Contemporary Cockpits: No Place for Luggage or Dogs

If you’re like me, you’ve grown tired in recent months of mass media reports of automation creating a generation of pilots who don’t know how to operate without it, and when forced to, come up short in performing the job of flying the airplane. Don’t get me wrong, what we believe to be the most fertile frontier for research with the promise of great advances in safety – the relationship between advanced technology and the humans who operate it – is the primary focus of Automation Airmanship.

I remember reading a similar comment in 2003 (just as we were getting into the business of promoting a knowledge-based approach to operating complex aircraft). It was the December 2003 edition of the National Geographic Magazine, dedicated almost entirely to commemorating the first century of flight. In it, the author Michael Klesius quotes one experienced test pilot as saying, “Airplanes are now built to carry a pilot and a dog in the cockpit… the pilot’s job is to feed the dog, and the dog’s job is to bite the pilot if he touches anything.” A full decade later, On December 2, 2013, in another national outlet, The Washington Times contributor Cheryl Chumley quotes another pilot and accident investigator as saying “Once you see you’re not needed, you tune out. As long as everything goes okay, we’re along for the ride. We’re a piece of luggage.”

Two things concern us: that we have professionals in our own industry who don’t appreciate the essential role of the crew in realizing the increased safety and reliability of technology solutions in contemporary aviation, and that reputable media outlets seize on dangerously inaccurate imagery to describe the contemporary flight deck. Indeed, we state this clearly in our book (See page 91 of Automation Airmanship), and in doing so rely on experts in automation and human performance from outside aviation, from the exact industry that seems to be threatening manned aircraft: the field of artificial intelligence, or AI. These same researchers conclude that “Intuition, pattern recognition, improvisation, and the ability to negotiate ambiguity: All of these things are done really well by mammalian brains—and absolutely abysmally by today’s microprocessors and software.”

We will do all we can to inform the media of the real environment that 21st-century flight crews operate in. It’s up to everyone in our industry to help us throw out the perception that the modern flight deck is best suited for “luggage” and “dogs.” In our next post, we’ll highlight how the essential “wetware” fits in contemporary aviation, and how you can adopt a life-long knowledge pursuit that will complement the knowledge of the aircraft and airspace.

Until our next report, fly safe and fly first.

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