/TEM/RM protocols that brought increased safety levels to late 20th-century operations will not have the same multiplying impact that they once did—already plans are in place among industry watchdog organizations to provide both guidance and evaluation standards for monitoring and manual flying that we will all see before the end of the decade.

When I began flying the aircraft I currently operate, I could not have contemplated then that it would someday have EFVS, Head-Up Display, EGPWS, ADS, and the datalink capabilities it now has, or any of the additional technology upgrades that are presently awaiting to be installed. The only thing that I know for sure, is that the airplane I will fly in coming years and the airspace that I presently operate in (both locally and globally) will be different than they both are this week. But at least I have a plan and a way to engage with change that has been proven to work reliably. When I am asked to lay out this strategy in simple terms, It contains these four basic elements:

  1. When it’s known what the changes are, read the source information (the Advisory Circular, the SAFO, the manufacturer’s guidance). Don’t rely on short-cut or second-hand guidance alone.
  2. When the training is offered, take it seriously. Practice (if able) until you are proficient. Ask the hard questions while you are sitting with the experts.
  3. As soon as the upgrade is available in the aircraft (or airspace), practice with it. Use it operationally during non-critical flight phases whenever the opportunity allows.
  4. Approach all new technology or new airspace procedures with the same broad discipline; we are biased to our own “Nine Principles” of interfacing with automated systems, but you can use an approach that you know has worked for you in the past. Either way, be able to quickly revert to backup processes and procedures in the event it becomes necessary.

One certain fact about where technology is taking us, over the course of a career in aviation, is that we will never really be “there;” as long as there are efficiencies to be gained and safety margins to expand, we will always be on the way “there.” In an article in Esquire in April 2016 titled “The Truth about the Future of Cars”, authors Sean Feeman and Eve Steben write that “…the crazy thing about the new, which we always seem to forget: We rarely know, and often cannot fathom, what comes next until we figure it out.” 

You might not know what’s next, but you can know how you’re going to deal with it when it arrives.

Think about it.

Until our next post, fly safe, and always, fly first.

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