Lost in the Plane Talking email tsunami was this note from a reader on the issues of automation and inexperience and flight training standards that this blog has been banging on about for more than three years.
Everyone drives. Everyone knows that being on the road is far more dangerous than flying.
But how dangerous is it to fly if Pilots have insufficient experience or are poorly trained?
I own and drive a 1994 Volvo truck and as well as being an experienced driver, I am a Trade Qualified Diesel Fitter. I am 56 and have driven Coaches, tippers, over-size low loaders, cattle, bricks and tour buses on Fraser Island.
I have had a couple of hours in gliders.
Guess what! I loved it! But I found out that even though I have a talent for driving big things, I have no talent for flying.
So lets go back to what I know most about – trucks.
Now trucks used to be really hard to drive, and you needed real ability to be able to do it well. These days it’s not so hard because of the technology that you can buy in them.
Like fully automated gearboxes (not like your auto in the car) that have gears but no gearstick. Some still have a clutch pedal that you use to take off and stop but don’t touch while you drive and others have no clutch pedal at all.
Like cruise control.
Like infrared cameras that show things on a screen long before your headlights reach them.
Like forward looking radar that first sounds an alarm if you are approaching something stopped or slower than you and will then bring the truck to a stop before hitting it without any input from the driver.
Like side looking radar that sounds an alarm when the turn signal is activated and there is something in the lane beside the truck, possibly in the driver’s blind spot.
Like engine computers that make it unnecessary to watch instruments.
Like electronic braking systems that match the prime mover with the trailer(s) so well that optimum braking is achieved using only the brake pedal with no need for the separate trailer brake control handle that has always been part of an articulated truck until now.
Some new drivers are going straight into trucks like these. Some are well trained and some are not. It is human nature to start to rely on all the gadgets that are there to help you. So what happens if the gadgets fail or the driver finds himself in an older truck that doesn’t have them fitted? If he or she does not have the training and experience to be aware of everything to do with and around their vehicle so that it is kept within it’s and the driver’s performance envelope and react correctly and instinctively in an emergency situation, you have a very dangerous person behind the wheel of what is effectively a truck that is not fully under control the moment it starts to move.
I suppose it would be a bit like your A330 disengaging the autopilot then reverting from normal law to alternate law but you can’t figure it out and don’t know how to hand fly the thing at high altitude anyway.
Ignore that. You can’t stall these. That’s what they told us.
I’ll just keep pulling the stick back, maybe that will help.
Why don’t we both pull our side sticks back together. That’s gotta work. We’re not really sure who is supposed to be driving anyway.
Check the vertical speed indicator! Nah. Can’t trust it anyway.
What about ground speed? Nah. Can’t trust it either.
What about the artificial horizon? Nah. Don’t use them.
What’s going on here?
We don’t know Captain!
CRASH – with unimaginable horror.
That is so ridiculous – it just couldn’t hap…….. Oh yeah. AF447.
I hope that a look at man/machine interface from a different angle and my little bit of nonsense will help the understanding of those who continue to argue that “World Best Practice” is good enough. Nothing but the absolute best is good enough.
How criminal would I be if I chucked the keys of a brand new 700hp Volvo or Mecedes truck with all the gadgets to a kid who just got his semi-trailer licence and sent him to Cairns or Perth and said “Don’t worry. You’ll sort it out in a couple of K’s. You don’t have to do much – just steer it.”
I wouldn’t do that with such an expensive piece of equipment ? You’re right! But some do and guess what ? It happens with aeroplanes too.
If the two AF447 Pilots had spent perhaps even as little time in gliders as I have, maybe some instinct would have kicked in and all those people would be still alive because in a glider airspeed v altitude is a non- negotiable equation and there aren’t any gadgets.
Every professional driver (that means of things that float or fly as well as things with wheels) lives with the constant doubt in their mind of how well they will perform when the “big one” comes along. If you don’t you either don’t know enough to be doing the job or you have become complacent and shouldn’t be doing the job. You learn from every incident and that equips you better for the next one. The name of this phenomenon is experience and there is no substitute for it.
I marvel at the clips of landings at the old Hong-Kong Airport and asked someone I know who was still a First Officer before it closed “How the hell DO you land a 747 like that?”
He said “It’s easy! You just look out the window and fly the aircraft.”
I was amazed!
He said “It’s your job. That’s what we do. It’s about the same as you sharing a narrow bridge with a truck going the other way. There are only inches to spare but you know what you are doing.”
This could have been a highly relevant comment for the articles about the Jetstar incidents in which captains were burdened with the consequences of incompetent first officers who the airline somehow assessed as fit to take over in an emergency and safety land a jet.
In each case inexperience was the cause of the emergency or incident. It was inexperience and abysmal flight safety standards that led to the Air France slaughter on AF447, and one might reasonably conclude, a few other factors too.
As a general observation that goes beyond Australia to some of the comments made by other airline executives about the benefits of automation down the years, in that the less an airline management understands about flying, the more they believe in magical technology dividends that are payable now, rather than in the next one or two generations of new airliners.
There is nothing worse than being right too soon. It’s like entrusting your enterprise entirely to cloud computing. Lots of savings until your screens go blank, or the privacy of your entire clientele is exposed, or you lose your data base.
This isn’t a Boeing or Airbus thing. Both manufacturers have different takes on automation, both make superb airliners (usually) and both have been warning for some time now, to paraphrase into plain words, that crap training and over reliance on systems will end in lots of dead people and airline brands in ruins.
Just this one person’s thoughts, but surely the more we enjoy the benefits of competition and affordable air transport, the more we need fierce public administration of the essentials when it comes to standards and experience.