Modes of Modern Airmanship, Part I: “If that was a mode, then I sure missed it.”

 So much of the way we discuss contemporary flight deck automation and how pilots use technology to “get things done” is centered on mode and situational awareness, we thought it would be a good topic for this forum. In fact, it seems that in surveying some recent accident reports the concept of what a mode is and what a mode does is either taken for granted by flight crews or simply not clearly understood. And at the rate that automation is spilling out of aviation and into other modes of transportation (just driving a new car in 2016 requires some level of “mode awareness” that was previously unthought-of), we also thought it was timely. So here is part one of another two-part series. We hope you find it interesting enough to come back in several weeks for our follow-up piece that examines the issue with contemporary examples, and offers a few tools that you can add to your repertoire of Automation Airmanship skills.

The word “mode” is popping up everywhere in 2016. In fact, since 1980, according to Google’s NGRAM word usage calculator, the phrase autopilot mode has tripled in usage. In fact, the use of mode confusion has appeared in English language usage almost 10 times more today than in 1992. A quick survey of two NTSB accident reports (Asiana 214 in San Francisco and UPS 1354 in Birmingham in 2013) reveals that the word mode is used in each report approximately 250 and 135 times, respectively. A further search of the ASRS database generates over 7,000 individual records that contain references to the word mode. It’s very likely that anyone reading this post encounters hundreds of “modes” every day, many of them unknown and unseen.

As a pilot (and sometimes an instructor and evaluator) I find the grasp of the word mode to be misunderstood by many aviation professionals whose reliance on proper mode understanding and usage is foundational to their success. I don’t know why this is, but even in disciplined and highly technical accident reports involving aircraft, the word mode is rarely defined, yet might be used hundreds of times in a single publication. Maybe that’s because since we all use modes of all types all the time, it’s assumed that we all understand what a mode is. As a test of this hypotheses, after you read this ask just a few of your colleagues to define the word mode. You can make this more challenging by asking them to define the word in the context of cockpit automation. In the process you might encounter this response, “I know a mode when I see one, even if I can’t describe it exactly.” We definitely need a more useable definition that will help us understand this pervasive term.

Looking at the conventional definitions of the word mode, we find that common language definitions are similar. One dictionary defines a mode as, “a particular functioning arrangement or condition.” Another, as “a designated condition or status, as for performing a task or responding to a problem.” Those are not too bad, but not very applicable to the modern flight deck, where it seems that modes are ubiquitous. But as you would expect, aviation’s special relationship with the word mode calls for a more specific definition, and two of these sources define a mode as “a mutually exclusive set of system behaviors” and “a collection of system actions associated with different system states.” Yup. We know. Still not that useful. There must be a simpler and better way to view what a mode is, and what it does.

We prefer to describe each individual mode as,

“…a way that pilots use aircraft flight guidance, autoflight, and speed control to manage aircraft speed, pitch, and roll.”

That’s a definition that can be applied to unique cockpits and every kind of aircraft. There are modes related to other aircraft technology—thousands of them—from weather radar to EGPWS, weapons systems to electronic surveillance and dozens more, but they generally don’t involve controlling the dynamic state of the aircraft flight path (our focus).

We believe so strongly in the significance of understanding what a mode is and how it blends with the responsibilities of the human operators that we merged its definition with that of situational awareness (SA), in order to bring it to the forefront of contemporary operational jargon:

Situational & Mode Awareness (SMA) is a foundational principle of 21st-century airmanship, and those who understand it are more likely to recognize when it breaks down, decreasing their risk of a complete loss of SMA and possible subsequent accident or incident.

We’ll dive more deeply into that definition when we discuss it in Part II: with examples.

So for the next few weeks, think about how you view the many “modes” that pass through your scan every day. We’ll work on making sense of them by bringing some simplicity and commonality to this ubiquitous term.

Think about it.

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


Descent Below Visual Glidepath and Impact With Seawall: Asiana Airlines Flight 214

Boeing 777-200ER, HL7742. San Francisco, California, July 6, 2013. Accident Report NTSB/AAR-14/01 PB2014-105984.

Crash During a Nighttime Nonprecision Instrument Approach to Landing:UPS Flight 1354, Airbus A300-600, N155UP. Birmingham, Alabama, August 14, 2013. Accident Report NTSB/AAR-14/02 PB2014-107898.

Automation Airmanship: Nine Principles for Operating Glass Cockpit Aircraft. Christopher J. Lutat and S. Ryan Swah. McGraw-Hill, 2013. 

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