Automation Nation

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Are we letting the computers fly too much? I believe so, I know many of my blogging colleagues would also agree. 

We seem to be going backward – better technology, but crappier pilots.

I have noticed that training vendors for professional pilots tend to assume that you know how to fly the airplane and they focus on using the automation so you are comfortable with it. While that makes complete sense, it doesn’t account for what we are quickly realizing – Knowing when to turn it off and do that ol’ fashion pilot stuff is really the most important part.


And it’s not just the big boys that are creating carnage, there are plenty of TAA (Technologically Advanced Aircraft) that have made GA pilots into systems operators which culminate into a predictable results. Combine that with the “pull the rip chord” mentality of some of the folks I have observed and you have a true recipe for disaster. Maybe it’s good training ground for the Jetson-era that we are rapidly approaching, where machines are in charge and we just “direct” the outcome, but we aren’t there yet – thank goodness! We are in charge and we have to be able to control the flight path of our aircraft from start to finish. 


Remember when airplanes were weak and the pilots were strong? Now I feel it’s the other way around. We have relegated not only our hand-flying skills, but also our ability to maintain situational awareness (SA) to the onboard microelectronics. With cheaper and more available computing power, this conflict between physical flying skills and automation was bound to happen. When you see how Airbus aircraft have struggled with this over the years with fly-by-wire, it’s obvious we have more learning to do even in that well-proven arena (AF447). It just proves the point that the more removed we become from the equation, the harder it is to depend on the pilot to save the day if things go wrong. 


What are some solutions for the GA world?


a.) Different training and currency standards for TAA drivers:


At a minimum I would suggest standardized BFRs for pilots of TAA aircraft that have them demonstrate stick-and-rudder proficiency. Additionally, on instrument competency checks I would challenge them to do raw data, full, non-precision approaches to exercise their ability to maintain SA; I bet that will get some people’s attention. I would wager that some instructors are already doing this. Kudos to them.

b.) Lower the price to fly:

Doing this will allow folks to fly more and therefore practice all aspects of currency. We need to be fluent in the automation, which takes time. We also need to be proficient at hand-flying, which takes practice. Both of these are perishable skills and with the high cost of fuel it’s hard to justify burning it for the sake of maintaining currency. 


If you find yourself using the autopilot as a crutch, I invite you to turn it off and switch on the meat-servo and practice your craft. Maintain your skills.


The automation is good at flying…and good at making us bad pilots. 


by Brent Owens 

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