Keeping Up With Rapid Change

I view one of the purposes of this blog as keeping readers informed on what trends we think deserve your consideration in both helping with ongoing issues on the automated flight deck and preparing pilots for the challenge of adapting to new technology that even a few years ago might have been unheard of. To do that, we review journals and literature on the topic constantly, a chore that is both never ending and always interesting. There’s been a lot written on the subject of automation in 2014, and the year is far from over.

Two major accident investigations were completed by the NTSB in the second half of 2014 (Asiana Airlines Flight 214, and UPS Flight 1354 at SFO and BHM, respectively). Both accidents involved large, highly automated transport aircraft with systems designed to keep their crews aware of vertical and lateral flight path information—to enhance “situation awareness”. Both accidents occurred while on approach, and both investigations concluded that each of the fatal final approaches should have been abandoned in favor of a go-around. That is not news. But this may be: In light of these and other go-around accidents, every pilot must on an individual basis assess their own understanding of the cockpit systems that they operate and the procedures they use to interact with them during approach operations. At a minimum, this individual effort should be aimed at answering these two questions:

  1. Do I understand the cockpit systems well enough to determine when the flight path information has progressed outside of the parameters required to continue the approach? and,
  2. Do I thoroughly know and understand my flight department’s guidance for when it is unsafe to continue an approach to landing?

The commitment to educate the end user by the manufacturers of these highly automated systems has always ended when the aircraft is delivered. It has always been up to the end user to define the relationship between the pilots and the technology, and to ensure that the relationship remains rigorous, durable and reflects the gain in safety that these systems promise. Individual flight departments in turn adopt training and standardization programs to accomplish this task. But ultimately, the individual pilot must take this job on to his or her own shoulders—not passively sitting on the sidelines, but actively working to ensure that they understand and maintain an optimal working relationship with the technology that they are paid to operate safely.

Much has been said on the sidelines about how manufacturers must improve upon the designs that predominate across assembly hangars worldwide. Many of us will be retired by the time these new designs enter service. There is great promise in these efforts, and one industry analyst remarked this past week that, “The future flight deck is a place where automation lowers workload but also ensures that the crew is never faced with a situation where they are unsure of what’s going on and what they need to do.” As for myself, I’m anxious to see what kind of cockpit design will achieve this laudable goal, but thinking about this virtuous future doesn’t contribute to my resilience in the cockpit today. What does, however, is a constant commitment to add understanding and proficiency to the practice of airmanship—and in the 21st Century that means Automation Airmanship—and that translates as never sitting on the sidelines when there is more to be learned about the elegant and complex systems that comprise the modern flight deck.

Think about it.

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

Reference: John Croft in Blue Sky Notes, a report on Next-Generation Avionics in the November 3/10 issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology

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