Are You “A Hundred Percent In the Loop,” or “Just Along for the Ride?”

We are all, like every aviator since the dawn of powered flight, living in a technologically exciting time. Some might even call it, “unprecedented.” The wide array of technology that combines to make up contemporary aviation were, just a few years ago, in the earliest stages of development; and no one was sure of the exact implications on the profession that some of these advances would hold. ILS + autoland, integrated FMS, Heads-Up Display, TCAS and EFB/iPad immediately come to mind. There are countless more “advances,” dating all the way back to Kitty Hawk.

And just like previous generations of aviators, the technology that will be as common and “routine” in the near future as the few we’ve already mentioned are in every stage of development and implementation as I write this. Just when you thought that very little else could be done to enhance situational and mode awareness (SMA), concepts such as “hyper-situational awareness,” “totally connected airplane” and “optimal function allocation” are taking hold with aircraft and cockpit manufacturers around the world. I know what you’re thinking, “Not during my career.” But just think of how you access “charts” today versus how you did 5 years ago: not even the designers of the various tablets that are proliferating in cockpits by the thousands every day envisioned their utility as vast repositories for operational flight information from charts to performance. No matter how close to the end of your career you are today, you’re likely to be impacted by some new technology in the near future. Stick around for a few decades, and you’ll be able to recount with some humor how the 2010’s were the good old days before “all this new technology.”

The Point? Whether your primary reference for flight path information is the outside horizon or the flight path symbology of a heads-up display, pilots must never give unsupervised control of the integrity of the flight path over to any other “agent” in the cockpit. The goal for overall authority over the aircraft’s flight path can never be less than one hundred percent. The lessons of the past few decades are now impacting the designers and manufacturers, who pledge to adopt human factors engineering at unprecedented levels to ensure that the pilot remains  “in the loop” with less cognitive and physical effort than in today’s cockpit environment. While we hope that’s true–and we truly do–the success of these systems will fall on the shoulders of the same individuals who have always made the latest innovation in aircraft “work” in achieving safer, more efficient, and operationally effective trips: Pilots and Crewmembers.

We maintain, not just in our book but in our field work with customers all over the globe, that staying “in the loop” begins with understanding the full range of capabilities of the automated systems on the flight deck, no matter how complex or carefully designed with the “wetware” in mind. We make no apologies for the study, practice, and operational experience that this demands; for aircraft this is more, for others, it’s much less. Either way, take a moment at the end of this piece to consider where you are along that journey… and then begin making up the difference through the changes that only you know need to be made to achieve the next level of Automation Airmanship®.


Until our next report, fly safe and fly first.

Memphis, Tennessee 

September 2013

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