Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Day of Simple Flying - A Time of Complex Questions

Is there any better way to start a week of aviation-related travel than by flying in an open cockpit biplane through the canyons of Utah? That's a rhetorical question, the answer is no

Stearman pilots, Patrick Veillette (left) and Steve Guenard

My first day in Salt Lake City, where I have come to attend and write about the annual conference of the International Society of Air Safety Investigators, was dedicated to spending some time with my friend Patrick Veillette, who is also my partner in the Comprehensive Medical Aviation Safety Database, and a pilot qualified to fly an astonishing array of aircraft: hot air balloons, gliders, helicopters, business jets, and even the lovely yellow Stearman above with the tail number N1387V.

The Stearman is not Patrick's. It is the proud possession of the Commemorative Air Force Utah Wing, in Heber Valley, Utah, which is the local chapter of a national organization devoted to displaying, flying and overall lovin' of the planes that flew in World War 2.

Patrick and his wife, Kim Henneman who live in Utah are members of the CAF. And because they are gracious hosts, I was invited to go for a ride in N1387V, on this diamond-perfect late summer day. 

Unfortunately, a minor technical problem kept the airplane on the ground, so Steve Guenard, honcho at the CAF and a former airline captain with lots of hours in the Stearman would not let me be disappointed. He jumped in and offered to take me for a spin in his Stearman, N7995. This is more than a spruced up 1940s era airplane. Steve says it took him 15-years to turn what was little more than a big bucket of bolts into this beauty. 

She is a flying carpet now.  We took off from Russ McDonald Field and headed into the valley flying over the home of Robert Redford in Sundance, the spectacular Bridal Veil Falls and then turning back to view sprawling Park City, spotting the occasional orange or golden tree getting a head start on autumn.

Steve Guenard at the controls of N7995
After landing, Steve, Patrick and I stood around the hangar discussing how much aviation has changed in a short span of time. From simple planes with just a few essential round dials like the Stearman, to the digital cockpit mega-capacity airliners coming off the Airbus and Boeing assembly lines, the debate continues over how this development is affecting aviation. 

In his presentation on Tuesday, Patrick is planning to talk about this and the related question, are pilots being trained appropriately for real-world situations? As airplanes reach ever higher levels of complexity are pilots overwhelmed? If so, how do commercial operations scale back, simplify the cockpit so that pilots can maintain attention to appropriate tasks rather than - for example - being distracted by arbitrary checklists  that are the legacy of an earlier era?

These are not easy questions. I'm reminded of the excellent essay of more than a decade ago, by William Langewiesche in his book, Inside the Sky, in which he discusses the contradiction that highly developed systems intended to safeguard actually create more pathways for error.  He didn't have any answers either. 

Anthony Brickhouse, Brittnee Branham Albert Moussa and Patrick Veillette at ISASI opening reception
In conference rooms and in airplane hangars, experienced aviators are trying to jawbone their way forward.


Jim Blaszczak said...


As usual, you ask some very thought provoking, although almost rhetorical, questions.

It is not about the machine, it never was. No matter how sophisticated and advanced the aircraft becomes, it will only be as safe as the pilot. Yes, pilots can be distracted, but they can also do something no machine has ever been able to do, think. That human quality is worth the price. We can never design an airplane that is perfect anymore than we can expect perfection from a human. The human brain, as Captain Sully demonstrated, is far more capable to process and prioritize real time data than any super computer.

The task for today's instructors and managers is to inspire pilots to be the master of their machine. Not so much with their hands, but with their mind.

Keep up the good work by asking the hard questions!

Frank Van Haste said...

Christine --

Gosh, I envy you for that ride in a Stearman on a beautiful Western morning. That is what aviation is all about!

Regarding your main topic, y'know, whenever dissimilar systems are joined together the problems develop at the interface. It really hasn't been so long since we first began to mesh human beings and computers in the context of an airplane. We are still learning how to do it.

Humans are good at some things - pattern recognition, highly adaptive response without a priori preparation; and bad at others - monitoring stable systems, sustaining performance over long periods, really rapid response. Computers also are good at some things and bad at others. Fortunately, they are good at the things we are bad at and vice versa. Unfortunately, we've yet to evolve effective protocols for task sharing that will take advantage of this.

In any good marriage, the partners complement each other. The potential for a good marriage between flesh-and-blood pilots and silicon-and-copper pilots is great but we have to get creative about designing the details of the relationship.

There are, as of now, two schools of thought. One, exemplified by Airbus, says that the computer can better control the airplane and the pilot is just there for anomalous conditions. This invites AF447. The second, holding that the computer is just a tool and that man must always dominate, invites Colgan 3407. To avoid both classes of problem, the systems must become adaptive, apportioning control and responsibility between human and computer entities in response to flight conditions.

We don't know how to do that -- yet. To learn how may be your colleagues' next great task.

Best regards,