It’s Not Another Crew Member: It’s an Aircraft System

There are many “models” which have been offered up to flight crews over the past several decades that seek to explain the role of automation on the flight deck. Some have proven remarkably durable and easy to adopt, others have persisted in spite of the fact that they only obscure the essential knowledge that we feel is required for contemporary flight crews to master the challenge of 21st-Century airmanship.

In a recent article (published this month) in one of the industry’s leading safety journals, it has come to the surface—again—that somehow the cool, dutiful and highly reliable technology that is part of the design of every modern aircraft, “In effect…has become another crewmember that must be incorporated into the CRM process. It has become an integral part of the crew concept and is subject to the same fallacies as its human counterparts.”

Bunk. Pure Bunk.

A couple of decades ago, as aviation was rapidly adopting the powerful new systems that still make up the information technology backbone of the modern cockpit (the modern Flight Management System, or FMS), I can remember finding this compellingly interesting as well. But we are much more knowledgeable and have much sounder research across the entire automation and technology industry to suggest that we should give over to these lifeless systems attributes of human operators in order to more effectively use them. It’s time to walk away from this concept and embrace a more flexible, accurate, and durable approach (if you haven’t already): the FMS, and all of the autoflight and display technology on the flight deck together form a system, that, though highly integrated, is learnable to the highest level of professional expertise.

We have the privilege to work with accomplished pilots of all varieties, fixed-wing and rotary, from air carrier pilots, pilots of western military organizations, and recreational pilots flying for their own aeronautical satisfaction. Of those who have achieved high levels of personal airmanship, they all demonstrate a command over the technology and automation on par with their knowledge of any other aircraft system (i.e., powerplant, hydraulic, pneumatic, electrical, fuel, flight control systems). Plain and simple: these highly trained, practiced and proficient experts wouldn’t treat the fuel system any different from the autoflight system by, say, wondering, what it might do next, or why it just did that. Likewise, I am constantly impressed with the eagerness that professional flight crewmembers seek out explanations and details about how their autoflight operates and is integrated not only into the overall aircraft design, but into the procedures that govern their flight deck activities, and even the diverse airspace environments in which they operate.

We don’t propose that contemporary flight crews need to know their autoflight and technology system to the level of detail of an engineer; we do however—without apology—recommend that every crew member learn the capabilities of their autoflight system to the level of expertise that allows them to clearly and decisively identify when the system is not delivering the desired performance, or is inappropriate for the current flight conditions. We feel so strongly about this as a result of over a decade of research and fieldwork, and analysis of countless accidents and incidents involving this class of aircraft, that we describe this “essential systems knowledge” at the beginning of our book, Automation Airmanship. Additionally, Logic Knowledge is a principle of Automation Airmanship, the final and crowning of the nine principles that govern the way flight crews can confront the demands of modern technology with knowledge, discipline, and purpose.

If you have taken up the habit of calling your technology systems on the flight deck by a pet name, it’s a sure sign that you might not have the deep knowledge of that system on par with your expertise across the other (more traditionally mastered) aircraft systems.

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

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