Wednesday, September 07, 2011

I, Robot

The aviation world has been a bit aflutter the past two weeks over an article that recently came out in the mainstream press and was subsequently picked up by various media outlets. The article, available here, was reprinted with several alternate headlines, the most sensational and popular of which asked, “are pilots forgetting how to fly?” Predictably, the article has stirred up a variety of strong opinion among pilots, with attitudes ranging from outrage to derision to hearty approval.

I actually thought the article was fairly well done for something written by and for laymen. There were some factual errors and I don’t agree with all the author’s conclusions, but there’s a pretty big kernel of truth in there. I wouldn’t say pilots have “forgotten how to fly,” but there has been a pretty fundamental shift in our role and duties over the past 20 years, and we are only now seeing some of the unintended consequences of that shift.

Any discussion of airliner automation needs to begin with an affirmation of its value. I do not like that automation makes my job less interesting or that it has decreased the value of my skills as a pilot, but it has undoubtedly made aviation a great deal safer. There was a time when good pilots, real stick-and-rudder types, were crashing airliners with frightening regularity. No matter how “good” one is, humans are fallible creatures, and in the course of operating a complex machine will inevitably make mistakes. When these mistakes take place in times of stress, in environments that inundate one with information to be sorted and interpreted, they can compound unnoticed until no amount of airmanship can save the ship. Automation decreased the pilot’s workload, sorted the information, arranged it in more easily understood formats, and trained an unblinking eye on the pilot, alerting him to all his most common foibles. The results speak for themselves.

So while we’ve seen an uptick in accidents that can be attributed to automation – or rather, the way we’ve interfaced with automated systems – one would do well to remember how many lives have likely been saved by increased automation. That said, our strength as an industry has always been our willingness to ferret out our weaknesses and confront them head-on. A spate of loss-of-control accidents is disconcerting no matter how low the overall accident rate remains, and I for one am very happy to see “the experts” recognizing the problem and doing some hard thinking about how to solve it.

The degradation of stick and rudder skills is one negative side-effect of automation, but not the most serious one in my mind, despite the article’s emphasis of it. It varies according to the aircraft, airline, and personal preferences. The JungleBus has one of the more automated, integrated cockpits out there, but my airline takes a pretty reasonable line on the use of automation. They encourage its use but caution that it should only be used at the level most appropriate to attain the goals of safety, passenger comfort, and economy – in that order. To that end, it is left to the PIC to determine what level of automation to use at any given time, so long as the pilots remain proficient in the use of all levels of automation, including its complete absence. My last airline took a similarly common-sense approach. There are, however, airlines that require automation to be used to the maximum extent possible, particularly overseas. As an example, there is a well-known British airline that prohibits its pilots from using manual thrust on the A320 except in abnormal situations.

I’ve flown with pilots who prefer to turn on the autopilot at 1000’ on departure and leave it on until 200’ on approach. I’ve also known a few guys who, left to their own devices, would hand-fly everything raw-data from takeoff to touchdown. Most of those I’ve flown with, however, are like me: hand-fly down low when the weather is good, use the automation when the weather is crappy or when in busy, complex airspace. This typically results in anywhere between three and twenty minutes of hand-flying per leg. Beech 1900 types excepted, most regional and domestic pilots probably hand-fly anywhere from 2 to 10 hours per month, long-haul pilots considerably less. Most of this time is spent in takeoff, acceleration, climb, visual or easy instrument approach, and landing. Flight directors and autothrottles (where installed) are most commonly left on.

This alone does not lead to anyone “forgetting how to fly,” least of all anyone who had a decent bit of flight time before the airlines. The most autopilot-loving JungleBus pilot has to turn it off to land, and most do a beautiful job of doing so. It does mean, however, that if automation is unexpectedly lost – especially in an unfamiliar flight regime – handling the aircraft without benefit of autopilot, autothrottles, or flight director will probably not be second nature. It will require some concentration, potentially at a time when multiple anomalies of an ambiguous nature are clamoring for attention of their own. The master warning and caution lights have loud alarms that sound with each new occurrence, but only the quiet voice of your first flight instructor reminds you to “fly the airplane!” It’s understandable that sometimes the former get more attention than the latter.

In my opinion, however, the real problem with over-reliance on automation has less to do with stick-and-rudder skills and more to do with how it has affected our habits as professional pilots. Automation was supposed to free us to think more, but instead has freed us to think less. Consider the enroute phase of flight: it’s been so thoroughly automated, there’s precious little left for the pilot to do. Your course is drawn out for you, there is no doubt as to your position, updated weather is at your fingertips, your fuel state at next fix, destination, and alternate is right in front of you, and ATC has become much better about routing aircraft around heavy weather. All of these are good things – nobody is looking to give up positional certainty, accessible weather data, or fuel planning aids - but they are not conducive to keeping one alert and engaged in the flight. It’s too easy to get lulled into passivity, to turn your brain off and let things happen.

This technology-induced torpor can linger beyond cruise into the descent phase. In Dave’s thoughtful post on this same subject, he mentioned that a strong pilot should, when told to cross 40 west of a certain fix at FL250, be able to mentally calculate his descent point in three seconds flat – “tired or not.” Not so long ago, such mathematical process was a baseline requirement of the job; you wouldn’t survive on the line without it. Technological progress has made it possible for weak pilots to fit in. Worse, it has atrophied the brains of some formerly strong pilots.

The JungleBus, like “Fifi”, has a Vertical Navigation (VNAV) system that is very capable – when it works. It can be led astray by operator error, it has some insidious failure modes, and occasionally it does things that are just plain goofy. More than once, manually calculating my descent point as I received a crossing clearance saved my bacon – not from crashing, mind you, but certainly from violating my clearance. Yet, I often witness otherwise good pilots whose very first instinct upon receiving a crossing clearance is to enter it into the FMS. Worse, when asked where they plan to start down, many do not have an answer ready. The steady stream of ASAP reports for busted clearances my company receives (and this is true of other companies operating VNAV-equipped aircraft) suggests that my experience is typical. Yet, you are far more likely to be busted on a line check for failing to enter a crossing restriction in the FMS than you are for failing to mentally back up the FMS.

I do not wish to imply that the majority of airline pilots out there are weak or lazy. The opposite is true: most wish to do their job to the best of their abilities, and expend considerable effort in doing so. I am saying that we have been unintentionally training our pilots to value the technology in their aircraft over their own common sense. We have made it passé for a pilot to fly by his wits and then wonder why those wits have become dulled with disuse. This is becoming evermore true as we start pilots on technologically advanced aircraft ever earlier in their careers, to the point that we have pilots being hired at the regionals today whose very first flight lessons were in Garmin-1000 equipped Cessna 172s.

So long as the technology works perfectly, it’s a mere academic issue. Like the JungleBus’ VNAV, technology seldom works perfectly, and is always subject to outright failure. The real question, then, becomes “what happens when the automation quits?” How our pilots handle that is the real test of our reordered priorities. The recent cases of Colgan 3407, Turkish 1951, and Air France 447 are not encouraging. In each case the crew had an abrupt and unexpected transition from full automation to partial or full manual control, in the latter two cases coupled with insidious or confusing failure modes, and they did not handle them well. I can honestly say that just about every messed up situation I’ve seen in both the Q400 and the JungleBus happened because the automation abruptly quit or did something we weren’t expecting, and we handled the transition to manual control poorly. In most cases it was because we spent too much time asking “what’s it doing now?” and “how do we fix it?” instead of just pushing the big red button and flying it like the big 172 it is.

The good news is this: pilots like to be pilots. With some changes I think we can restore a proper balance no matter how advanced our aircraft are. Firstly, an adjustment in automation philosophy is in order (at some airlines more than others). I think my airline’s policy is a good starting point: fly at the level of automation most conducive to safety, passenger comfort and economy, and leave it up to the PIC which level best attains those goals. However, I think we should also emphasize the importance of regular exposure to all levels of automation, including manual thrust and raw data, in various phases of flight, in order to maintain proficiency in all levels. Training and checking should be conducted at all levels of automation, whether the FAA requires it or not.

Secondly, we should adjust procedures to keep pilots engaged in the more automated phases of flight. In cruise, I would suggest pilots be required to complete a navigational log, perhaps collocated with the expanded flight plan section of the release. Passing over or abeam each planned waypoint, the pilots would be required to enter time, fuel load, difference from planned time enroute and fuel burn, estimated time and fuel to the next waypoint & destination, and nearest suitable airport. This is already SOP at a few airlines, but not many. It may smack of busy-work to some, but I think it would be useful as a means of keeping pilots’ brains alert and focused on the flight, as well as serving as an invaluable backup in case of unexpected loss of navigational capability. With newspapers, crossword puzzles, laptops, Angry Birds, and napping all banished from airliner cockpits, I will only half-jokingly suggest that each pilot be issued a sextant and mariner’s almanac to take sightings to back up the GPS.

Lastly and most importantly, we need to adjust our training and checking to emphasize the necessity of brainwork. Technology and mental skill ought to be mutually beneficial and neither should be employed to the exclusion of the other. Simulator instructors and check airmen should make a regular practice of failing the automation in unexpected and artful ways as a means of ensuring that pilots are actively backing up their technology and are continuously prepared to revert to lower levels of automation. Ultimately, the most difficult thing about all this is that it will require a certain change in the training mindset at many airlines. With training footprints slashed to a bare minimum, the goal has become preparing the pilot to pass his checkride in a minimum of time. The focus needs to shift back to preparing the pilot for whatever life on the line throws at him, in particular the sneaky problems that have a way of snowballing unnoticed. Vee One cuts are serious and it’s good that we practice them, but they’re not particularly subtle, nor do they require much thought beyond rote repetition. We need to move beyond “checking the boxes” mode and include opportunities for real learning in every training and checking event. This will require more simulator time and therefore increased training budgets, but I believe the result will be more thoughtful pilots more attuned to their aircraft and better equipped to handle unusual problems.

While the industry sorts out the big-picture stuff, we as individual pilots can take a few simple steps to maintain a balanced relationship with the automation in our aircraft. First, use it as a backup to your own airmanship and common sense. Calculate your descent profiles mentally and then use VNAV. When ATC clears you direct to a fix, have a pretty good idea of what your heading should be so you can check the route your FMS or GPS is proposing for reasonableness. Secondly, make a regular practice of flying under various conditions with reduced levels of automation. You can put together a regimen. I try to fly at least one approach each trip without autothrottles, and one every other trip raw-data. I also occasionally practice fully-automatic RNAV approaches, something we do in real life very little. If you are an FO, explain your habit of practicing all levels of automation to your Captain at the start of the trip. If you’re a Captain, encourage your FOs to do the same.

My third suggestion is to ensure you are paying close attention to what is on your FMA (Flight Mode Annunciator) or equivalent display at all times. Return to it often. It should be as central to your scan as the attitude indicator. Many of the “what’s it doing now?” moments I’ve seen occurred because the autopilot and/or autothrottles were in a different mode than the pilot thought he had selected. And finally, when you do find yourself asking “what’s it doing now?”, make it your very first step to fly the airplane, reverting to lower levels of automation as necessary, and not succumbing to the temptation to troubleshoot until the airplane is going where you want it to.

All these guidelines are applicable to advanced airplanes from glass-equipped C172s on up through A380s. Flight instructors, drill them into your students from the very first flight lesson. I generally believe that glass cockpits in training aircraft are overkill or even counterproductive for early flight training. I may very well revise that opinion, however, if their use results in a new generation of professional pilots who start their careers with a healthy and balanced approach to automation.


Frank Ch. Eigler said...

Excellent writeup, Sam, thank you.

typingtalker said...

"Airbus A310 and A300-600 aircraft will gain a new device--a Stop Rudder Inputs Warning (SRIW) system ... "

Place your feet on the floor. Place them flat on the floor and leave them there. Do not touch the pedals.

The Flying Rabbi said...

Very well written.

I've been following your blog and Dave's for quite some time and have just recently got back into flying. (I'm currently working on my Instrument rating.)

Just yesterday, the very issue you address came up during a visit to a A320 training facility here in Florida. Being a low-time pilot just a year from getting my Private ticket, I asked an innocent-enough question about stall-training in the A320 sim.

I was struck by his reply, especially considering the recent loss-of-control accidents. He said that stall recovery is not a necessary task for the A320 type rating.

It sounded unbelievable. Could it be true?

Ryan said...


Excellent post.

"In cruise, I would suggest pilots be required to complete a navigational log, perhaps collocated with the expanded flight plan section of the release. Passing over or abeam each planned waypoint, the pilots would be required to enter time, fuel load, difference from planned time enroute and fuel burn, estimated time and fuel to the next waypoint & destination, and nearest suitable airport. This is already SOP at a few airlines, but not many."

Absolutely! I believe airlines such as Cathay Pacific and Emirates do not allow their pilots to do anything else BUT monitor and complete navigational logs in cruise. This conversation comes up quite frequently in our cockpit, and most pilots in the US believe this system is too regimented. Perhaps US pilots have become too relaxed and lazy.

"With training footprints slashed to a bare minimum, the goal has become preparing the pilot to pass his checkride in a minimum of time."

Yes, I agree that pilots do not acquire a complete understanding of the more advanced features of the autoflight system in training. In fact, some airlines do not attempt to teach highly automated lateral navigation (LNAV) or vertical navigation (VNAV) modes in training. It is left for the pilots to learn how to use these functions while flying on the line.

As The Flying Rabbi has learned, (and specifically on the A320), there really is no stall recovery maneuver task for the A320. Once again, this is brought up in our cockpit very frequently (especially after AF447) and we do agree there should be some type of initial/recurrent training on the Airbus that covers stall/upset training and recovery. So far there is none.


Nate Berger said...

Hey Sam, Great Post. My dad is a 747-400 Captain for a major airline in the US and his company requires him (or one of this three first officers on flights over 12 hours) to complete nav logs and fuel logs for every way-point outside of US ATC Airspace. Also, when he was on the 757-767 for the same airline, he was required to do this as well, however, only when flying from the West Coast to Hawaii. I'm fairly certain that this is SOP for every airline going to the Islands, but it should be SOP at all times, in my opinion.

Smooth skies ahead,


Anonymous said...

Great post. I'm a flight instructor in Kansas City, and I train most of my students in G1000-equipped Diamond DA40s. I teach a balanced approach to automation, focusing on the importance of a foundation of basic airmanship skills. The automation can (and should) be used to enhance safety, but those basic piloting skills have to be there at all times.

p-factor said...


Outstanding post. Agreed very much with what both you and Capt Dave have said on your respective posts regarding automation.

Am currently flying a T-6 as a primary flight training instructor in a wee little town on a bend in the Rio Grande and as you might expect, that airplane has no automation and it's been great to hone the hand flying skills that were rusted out from flying my previous aircraft, the mighty C-17.

As you may know, that airplane has all the bells and whistles and plenty of folks were caught saucer-eyed when Barney crapped the bed and made you fly the airplane. At one time, the community did not have known pitch and power settings should you have multiple air-data/intertial reference unit failures. Following an incident in which some birds took out pitot tubes and AOA vanes, thus putting the airplane in it's reversionary flight control mode, the powers that be wisely published those settings in case of future incidents. Thankfully, the crew that had that failure successfully recovered the airplane but it certainly got their attention!

Hope you and your wife can get some more flights in the mighty -170 to take pics of the fall colors like you did last year. I commented on that particular post while I was sitting in a smelly hooch in Afghanistan. Nice to be back in the US.

Fly safely.

Tom G. said...

Have to agree. There's always the criticism of automation, but never the appreciation for how much it has improved the overall safety of flying. Thanks for spelling it out. Safe flying.

Tom B. (China/Park Ranger) said...

I'd have to say I've fallen into my own version of what you describe, Sam. I learned how to fly in a 1972 C172 with a carburetor (and the requisite carb heat at low rpm), complete with an all-steam gauge cockpit and no GPS or glass whatsoever, and no autopilot. I learned how to navigate using dead reckoning and VOR DME equipment.

I recently moved to an area with a flight school replacing my old FBO as my rental location. They ONLY have C172's with G1000 equipment, some even with the new synthetic vision. I actually prefer the old steam gauge cockpit of a 172S because it is cheaper to rent. Anyway, after a year in the G1000 cockpit, I find myself getting more and more disconnected from stick and rudder flying. I never thought I'd say this because it's still a tiny 2500 pound C172, but other than the take off and landing, I do almost everything using the autopilot coupled with the rudimentary on board FMS with GPS waypoints and moving map display with XM satellite weather. I didn't even know 172's had autopilot until recently. It's so easy and so much more accurate than flying VOR to VOR by hand or dead reckoning using a chart and E6B.

I noticed the other day that while a few years ago I would have hand flown the plane the entire way riding on VOR radials, now as soon as I get above 1,000 feet and request the flight following, I enter the first GPS waypoint and switch the autopilot onto gps nav mode and let the computer fly the plane all the way through top of descent to sometimes as close as entering the downwind. So, even as a lowly private pilot, I can identify with the struggle between technology and piloting and your post was interesting to read.

Sam said...

FlyingRabbi, that is true of most transport category aircraft at present, although this might be changing soon as a result of CJC3407 and AF447. We are trained to recover from incipient stalls rather than full stalls due to the previous belief that stick shakers and pushers would prevent an airliner from ever being fully stalled. Indeed, both the A320 and JungleBus have fly-by-wire protections that normally will not allow the aircraft to enter a stall. Computer or electrical failure, however, can revert the fly-by-wire to "Alternate Law" (A320) or "Direct Mode" (JB) where such protections are lost. That's exactly what happened in the case of AF447. I touched on some of the other problems with airliner stall training in a previous post dealing with the Colgan crash:

Mike said...

Thanks for your response above to The FlyingRabbi's comment. It's confirmation of what he and I both found pretty unbelievable, and it helps me to understand the described events of AF447's final minutes and the report that cited lack of relevant training. I mean no disrespect to the pilots, but if this is true I do mean to disrespect the training programs they and their peers received, which seem to have institutionalized a complete reliance on some (albeit low-level) forms of automation. I told my wife about this and she likened it to some training her nurse friend is required to periodically complete on performing a Tracheotomy. Chances are she will never in her career be in a situation so dire as to call on this training, but they teach it anyway because it can save lives.

I, just a flight enthusiast and member of the flying public, had previously naively assumed each member of a professional flight crew must have had to demonstrate their ability to turn off the automation and recover a transport class aircraft from a stall at least once before I ever saw them at the front of a loaded plane with a pilot's hat on.

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