Pilot/CFI/DPEs Replaced By Technology?

Tech tools in all forms have transformed our lives – but especially for pilots! Well-written applications, appropriately applied, save hours of drudge work sourcing and integrating data. They also add a level of safety by freeing up brain cycles en route – allowing intelligent oversight of the larger picture.  Dependable technological assistants are undistractable and vigilant when monitoring and maintaining precise control.

But technology is a two-edged sword. Safety requires a vital level of suspicious monitoring of automation to assure safety and command authority. The burden of all technology is knowing when to step down a level or disengage if the system becomes too complicated or untrustworthy – red button! And it is always difficult to maintain proficiency in the original manual skills since technology can be so effortless and dependable. Have you panicked after forgetting or dropping your phone? You have experienced an advanced form of “automation dependency.”

Humorous accounts of people following their phone mappers into the ocean while looking for a bar have a more serious side when lives are lost through blind dependency; we have all read those accident reports! Rule one with all tech is staying proficient in the basics and then understanding and managing the complicated systems we use.  It is essential to always maintain PIC awareness and never be driven by the technology.

Achieving that proper balance and defining and maintaining limits for technology is a difficult, contextual, and also a somewhat personalized problem. The most ardent cave-dweller must confess the utility, convenience and potential safety benefit of a modern mobile phone. But even the most eager tech adopters might hesitate to upload a flight plan into a fully autonomous airplane to send their family for a X-C trip?

The realization of the necessity and value of human monitoring and intervention resulted in the the “Safety 2 Paradigm” in aviation- human oversight is often essential to the safety with complicated technological systems. This has been widely under-appreciated.

So how far do we trust and enable these “intelligent assistants?” This applies both to pilots flying and also to CFIs and DPEs in training. US Airlines still require a minimum crew of two. Most 121/135 flights cannot be dispatched without a fully functioning autopilot. It is very plausible that in 5 years commercial flight will be prohibited without a similarly functioning autoland system. Pilots might soon be bragging about logging a few “manual landings.” Autoland might soon become a “required tool” with a few lives saved and industry acceptance. Insurance companies (and your significant other) might demand this greater level of technological redundancy.

On the CFI side, Cloud Ahoy “flight instructor assistant” (widely used by the USAF) records and grades every flight with amazing detail and flags problem areas. Redbird GIFT provides mentored maneuvers for students with access to a Redbird simulator (theoretically for review and proficiency only). But could these tools assume the role of “instructor in a box?” Not likely soon. These programs save money and time and are available when a CFI might not but do not replace the CFI. If anything, these tools force CFIs to be better versions of themselves; “compassionate coaches” rather than grumpy irascible “pattern-matchers.” The technology is always available, cost-effective, and emotionally neutral. CFIs must increasingly step up their game and provide the added value of human connection and coaching. Understanding and properly deploying these tech tools can create greater efficiency – not a”replacement pressure.”

And what about DPEs? Would a CloudAhoy data file be adequate to fully evaluate a flight test candidate for a pilot certificate – a “DPE replacement?” Already,  Starr Insurance accepts a CloudAhoy graded flight (on their integrated App) for insurance discounts. This almost seems like the “instant replay review” used by umpires and referees on the field. Hard to catch everything in the heat of battle? Will the FAA soon require a digital file for verification?

 Community Aviation is cleverly leveraging remote technology to connect  Master CFIs with clients all over the world. SAFE Master Instructors Doug Stewart and Rich Stowell are now available to pilots all over the world for IFR and VFR instruction. This robust service also powers the EAA Pilot Proficiency Program (now EAA Proficiency 365).

Lastly, the FAA seems to have tacitly approved the use of video monitoring as a legal substitute for an FAA inspector on board. Both DPE “required annual review” and required 135 check rides are now are being flown with GoPros on board instead of an FAA inspector (driven largely by the COVID necessity). Suddenly I feel the need to go fly my 7AC Champ; life was simpler in 1946. But technology is not going away; find your balance. Fly safely out there (and often)!


Join SAFE and support our advocacy for CFI excellence, DPE reform, and fixing the FAA medical mess. There are many other great benefits.  (We are currently also offering two free CFI-PRO™ flip books; “Landing Magic and “Rediscover Rudder.”)

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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

7 thoughts on “Pilot/CFI/DPEs Replaced By Technology?”

  1. This is an interesting post, considering recent news that United Airlines and others are investing in eVTOL aircraft as a tool to bring passengers to the airports and avoid southern California’s horrific traffic congestion. While initially piloted, the plans are for AI pilots (much like current drones) to take over in the next generation of the aircraft. So, the question becomes, how relevant are pilots in terms of a lifelong career? A recent article by Wright in Safety Magazine essentially raises the same point. in the long term, is flight instruction (as we know it) necessary? I don’t think this article adequately explores more than very short term issues of instruction, QA/QC and oversight. Would a deeper dive be possible in a future article?

    1. Great ideas John – tech is increasingly taking over. We will see single pilot airliners w/in 5 years (I have flown SP 135 w/pax) and autonomous freight sooner. Who knows on VTOL, but soon (the big money is invested and ready)! The larger point here is that as tech increasingly takes over the mechanical parts, there will always be a need for human oversight – Safety 2. (I hope still in A/C) Unfortunately, blogs are short form but I might explore this again soon in future focus pieces…thanks!

  2. Interesting and thought-provoking – well written and insightful. I’m in full agreement that it’s ‘just a matter of time’ I think the only real unknown is that ‘time’ variable. The only real analogy we have is self-driving cars – and they aren’t progressing as fast as everyone thought they would – I have to believe that aviation will be even slower…..

    But to the author’s point – technology has revolutionized aviation..as someone who learned to fly before headsets were a thing, and then dutifully updated those damn Jeppesen leather binders every two weeks during my instrument training – I am in total awe, every time boot up ForeFlight.

    To your point – I think we should do a much better job of including the ‘managing of the technology’ in our training curriculums…

    Thanks for the great read…….

    1. Thanks for writing, I agree on technological “shock and awe!” It used to take many hours to assemble and plan what is now available with a few taps! We have largely made the pilot a programmer in most sophisticated planes. Future human roles are in question with autonomous flight on the horizon. Some pilots love this, others despise the loss of personal freedom, responsibility and control.

  3. I suppose super-redundancy and massive data processing capacity of AI will envelope the cargo world and beyond, perhaps sooner than later. COVID seems to have accelerated innovation in almost every area.

    However, it seems that this automated cargo and passenger thing will lead to a bit of a increased divide between those who employ the airplane for utility and those whose primary motivation is the “art of flying.” At least I hope there will at least be airshows with human performers a decade from now.

    I mean, there’s a lot of difference between hiking up a mountain and watching a video of someone else doing it. I can’t help but think this hyper-tech focus will reach and apex resulting in people hungering for ‘real’ things. And while tech is great for information, it is terrible at wisdom. So there’s that.

    I’m working on my CFI and looking forward to many years of terrifically rewarding adventures.

    Cheers.

    Don

  4. Hi David,
    Once again you have brought insight and new questions to an important topic. And your example of the lost smart phone is a good one; it’s not just the aviating world that has become dependent on technology. I was once bitching to a veteran flight instructor and good friend about automation dependency in students and CFI’s.

    He talked me off the ledge with the example of the HSI; “Years ago we had to fly using one instrument for the CDI and another for heading information. The engineers figured pilots were too dumb to do this reliably and they invented the marvelous HSI. Eventually if a pilot who has been flying with an HSI is faced with having to use a CDI and DG instead, (s)he probably will have a great deal of difficulty.”

    The fact is, to put it bluntly, technology makes us stupid. I.e, with more advanced technology, a person who is less capable can perform the same tasks that previously required additional training, experience, and skill. Who can drive a ‘63 Willy’s with three on the column and no synchromesh in first gear? I’m wondering what the downstream effects will be of people learning to drive in cars with lane assist and automatic braking!

    So the march towards increasing dependency in machines and computers seems inevitable. But aviation stands apart from other disciplines because when flying, poor performance can cause sudden death. I have long advocated for training in less advanced aircraft, but nobody wants to hear it. And as we march down this path, the gate keepers (the FAA and large university aviation programs) progressively forget authentic knowledge that was the underpinning of all correct aircraft control. So not only do we become individually more stupid (me flying a GIV with no autothrottles – GASP!), but we become collectively more stupid; the recent court ruling that a CFI is carrying passengers for hire.

    I don’t know why we can’t agree that learning to control an airplane is most effectively done in a simple, autopilot-less, round dial equipped aircraft….but it is clear that we cannot.

    Another odd feature of flying airplanes is that a person can fly using wrong concepts and techniques, and still cobble together enough skill to keep the needles centered. This is why all automated instruction is not just a waste of time, but may be counterproductive; teaching a pilot that if they can keep the needle centered by staring at the needle, this is good flying.

    I wish I had an answer to this trend, and I apologize for my pessimism. I think when the story of aviation is written it will describe its birth, the golden age, and the decline of man and machine working together to traverse the sky. I am certain that the golden age is behind us. The only path left for a competent, experienced, and caring CFI is to pay forward as much authentic knowledge as possible to each person (s)he interacts with. Or, if we are training the last generation to ever fly an airplane, we should still do our best to teach them correct and authentic concepts and techniques to enable them to become fully functional and excellent aviators.

    1. Your response is one I discuss with young students and other pilots often! This issue is becoming more widespread in all walks of life and areas. I teach Private Pilot Ground School to high school juniors and seniors. The number of them that have NO idea directions and the numbers of a compass because all they need to know is how to follow the “magenta line”, can’t do basic math of addition and subtraction without a calculator, don’t understand how to calculate simple time/distance/speed problems either, is truly frightening. I have to end up teaching very basic math often. Flying takes skills, and it’s been proven by those that survive emergency situations to live to tell about it; i.e. Captain Sullenberger. The aviation community is becoming a monoculture of navigation and instrumentation. Monocultures don’t succeed over time. With the world as it is now, there is no telling when an attack will take out the GPS system and the pilot’s will actually have to navigate. It won’t be pretty. Learn the basics and fundamentals to then move on to the advanced system. You’ll actually understand what the technology is telling you.

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