Pilot or Panic?

By Robert Mark on June 23rd, 2011

There’s no small amount of irony in the fact that Rockwell Collins announced it’s new “One Touch Safe Mode,” button at the Paris Air Show this week … at least it was ironic to me.

Panic The button, integrated into the avionics giant’s popular Pro Line Fusion integrated flight deck avionics system, is designed as a fail safe to grab the flight controls from the pilot and right the airplane should the pilot – or pilots – find themselves unable to do so.

French airframe manufacturer Airbus is based in Blagnac near Toulouse just an hour’s jet flight south of Paris’ Le Bourget Airport. Airbus, of course, as well as Air France, have been inundated with the kind of publicity no company wants after the loss of Air France 447 two years ago. Initial BEA reports indicated pilot error, as in complete loss of control of the aircraft, was a distinct possibility.

Now I certainly don’t fault Rockwell for building this new fail-safe technology mind you. They’re simply your typical multi-billion dollar manufacturer of some really intelligent electronics and after testing these panic buttons in unmanned aircraft, decided the business jet market was ready to accept the option.

Angst Lights Flashing

I’m just having a little trouble that a transport category aircraft is leaving the factory floor with a button to save everyone on board when the pilots are no longer able to function; think incapacitated of course, as one of the big selling points. But how often has that ever happened with even just two pilots aboard? What’s the real reason then?

My real heartburn is that we seem to be taking another slide down the technology rabbit hole in search of someone to save the pilots and passengers should the crew not be well-trained enough, as seems to be the case in the Air France 447 in the South Atlantic, or the Colgan accident in Buffalo. Perhaps this button would have saved the day, perhaps not.

Of course, this is not the first fail-safe button in a civil aircraft. Late model Cirrus aircraft with the Garmin Perspective avionics system come standard with a “LVL”Lvl button button also designed to save pilot and passengers during disorientation. I’ve tried it many times and it works great, but it’s aimed at a market where the skill level of the person in the left seat is considerably less than what we expect of someone driving a 350,000 lbs. airplane.

Flying an Airbus and even a Dash 8 Q400 is the big time, where pilots are supposed to be professionals, trained to exacting standards, ready to leap tall buildings in a single bound and all that.

Sorry to go all Testosterony on you here, but as a professional flight educator, I can tell you we’re having enough trouble teaching pilots sufficient airmanship skills to safely fly large aircraft to exacting standards as it is, without offering them a way to abdicate their role when the sh** hits the fan.

I know the Rockwell people have a great product that I’m sure will probably save lives some day.

And I also realize I’m beginning to sound like a relic of a long forgotten age, but am I the only person who seems to see the role of the professional pilot about to drop one more notch at a time when the technology that smacked Air France 447 out of the sky is seriously in question, not to mention the skill level of the three airmen aboard that ill-fated airliner?

Rob Mark, publisher

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18 Responses to “Pilot or Panic?”

  1. Chris Muncy Says:

    I wonder if they’re paying royalties to Stables since they are emulating their “Easy” button…..

  2. Felipe "Hupiscratch" Andrade Says:

    How would that “Easy button” help when the 787 had a huge electrical failure, during the flight tests? Although new helps are always welcome, the good old “hand-&-foot” should never be put to rest. Unfortunately some people may get the wrong image and think that the knowledge of a direct control of the airplane is not a big deal anymore.

  3. Chris Muncy Says:

    I was being totally sarcastic. I agree with you 100%. I believe that a “mechanism” like this might insert some complacency on lesser experienced crews. But if it’s used once and saves lives, it’s worth it.

  4. Robert Mark Says:

    Funny thing about that Easy comment though Chris.

    That’s the purpose of the button in the Cirrus (sorry, love the plane guys … I’m just saying …), but in a transport category airplane???

    Are pilots really on the way out or is this simply a great way to prevent what happened to Air France and Colgan with just the touch of that “Easy” button?

  5. Felipe "Hupiscratch" Andrade Says:

    I understood your sarcasm, Chris. My comment was not a response to you, but just a open thought. I got worried when the president of the brazilian equivalent to AOPA said once the “hand-&-foot” is over, that the current profile of pilots are more like to a systems manager.

  6. Paul Filmer Says:

    It’s going the same way in all walks of life Rob. Everything has to be narrowed down to the lowest common denominator.

    Automation makes us lazy and unpracticed while management sit back and say “we’ll get someone off the street to do the job cheaper because we made it fail-safe.”

    It’s already happening in the IT industry and I see it creeping into other professions.

  7. Kevin Fox Says:

    I would assume this feature would be pitched a very different way if the last 747 to go down was the result of a hijacking instead of pilot error.

    ‘The button’ doesn’t have to be in the cockpit, and being able to remotely take the controls of a hijacked aircraft would probably have more opportunity to save lives than a cockpit button that lets two highly skilled pilots admit they don’t know how to maintain their aircraft’s attitude.

  8. Matt Halstead Says:

    Rob,
    I’m an airline pilot and I couldn’t agree with you more. Unfortunately, that is the direction this career has been headed for the last decade. We train these days to the lowest common denominator which is sad as well as pathetic. Gives me very little reason to take pride in my professionalism anymore. The only reason any of us do these days is out of our own personal sense of pride and duty. The airlines, as much as they love the “safety is #1″ tag line, aren’t really interested in anything but the bottom line…and sadly, it’s what the public demands as well.

  9. Tracy Says:

    One problem with that ‘Easy button’ is that the airplane has to still be in some defined envelope of parameters for it to function. It has to have a starting place.

    Maybe if it operated ONLY on angle of attack and bank angle it could work in basic aircraft – apparently Cirrus has it figured out.

    I’m not sure that any airline pilot I know would trust an electronic plane that much. But I’m an old-school type.

    The real question is how in the world can two professional pilots ever let an airplane get that far out of normal flight parameters that the button would ever be necessary?

  10. Scott Spangler Says:

    A LVL button in a transport category airplane is but one more fastener in the rapidly closing pocket of pilot obsolescence.

    In being seduced by technology, pilots have surrendered their future. It brings to mind a passage from The Right Stuff by Tom Wolf. The Mercury capsules were supposed to be fully automated, like the one that took the chimpanzee Ham for the ride. When the seven guys who fought for selection and survived a brutal selection and training program learned this, as a group they stood up and said, “Pardon us, but no way.”

    If professional pilots want to stave off total automation a bit longer, they need to do the same. They might have a chance, especially at airlines run by airplane people. But if their airline is run by MBAs who cannot see beyond the bottom line, their fate may already be sealed, and they are the last to know about it.

  11. Norman Says:

    Don’t you think that we are all flying transitional technology aircraft at the moment? The Boeing philosophy and hardware has remained substantially the same since the introduction of the 757/737-300 through to the 777. ‘Dunno about the 787 but my guess is…

    They are designed to be flown through the autopilot via the MCP/FMC – disengage the autopilot and the workload skyrockets. Result, few people hand-fly the aircraft regularly outside the simulator and what happens to basic skills? They erode along with the confidence that practice brings.

    Effective management of the aircraft is where most situations and accidents are avoided, we can’t get away from that. But there needs to be a step change in the man-machine interface and our information systems imo before we reach the stage where we can safely, routinely hand fly the aircraft on the line.
    The question from the ‘system’ then follows, “is that absolutely necessary?” I think the answer will be – “that’s not the direction we (the design philosophy departments of NASA /Boeing/Airbus) feel we should be moving.

    So we are left with the simulator with allocation of practice time and effective scenario design to tune, train and prepare pilots for the real world and the inherent weaknesses in the day to day world. That’s the direction we are going where I work.
    Just another view from the line…

  12. M Braun Says:

    I pretty much agree with everybody else. I’m flying freight in a C210/Baron and everyday people are shocked that I don’t have an autopilot. I went into the freight portion of the industry because I wanted to prove to myself that I could hack it. I’ve been her four years now and would never say that I didn’t enjoy it both personally and professionally. This allows me to know that I can hand fly an ILS down to 200′ and 1800 RVR. Why? Because I have had to do it.

    I don’t think it’s fair to call the pilots of the AF447 unqualified or at fault because while they should have been trained for the experience of the loss of an airspeed indicator, the amount of time it took from beginning to end (around 3-4 mins) is how long they had to figure everything out from what the airplane is doing, what is happening, and how to correct.

    I don’t think anything other than pilot error will come out of the investigation. Which will be sad. Every time that I hear pilot error I cringe and then try to find out more details. The real question is does the NTSB, FAA, and other investigation agencies rely to heavily on technology and not make good on an actual investigation? Pilot error is too common, I agree, but sometimes it’s thrown around as a scapegoat excuse.

  13. Steve Rudin Says:

    Is it possible that, if the crash of the Airbus may have been partially the results of a fault with the aircraft outside air sensors, such a system wouldn’t work, right?

    In other words, the data it would be getting would be faulty leading it to make the wrong moves to save the aircraft.

  14. JC Says:

    From what I have read, the AF 447 pitot tubes had thawed and were returning believable airspeed data within a minute or two of the first autopilot/autothrottle disconnect. The Pilot Flying continued to command “nose up” attitude even though the plane was in a stall — not helped by the automatic elevator trim that had by that time gone to 13 degrees “nose up.” OK, not blaming the pilots here. Loss of situational awareness happens to the best of us and getting pitched around in a storm trying to fly manually is bronc-busting for sure. But hey — if the altimeter is unwinding at 10,000 feet a minute and nothing seems to be working — I will still shake the pilot’s hand and thank him for a job well done disembarking even if he has to push the “One Touch Safe Mode” button. No less credit is due there than for a crew who monitors Cat III Autoland all the way down to the surface. The humans get the credit for successful completion of the flight no matter how much flying the computers have done.

  15. steven Rudin Says:

    The cover of Air and Space Magazine has a picture of the Northrop Grumman X 47B, an unmanned aircraft, with the caption “The End of Combat Pilots?” This may also be where commercial aviation will eventually go. It will be unfortunate if it happens, but change is inevitable in all things.

  16. Steve Thorpe Says:

    Am I totally against a “Save the Bacon” button? No problem, unless Collins wants to charge an arm and a leg for it. Do I think it would actually improve, in a statistically significant way, the level of safety in transport category aircraft? Not really. There are several factors at play here, IMO.

    First, as Steven R. rightly points out, if you are receiving contradictory information from your ADCs, then the system would probably not be able to determine HOW to save the day. Second, how is the crew to determine the appropriate time to give up control? As a 14,000+ hour corporate pilot, all my training to this point in my career has been focused on how to save the day if the automation not only fails, but is trying actively to kill you. Now I am supposed to decide when to throw away that experience and put my life in the hands of a computer? I am not saying there are the very rare cases where that might be the appropriate response, but that would be a TOUGH sell (and usually need to be decided on in a SHORT time-frame)!

    “They are designed to be flown through the autopilot via the MCP/FMC”. VERY true, Norman! But, we as pilots need to remain actively engaged in the process, and I believe fewer are. For example, when on Auto Speed (or at ANY time, for that matter!), how many pilots are in the habit of verbally calling out ANY change in their PFD flight guidance mode annunciation? When the auto speed changes from, say 250 to 200 KIAS because you are within 15 NM of the IAF, are we calling it out verbally? Doing so may seem anal to some, but it forces the two heads up front to remain on the same page, focused on the path (in all dimensions) the automation is taking them.

    I sense that the training environment is changing. It certainly has already in the corporate jet world, where more real-world stall recovery training has been mandated by the FAA. You know, one of the problems is that we don’t hear about the hundreds of flights over the decades where a crew averts an AF 447-type disaster by applying basic airmanship skills to a situation.

    Keep that personal pride, Matt and Norman! It what I hope for in the crews that I trust my life with when I fly in the back of one of your airplanes!

  17. Bill P Says:

    Does it do stall recovery?
    Will it also take over the power?
    Not much good if it only recovers from the easy stuff.

  18. Technology Behind the Panic Button - Jetwhine: Aviation Buzz and Bold Opinion Says:

    […] I penned an article about the Panic Button the Rockwell Collins folks announced at Paris a few weeks ago, I was upset … not with the Rockwell folks, but with the plummeting airmanship skills that the […]

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