Annual recurrent training is an opportunity to recycle knowledge and skills. An annual review of systems dusts away cobwebs that may have settled over the previous twelve months. More importantly, it serves as a reminder that what’s happening ‘auto-magically’ behind the instrument panel is dependent on highly advanced aircraft systems and technology.
While simulators give pilots the opportunity to toggle switches that otherwise gather dust thanks to the automation and high reliability of today’s cockpit, recurrent training also serves as a priceless opportunity to connect with other pilots and to hear of emerging trends and real-life lessons.
Truth be told, it’s hardly surprising that most of these exchanges include mishaps that result from an over-reliance on technology and automation in today’s cockpit.
One colleague who flies an older jet relayed a story of the time his crew were on a routine climb to the higher flight levels. The aircraft was hand-flown before the autopilot was engaged at 18,000ft. At that point the crew shifted their focus from scanning the primary instruments to discussing an upcoming trip.
A few minutes into their conversation, they were surprised to see the aircraft’s stall warning system activate. Although they responded correctly and regained positive control of the airplane before they reached the stall envelope, to their surprise the autopilot had never captured, and they never procedurally confirmed autopilot engagement.
This was a clear violation of procedure and could have yielded a bad outcome. The story also serves to highlight the continued importance of understanding how human factors affect the interface between man and machine.
All phases of flight must be considered critical, regardless of how automated the cockpit seems.
By developing SOPs (Standard Operational Procedures) that cover the transition of flight states, the levels of automation, and enhancing awareness during different flight phases, you will help enforce a solid interface between pilot and automation.
In today’s highly automated and advanced cockpits, we must be vigilant, and be aware of how easily we can disconnect and be distracted from the business of flying the aircraft.
It’s also imperative to understand what the aircraft will do when we engage systems. During an LPV/WAAS approach, for example, what are the annunciations that we should expect to see and hear outside the final approach fix, once the glideslope is intercepted? And, if a system malfunctions, or fails to behave as expected, what actions should be taken (either manually or automatically) to correct or abandon the approach?
Avionics & Automation: Staying in the Loop
During a conference held by one major business jet OEM, the concept of ‘Deviation from Normal’ was discussed, and the theme included how much the machine should attempt to manage system malfunctions before sharing with the crew that something is wrong.
With monumental computing power already available in the cockpit, and artificial intelligence algorithms emerging that will far out-perform human performance, how should pilots be kept in the loop to manage the processes and systems?
This technology could deliver ‘Deviation from Normal’ information as workload permits. For example, does a pilot really need to know that the airplane’s automation sensed a pressurization fault that it can easily correct during a critical approach phase of the flight? Or should the logic manage the fault and tell the pilot what happened after they have landed?
It is important for the industry to be thinking about the best ways to strengthen appropriate human interface in the cockpit.
This is particularly the case today where it’s possible to cross the Atlantic with barely a word spoken on the radio; with redundant triple navigational systems; and with a flight plan constantly uplinked to ATC.
The aircraft I fly will autotune the ILS frequency and set the inbound course autonomically from me. It will also load the Missed Approach Procedure (MAP), and if I press the correct buttons, it will fly the approach and the MAP without my intervention.
Of course, there are steps that I can be taking to make a conscious effort to stay interfaced with the machine. For example, I still set the localizer frequency, the inbound course and minimums manually on the pre-selects. I do so during a complete briefing that includes reviewing the FMS route page to make sure the guidance looks correct.
With the potential gross navigational errors reduced to a minimum through automation, however, what are the new risks? As highlighted in our previous example, having a distracted crew with very little to do during a seven-hour international crossing poses a whole new set of challenges.
Though I don’t have the room or all the answers to describe the ways to strengthen and solidify the safe use of modern cockpit technology, what is clear is that a sterile cockpit environment, with reduced distraction, and focused awareness is essential.
This will be helped through developing solid procedures that keep us ‘in the loop’ and in charge while technology supports us in our job of flying airplanes with more accuracy and efficiency. Regardless of the avionics, we must always remember who the Pilot in Command is, acting accordingly…