The Real Future of Flying

One of our goals in maintaining this blog is to help keep the focus of our profession on the flying. This task is increasingly difficult in the face of so much commentary on the future of human-machine interaction, much of it following the high profile aviation accidents of the past 5 years. More than at any time in recent memory, the focus of those both inside of and outside of aviation concerns the amount of automation on the flight deck, its complexity, and the unintended consequences that automation causes. We are not the only industry impacted by this phenomenon—just the most visible. After all, the high-def images and YouTube videos generated by just one aviation accident leave impressions that last far longer than a computer failure in one of the world’s major financial markets, a chemical or fuel spill related to non-aviation transportation, or a security breach of some institution or system by computer hacking or network failures.

We—pilots—are and will remain the focus of a large amount of criticism directed at the vulnerabilities of the man-machine relationship (some which are still developing along with new technologies that we are today unaware of). Sometimes we dedicate this blog space to defending aircrews from over-zealous critics. But most of the time we do what aviation professionals have done for over a century, and that is to take criticism seriously, to investigate it thoroughly, and then vigorously press the implementation of improvements to processes, procedures, and practices wherever and whenever possible.

We maintain that it is more important to maintain wise and continuous improvement to the man-machine dynamic, not just to keep up with technological advances, but to help lead the implementation of technology into aviation. It is not enough to simply respond with a knee-jerk action after an accident or string of incidents related to automation. We must acknowledge the presence of critics, and evaluate their commentary constructively.

Consider the following comments that come at the end of a widely distributed journal by a veteran aviation author and journalist, published in October of this year in an examination of the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447:

“It seems that we are locked into a spiral in which poor human performance begets automation, which worsens human performance, which begets increasing automation. The pattern is common to our time but is acute in aviation…At a time when accidents are extremely rare, each one becomes a one-off event, unlikely to be repeated in detail. Next time it will be some other airline, some other culture, and some other failure—but it will almost certainly involve automation and will perplex us when it occurs. Over time the automation will expand to handle in-flight failures and emergencies, and as the safety record improves, pilots will gradually be squeezed from the cockpit altogether.”

Our profession does not have to accept most of what is suggested in this paragraph as an inevitable outcome of 21st century aviation, but we must acknowledge how it has come to pass that this view of aviation can persist as “typical.” This dystopian view of the future of aviation is not one that we can or should accept as permanent, and neglects the foundational principles of Automation Airmanship, principles that we remain stalwart in advocating and defending. The inherent strength of the human component of the man-machine interface is based in 9 durable, universally accessed and easily practiced principles. These easily understood practices can—and should—be put into practice with discipline and purpose on every flight leg, segment, or mission. Not only is it time for this to take hold, but its necessary to stem the tide of criticism that maintains that we have grown weak, lazy, and prone to errors that we no longer understand or contemplate the meaning of.

In the meantime, welcome criticism, consider it carefully, and seek to sharpen your own habits and airmanship standards wherever there can be even the smallest improvement.

Think about it.

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

Reference: William Langewiesche in Vanity Fair, October 2014: The Human Factor

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