Slow Down and Think

As a pilot, part-time researcher, and full-time technology advocate, I am occasionally privileged to witness the latest cockpit technology up close, thanks to our contacts within the aviation industry. Not only that, I spend upwards of 8 hours a week reading trade journals from not just aviation, but across contemporary business and industry. One result from all of this exposure to the latest technology and the research behind it is that I am constantly amazed at the rate at which contemporary technology companies—including aviation manufacturers—develop new and improved methods to accomplish traditional aviation tasks with increased speed, accuracy, and reliability. Another result is that it’s easy to forget that with all of the technological improvements, we are doing the same fundamental tasks—operating all-weather, high-performance aircraft to worldwide destinations—just as we were 25, or even 50 years ago.

The coming decades will see the pace of technology adoption only increase; already there is talk of increased deployment of new touch-screen interactive displays and input devices; many cockpits already possess multiple ways to input data into the FMS and other aircraft systems that must be both learned and practiced to achieve proficiency. The latest military aircraft have haptic, visual, and aural information systems that will likely see adoption in civil aircraft in less than a decade. It would seem that everything we do in the airplane is getting faster, and as a result, more complicated.

Edward Tufte, a data-visualization pioneer now at Yale University, wrote 25 years ago that:

“[The human and the computer] possess enormously powerful information processing capability, yet communication between the two must pass through the low-resolution, low-information, narrow-band user interface of a video display terminal.”

A practical example of this insight might be that although your aircraft’s FMS may be capable of loading a complete arrival and approach procedure selected from a vast menu of options in milliseconds, it still takes several minutes of focus to make effective use of all of that information, that within a few seconds went from your own brain, via your fingertips, to a display in the cockpit visible to the whole crew.

We suggest that every pilot adopts a strategy to “slow down” the information stream on the flight deck, because in the end, no matter how elegantly your flight deck displays details of your present and future flight path, it must be interpreted error-free, at an accuracy rate of 100%. Without exception. I have not seen mention in any of the accidents and incidents involving complex aircraft which have populated safety journals over the past few decades that among the contributing factor was the crew’s decision to “take it around,” “request a delaying vector,” or “ask for one more turn in holding” before proceeding with an approach. We have been suggesting that an excellent model for fully understanding and organizing the deluge of information available on the modern flight deck is that of the “conveyor belt”—where the crew manages the speed so as to be able to make accurate and wise use of all of the information on the flight deck.

So if you are like many pilots and crew and are concerned about the volume and velocity of information on the flight deck, simply “put the brakes on” and tame the speed of the conveyor belt—give yourself not only time to think, but to accurately interpret, brief, and put to good use the powerful tools available on the modern flight deck.

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

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