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Nothing unsettles my pilot friends and me more than non-pilots telling us about the prospect of future aircraft operated autonomously- sans human aviators on the flight deck. “You know-” the conversation usually goes- “someday airplanes won’t really need pilots. Computers will do it all in the future.” Really? Already- knowing that part of the National Airspace System accommodates remotely piloted and autonomous aircraft ...

Dave Higdon   |   1st February 2009
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon is a highly respected, NBAA Gold Wing award-winning aviation journalist who has...
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The final safety tool is the body behind the yoke.

Nothing unsettles my pilot friends and me more than non-pilots telling us about the prospect of future aircraft operated autonomously- sans human aviators on the flight deck. “You know-” the conversation usually goes- “someday airplanes won’t really need pilots. Computers will do it all in the future.” Really?

Already- knowing that part of the National Airspace System accommodates remotely piloted and autonomous aircraft gives us the willies. And the ‘expert’ opinions offering explanations of how technology that blends the mechanics of autopilots with artificial intelligence to do the right things at the right time gives us no comfort that those machines- whether flown by a human far away or an on-board spool of software and digital processors- can ever possess the most-animal of all instincts- the drive to survive.

Only a machine that senses and protects its own mortality can begin to operate with the same sense of survival urgency as a human. And the prospect of such a self-protective machine existing gives us no comfort- either.

Many of us like to evoke the name of movie director Stanley Kubrick- the director of “2001: A Space Odyssey” at this juncture. The late director gave the world the most graphic- sobering glimpse yet of life with a machine driven to act out its own drive to survive - even more so than the Terminator characters of director James Cameron in his movies that share the lead character’s name.

No - give us a human being on the flight deck- someone with a sense of skill and ability honed by years of training and actual exposure to the infinite combination of flaws- failures and foibles- winds and weather that can beset an aircraft in-flight. Sure- we know well that those said humans are too often the source of the problems that command the combination of superior skills and the cool- calm command of the situation required to execute those skills in a way that produces survivable incidents.

It’s also my suspicion that most humans outside the industry offering this unsettling promise of pilotless flight prefer to take their chances on a human or two upfront- having learned their feelings about machines and computers from one too many instances of the Blue Screen of Death on their computer- inaccurate billing statements the companies non-chalantly credit to “computer error”- or the seemingly harmless frustration of trying to program their VCR.

And then there’s that key word that we so often find lacking in ‘computer logic’- such as it is: judgment. To paraphrase what one aviation company stresses repeatedly- the best safety system in any aircraft is a well-trained aviator. It is excellent airmanship skills born out of years of developed judgment that separate the great from the merely good and the good from the unfortunately inadequate.

During his presentation at the 2008 Bombardier Safety Standdown in Kansas City- pilot Clay Lacy took into account the extensive count of tools available in today’s typical business aircraft – particularly in the FAR 25 jets and those FAR 23 jets equipped to the higher standard.

As he noted- if the tools available were enough- they should make every takeoff- every landing- safe and accident free. But we know the world doesn’t work that way. With type ratings in 30 aircraft- a lengthy airline pilot career- experience in air races in aircraft as diverse as the four-engine DC-7 and several wins- plus a host of aviation records in a variety of Learjets and other aircraft- Lacy brings to the discussion the depth and variety of flying that lends depth and credibility to his position.

“It is my opinion-” he said- “that every takeoff or landing accident can be avoided. The design of FAR 25 aircraft is such that you can’t have an accident if operated properly. We know that theoretical assumption does not always prove out.”

Noting the vast number of warning systems and their various annunciators- pilots today benefit from equipment designed to warn them of almost any problem. A pilot- Lacy noted- must exercise situational awareness to the degree that encompasses a myriad of details – weather conditions- runway conditions- aircraft systems conditions – and properly process all these data points. So why do the accidents continue to occur – even when the pilots possess the requisite knowledge and passed the skills tests?

It is a repeat of that key word- judgment. Judgment is where the lines cross in not only accumulating all these pieces of information- but in processing them usefully- accurately- and often in fractions of a second that differentiate success from failure. And failure- in this case- is an unwarranted accident or incident.

Lacy noted that even with all the tools available in today’s sophisticated business jets- crews are far from immune to error. Lacy told the group that if not used properly- with good judgement- tools like autopilots and auto throttles- flight directors and FMS- GPS- L-NAV and V-NAV- Enhanced or Synthetic Vision- WAAS- even the lowly ILS and VOR- “can lead you on a path you don’t want to take.”

Simply put- judgment- independent from physical skills and mental knowledge- underpins the safety and success of flying. Dr. Tony Kern- CEO and Senior Partner of Convergent Knowledge Solutions- a small firm formed and dedicated to reducing human error in high-risk environments- offers a model for how superior judgment builds on several factors as he has shown in several appearances at Bombardier’s annual Standdown.

His model for the Historical Essence of Airmanship builds on three bedrock principles: discipline- skill and proficiency. Above these bedrock principles stand what Kern identifies as Pillars of Knowledge – knowledge of self- of the team- the aircraft- the environment- the risks and the mission.

Capping his Bedrock Principles and those Pillars of Knowledge is Judgment – judgment that can only grow out of building the foundation- acquiring the pillars and applying all these elements accurately- with alacrity and authority.

With these elements working to support good judgment a pilot can- for example- recognize how observed weather conditions can impact a flight when those conditions are encountered under varying circumstances. Wind shear encountered at altitude impacts the risks to a flight far differently than when encountered at the low altitudes flown for takeoff or landing.

Kern also recognizes that training to perform skills correctly does not necessarily teach the pilot what not to do – or how to handle doing something outside the situations trained in classes or aircraft simulators. The infinitely varied combination of issues requires pilots to learn things not to do- never to do- or how to do them safely when circumstances preclude total avoidance.

To continue our above example- pilots are taught to avoid wind shear when possible. But when shear occurs at low levels – and outside expectations from the forecast – pilots need to know how to recognize and react correctly to avoid becoming victims of an unexpected encounter. As instructors know and stress- that means recognizing and understanding those moments when the instinctive reaction is the wrong reaction – a time when something counterintuitive is the only viable option.

Lacy presented a host of factors that demand judgment and flying skills to handle – and it’s a list that high-tech tools generally can only inform us of as opposed to solve. For example- those take-off and landing incidents that seem to persistently plague pilots of even the most technologically sophisticated aviators.

“Landing”- Lacy noted- “is an unexacting science. It is a somewhat ‘seat-of-the-pants’ proposition- using windage and past experience.” When completely analyzed- he explained- landing accidents and runway excursions on takeoff usually come down to poor judgment on the part of the crew- lack of knowledge of the airport- aircraft performance or systems- or poor airmanship that allowed the aircraft to go off the runway side or end.

Among the factors that the crew must deal with are the obvious like runway length- winds and crosswinds- gradient and lighting- if at night. Then there are the less obvious issues such as braking action influenced by water- ice and snow- or the build up of rubber from past landings; the type of surface- whether concrete or asphalt- whether the runway is grooved- and wake turbulence- which can literally park over a runway from the force of a crosswind.

The accumulation of knowledge from past experience allows the pilot and co-pilot to exercise the proper judgment needed to neutralize the negative impact of these factors. “It all relates to airmanship- or the lack of it-” Lacy stressed.

Judgment and skill combine to allow the pilot to exercise the experienced-based task of progressively changing the cross-control inputs needed to counter a strong crosswind – cross control that necessarily diminishes as the aircraft accelerates through takeoff or increases as the aircraft decelerates on landing.

In the textbook example- the upwind wheel always carries the most weight and leaves the runway last on takeoff; on landing- that upwind wheel should be the first to touch and continue to carry the most weight as the aircraft slows.

He cited the over-use of the nosewheel steering – versus control by the aerodynamically effective flight controls – as an element in many runway excursions. And in a bit of insight born from years of flying- Lacy also noted the potential benefit of leading with added power on the upwind side during crosswind takeoffs as an additional method for countering the cross and retaining control in adverse conditions.

But another element must also be present – the judgment to make a new decision if that cross comes close to exceeding the maximum demonstrated crosswind capability of the aircraft. As investigators delve further into the mysteries of accidents that shouldn’t have happened- failure to exercise all the tools in the kit arise again and again.

In a day when many a corporate pilot experiences the actual aircraft after qualifying in a highly advanced simulator- Lacy offered some advice that may sound like a throwback to the days of learning all in the cockpit.

He encourages those with little or no tailwheel experience to actually go out and fly an old-fashioned tail dragger. “It is the best way to learn the rudders move all the way- something you seldom do in a tri-gear aircraft- except engine out-” he expanded.

Noting today’s common practice for qualifying pilots for a new type rating- Lacy said- “I know you can get your rating in a simulator and need only minimum time in the aircraft. However- I believe when you are learning to fly a new aircraft- getting some instruction in the airplane with an experienced pilot in type- investigating characteristics near limits- is most beneficial. It’s called ‘Airmanship-’ and it will save your life!”

Kern’s take on airmanship and the role of judgment take into account much of the philosophy of what Lacy emphasized- albeit in a more technical- analytical way. His take also emphasized something too many pilots have learned the hard way: what happens when a pilot acts against his own best judgment and outside the benefits of the airmanship most pilots possess and use most of the time.

There are what Kern calls “Error Producing Conditions” (EPCs)- situations in which the pilot should know better but acts differently- anyway.

Among those EPCs are physiological degradation – when the pilot is too tired or for whatever reasons not functioning at his or her best (see Pilot Fatigue Countermeasures p112 January WAS digital magazine for more details). That’s a good time to exercise the judgment not to go- from this pilot’s perspective.

Others include high-risk/low frequency events – such as trying to put the airplane onto a minimally acceptable runway under worse-than typical conditions; succumbing to time pressure when instinct and judgment cry out not to do so; and the normalization of deviance – that is- surviving a mistake enough times that it begins to feel like it’s not a mistake. At some point- that mistake will feel normal enough that it fails to generate the urgency- attention and focus that helped the pilot survive those earlier incidents- usually to the detriment of the airplane- crew and everyone else on board. It’s when judgment must trump airmanship with a new decision.

Another is what Kern calls a “one way decision gate-” in which once a decision is made the pilot is unwilling to reverse the call for whatever reason. There is also the faulty risk perception- in which judgment fails and the pilot in turn fails to treat the risk with the respect required. Again- these are examples of when judgment must trump airmanship with a new decision.

Those folks who seem so enamored with the idea of computers thinking and robots flying may not fully appreciate the nuances of being a “good stick” and the value of superior judgment.

Unfortunately- as close as technology may be able to come to the stick skills- it’s going to be a long time before a computer can equal the superiority of an experienced- thinking pilot putting to work the accumulation of stick time and exposure to the unexpected – the elements that help superior pilots develop superior judgment.

But make no mistake. The best safety system in any aircraft is a well-trained- experienced and nuanced aviator who knows well the truth of the following adage. The superior pilot is one who uses superior judgment to avoid needing superior skills to survive. When you blend that experience and judgment in the proper proportions- you get the superior airmanship that draws the highest compliment a pilot can hear a passenger say: “My flight? It was uneventful.”

You can hear lectures and attend workshops on this and other safety related issues in business aviation at Bombardier’s annual Safety Standdown.

Find out more from www.safetystanddown.com

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