“Google Planes;” Switch off “The Magic”

Aviation has always led the way in automation, with both the technology and also the challenges of our problematic “human interface.” As modern media is discussing the problems of “human accommodation” in self-driving automobiles, aviation has already handled similar challenges for over a century.

The first “autopilot” in an aircraft was actually demonstrated on June 18th 1914 in Paris by Lawrence Sperry. He flew his Curtis C-2 biplane with his hands in the air in front of an excited crowd at the Concours de la Sécurité which went wild for the show. On his second pass he climbed out on the wing as the plane executed complete “pilotless flight” past the assembled masses. This “gyroscopic stabilizer apparatus” continued to develop and Sperry’s “Mechanical Mike” aided Wiley Post on the first solo flight around the world in 1933. Captain Thomas J. Wells, of the U.S. Army Air Force demonstrated a completely autonomous flight, from take-off to landing in 1947 in a C-54 Skymaster from Newfoundland to Oxfordshire in England (the crew was reportedly not even told of the destination). The challenges we face now are largely not mechanical but how to interface the technology with the human pilot so vigilance and skill are retained despite hours of “monitoring.”

As anyone who has followed the commands of a GPS navigator knows, there are many problems to totally trusting technology. First the device makes us totally dependent with it’s flawless operation. Then when you are confident and stupid, it has the potential to fail catastrophically and lead you completely astray. In humorous and benign situations, people have driven into the ocean trying to navigate to the next island (by car). Unfortunately, in more extreme examples of technological dependence following a failure, like Air France 447 or Air Asia 8501, many innocent lives have been lost. For pilots our major problems are the deterioration of our hand flying skills and mental disconnect as ‘the magic” flies our plane. This interface of human and machine cooperation has many problems and few solutions; perhaps caution and awareness of the perils are our best defenses.

The paradox of automation has three important aspects. First, as mentioned, automation removes responsibility from the operator diminishing skill levels by eliminating the opportunity for sufficient practice. Second, technology in it’s amazing precision and control can easily mask increasing mental and physical incompetence in the operator by automatically correcting mistakes. Third, automatic systems tune out and mask small errors in the control system until they ultimately disengage, usually at a critical point, and leave the startled human monitor with a huge problem at the worst time (with diminished skill and awareness levels). Ironically, the more reliable and capable the automatic system, the more vulnerable the human operator may become.

Pilatus PC-12 NG

We are all guilty of depending on technology when available. (Pilots tend to be geeks and predictably love new tools and toys) But thanks to automation, airline crews have evolved from five person operations in the 1950s to the current two person flight deck. In my 135 operation, we are allowed single-pilot IFR with a fully functioning autopilot! And not surprisingly, increasing dependence on automation is cited as a factor in the popular “loss of control” accidents. Consequently the recommendation is to switch off the magic more often and hand-fly (even in difficult situations) as a tonic for maintaining mechanical and mental acuity. Reverse the roles and hand-fly with the technology monitoring and backing you up. Hopefully you will sharpen or regain your skills as you practice your procedures and manage the greater workload; only the ego suffers 🙂

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Author: David St. George

Master CFI, 141Chief Instructor, FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE)

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