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 mistrust to maintain command. 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 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 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; “instructor in a box?” Properly applied, these programs do not replace the CFI, but save money and time and are available when a CFI might not be. Ultimately 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)!


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Author: David St. George

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

5 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

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