Aviation is all about change, and it makes rapid advances in short spurts of time. World War I was once such spurt, and World War II was another. Capabilities soared and crew size shrank as progress took the place of navigators and radio operators.
The latest, and still burgeoning spurt, started about the time powered flight celebrated its centennial. Pondering the changes it has wrought, which seem more revolutionary than the evolutionary, has inspired a Wright moment, Steven, not Wilbur or Orville.
Most pilots who learned to fly with steam gauges learned a number of proverbs of aviation safety from their flight instructors. Preeminent among them was, when things started circling the drain, “First, Fly the Airplane.”
Remember that one? Does it still apply when the autopilot does most of the flying? And what about the little blue button marked LVL in the Cirrus Perspective system? Should spatial disorientation strike, pressing the little blue button engages the autopilot, which establishes straight-and-level flight, allowing afflicted pilots to cage their inner ears.
But how does that affect our beloved logbooks, which we lovingly care for as the repository of our enumerated experiences? FAR 61.51 says that the “sole manipulator of the controls” gets to log pilot-in-command time. Before powered flight, everyone pretty much agreed that those “controls” were the stick, rudder, and throttle. Now they are buttons, knobs, and switches.
Do we need a new column in our pilot logbook? Maybe there should be a column for the programmer in command.
That brings me to another old-school proverb, Always Know Your Location. I don’t know about you, but my instructors demanded that I follow my progress on a sectional or en route chart. I had to cross reference my finger’s position by comparing preflight time, speed, and distance computations with visual landmarks or cross-bearing from VORs or NDBs perpendicular to my route. And so I wouldn’t get bored, I was taught that cross-referencing my fuel plans and progress always came next.
So, if the GPS-WAAS driven autopilot is doing all of the flying and navigating, why do we need the digital highway in the sky? To prove that the computer can fly better than we can? Or does it give programmers and front-seat passengers something to look at, so they’ll feel involved?
How about this as a new paean to situational awareness: GI-GO is god, and never take off with a database out of date.
For the old schoolers, that’s Garbage In-Garbage Out. An airplane will not arrive at the desired destination if the programmer in command doesn’t enter it correctly in the system. And as the those Northwest pilots so ably demonstrated, even doing it right is no guarantee.
In the spirit of the blue button, perhaps something akin to the railroad’s dead-man switch is just around the corner. In today’s locomotives, if the engineer doesn’t check in with the system every so many minutes, it stops the train. In the airplane, if the programmer doesn’t check in at some interval, the system provides an attention-getting shock to a wristband that also monitors the pulse. If there is no response either way, the autopilot completes the flight as programmed. And maybe it calls 911 on final. It’s possible. Maybe even probable. I wonder what would Wilbur and Orville think? (Is it just me, or do the brothers Wright look unhappy here, especially Wilbur!) – Scott Spangler