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"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."

PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Aircraft Automation... A Good Thing. Right?

Our planes are becoming increasingly more advanced, and with this advancement, comes precision, efficiency and economies like none other. And because of this automation, training and checking events focus on managing the computers. Training footprints are becoming shorter because of the high reliability. In addition, due to the high reliability of these systems, pilots don’t need to be tested on performance when items break, they just have to have “seen it” once. These planes are safer. But…

Does the future threat to aviation include advanced technology? What happens when the technology breaks? Will the pilots of the future know what to do if they are faced with flying their planes manually? There will be a time, and we’re getting closer day by day, that pilots will grow up in these automated planes and not have experience to manually fly a plane.

Twenty years ago, during my 757 Type-rating, I flew the entire checkride on the autopilot. And today a captain can take his or her checkride and never "touch" the controls, and still pass. He or she is the manager of the flight. Where are we headed to next?

Automation is great. It’s essential. It reduces fatigue, and enhances safety. But what if it breaks?

What can pilots do to maintain their flying skills in preparation for when systems fail? What can they do to maintain their flying skills when they don’t fly?

Where is the industry going? What can we do to help make it safer?

Enjoy the Journey!
XOX Karlene


  1. Hi, Karlene!

    This is always a fertile topic for discussion. It always seems that the proponents of automation, epitomized by the Airbus admirers, support increasing automation as an unalloyed good, and the man-in-the-loop proponents, usually the Boeing admirers, point to automation failures and say that the computer will never obviate the need for a skilled human pilot. Both sides cherry-pick the accident database to offer situations that support their case.

    I think the problem is that the appropriate level of automation is situational. Sometimes an A330 is too automated and sometimes a B-757 isn't sufficiently automated. It depends!

    So what to do? The challenge to the design community is to develop adaptive systems that assume or shed responsibilities in response to situational factors. Even the Airbus systems are terribly immature and unresponsive to what's happening in the real world...the industry has a long way to go; transport aircraft automation has to be viewed as a work in progress.



    1. Frank... yes it sure does depend. I agree with you that we are a work in progress. The question is, who is working on that progress? Not sure. But I think Kathryn in Flight For Control, has great plans. :) Thanks for the comment!

  2. In the A320 I try to fly fully manual approaches when I can - no autopilot and no auto thrust. Unfortunately I don't do them nearly enough (maybe once a month?) and I know a lot of pilots never ever do them. The only autopilot -off approach we do on check rides is the single engine non-precision approach, and that's only from the final approach fix. I think we need to require more automation-free training, but as you mentioned in your book, the FAA would rather sign off LESS training for the airlines; it takes an accident for them to mandate additional training.

    1. Mikel, you are doing more than most... and once a month is great! You're being proactive and that's what it will take with the pilots. And then, what about those of us who don't fly for 6 months and we only bounce in the simulator? That's a challenge we need to work on. I am a proponent of hand flying, and if given the chance to do a landing, I will do that in these next two days. Thanks for the comment, and for keeping the skies safe by your willingness to fly your plane, beyond managing it.

  3. I recently gave a 15,000 hr ex-line pilot a BFR in my Bonanza. I made him do a manual gear extension and a full stall series. Afterwards he thanked me, said it was the first time in years anyone had wrung him out like that. That's the attitude I want in the people at the pointy end when I'm in seat 17A.

    1. Way to go D.B. And good for that captain for acknowledging what you did. That is what it takes. Easy is not better in this industry for sure. Thanks for the comment.

  4. I don't care how much automation an airplane has....and neither do the laws of physics. if a pilot cannot be a pilot, what are you doing flying hundreds of people around? I am all for automation - a functioning autopilot is on my personal MEL for IMC flights. But, can I hand fly a single pilot approach to minimums when the chips are on the table? Absolutely. Automation is a good thing but it is not a substitute for solid stick and rudder skills or situational awareness nor should it be.

    1. Jeff, you are so right! Automation is no replacement for stick and rudder skills. But it's so nice to have it available at the end of a 12 hour flight, on the back side of the clock, in the middle of the night, when weather is down to minimums. There is no way, even the best of the best, can perform their best in these conditions. Automation in fact does make the flight safer. But at what expense to the skill degradation of pilots? Maybe the answer is more hand flying during training? Thank you so much for your comments. I know you will always keep those skills alive! Thank you for that!

    2. Karlene, I think you hit the nail right on the head. It all starts with training. I remember one instrument training flight when (on a nice VFR day) while under the hood hand flying an ILS, my CFII said "I have the runway in sight, I want you to hand fly this approach past minimums until you basically see the runway out of your peripheral vision". When I asked why, he said "because someday you might not have a choice but to do this if you find yourself in very difficult spot".

      Train people to be systems managers and they'll be systems managers. Train them to be pilots and they'll be pilots.

      I completely agree about automation being a good thing and a huge enhancement to safety but it isn't a substitue for training to be a pilot.

    3. You had a great instructor! The sad thing is, I'm thinking they are going to the management perspective because that's really what happens with the new planes. We manage them. But then one day,"because someday you might not have a choice but to do this if you find yourself in very difficult spot"
      Thanks so much for your thoughts!


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