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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.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Good and Evil

An Aviation Balancing Act 

I received this email from Captain Jim Wright. As always I enjoy his commentary on the challenges of automation in the airline as the shipping environment. I think this is something that you, too, will appreciate. We would love your thoughts.  

Captain Jim Wright

Captain Jim Wright: 

"Due to the limited space in Amazon for book reviews, the following ideas expand on my recent Amazon Review of “Flight for Sanity”. Your thoughts and evaluation are encouraged.

You could say that “Flight for Sanity” is a narrative of “good” and “evil” using “automation” and “automation dependency” as common threads to connect the narrative. The “good guys” see automation as a means of enhancing safety; the “evil guys” see automation dependency as a means of gaining control and enhancing personal wealth. 

But first, we need to look at how “automation” (a good thing) can change into “automation dependency” (a bad thing). While several explanations could answer, thinking-outside-the-box might produce an unexpected explanation which falls into the area of ideology. Pressing on, you could say that “automation” is a by-product of capitalism (personal achievement) while “automation dependency” is a by-product of socialism (equality). How could this be?

When my pilotage career began many decades ago, automation had not yet appeared on the horizon. The goal of everyone in our pilot association was to continually improve our ship-handling skills. 

As electronic aids began to appear, it seemed that prospective pilot applicants were relying more on automation than on traditional ship-handling skills. Did this suggest that although men are created equal (see Thomas Jefferson), ship-handling and (hand-flying) abilities are not apportioned to all pilots in equal measures? And, if so, is safety enhanced by using automation as a means of forcing equality? Or, is it more likely that forcing equality reduces safety?

For example, in maritime simulation it has been demonstrated that both experienced and inexperienced pilots can adequately recover from a difficult situation using automation. When automation is failed the difference between “experienced” and “inexperienced” becomes apparent. This would suggest that “equality” and “safety” are opposing goals. Stated in another way, replacing piloting skills with automation produces the appearance of equality while reducing the ability of pilots to effectively cross-check active automation or to replace failed automation. 

This begs the question, “what purpose is served then by substituting automation for piloting skills”? Perhaps the adage, “follow the money” suggests an answer. 

Capitalist systems are based on supply and demand. Increasing the supply of pilots reduces the demand for pilots and potentially increases free corporate cash-flow. While this process may have an acceptable inflection point, the human default condition of greed tends to push the process beyond that inflection point. The “reasonable” usage of regulations can avoid this unintended consequence of capitalism.

Some might see this as an argument in favor of socialism. They would be missing the point. The point being that socialism is based on equality and equality produces a regression to the lowest common denominator. Socialism promotes “automation dependency” as a means of reducing the definition of pilot equality. 

Winston Churchill commented on this phenomenon with his famously stated assertion (paraphrased) that, “Capitalism is the unequal sharing of profits and Socialism is the equal sharing of misery”. You could say that Socialism is the progressive lessening of individual ability to the level of the least qualified. At that point control (and wealth) shifts to the few who promoted the system in the first place.

Summing up, the best use of automation is to augment the exceptional flying skills of individual pilots. Regulations play an important part in realizing this goal when used to promote a safe system rather than to create a hierarchical system. 

Being mindful that in a hierarchical system 
people often rise to their level of incompetence." 

All the best,
Capt. Jim Wright

Fascinating thoughts and commentary!
What do you think? 
Read Flight For Safety and you, too, 
will understand this challenge of good and evil.

Enjoy the Journey!
XO Karlene


  1. Excellent observation of what is facing us both in flying aircraft and in piloting ships. The bottom line is yes we may want automation, but we want the skills to use when that automation crashes or has issues...and it does happen, often. Thanks for keeping people aware of what is coming ahead.

  2. (email from George Jehn)

    Hi Karlene,
    Capt. Jim’s commentary is excellent, timely and quite telling. It certainly pertains to his industry as well as ours (for me, it’s now my former industry). I believe that his comments are right on, and as I stated last night, the bottom line is the bottom line when it comes to safety, whether that be aviation or maritime.
    Perhaps a simpler way to put it into context for you and I would be to compare the B-737-400 to where the aviation cockpit environment has evolved to today. I believe that you also flew the 737, as I did. To me, the 737-400 truly captured the “best of both worlds,” if you will. The automation was there, but only to the degree that the pilot wanted to utilize it. On that particular aircraft you could hand fly it, or you could let the autopilot take over many of the tasks, but the pilot was always in the loop and was the ultimate decision-maker as to what he/she wanted to do. There was no mandatory regs to utilize the autopilot as we see the airlines mandating today, almost from takeoff to landing, irrespective of the environment or the pilot’s desire to hand fly the aircraft. It was almost as if the design engineers said, “This is great, but let’s ‘improve’ it,” to the point that today’s new generation of pilots is almost completely removed from the equation and truly doesn’t know what to do when the automation fails.
    Of course, today the engineers point to the safety statistics, which they claim clearly show that the automation is safer than in the “days of old.” While this may be true, I believe it is because, just like on the old 737-400 we still have the “best of both worlds” due to the experience levels and skills of the pilots who grew up in the age before complete automation and still possess the basic flying skills that are sorely missing with many of the “new” breed, who rely solely on automation because that is all they have ever known and as a result lack many of the basic skills and understanding.
    Of course, only time will tell if this is a correct “take” on the current situation, but I believe (and I think you do also?) that time will ultimately prove us correct. On the one hand, I hope and pray that we are proven wrong, but on the other, what if anything will be done if we are correct? I guess that we shall have to wait and see?
    All the best,


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