Automation and the Atrophy of Airmanship

By Scott Spangler on September 23rd, 2019

stripe_simIn the cover feature of the September 18, 2019 New York Times Magazine, William Langeweishe presents a cogent, comprehensive, and nuanced answer to its interrogative headline, “What Really Brought Down the Boeing 737 Max?” The subhead summarized the answer: “Malfunctions caused two deadly crashes. But an industry that puts unprepared pilots in the cockpit is just as guilty.” In the words that follow, Langeweishe shows that airmanship is what separates the prepared from the unprepared.

Calling the word anachronistic, Langeweishe writes that “airmanship…is applied without prejudice to women as well as men” and that its “meaning is difficult to convey.” But he gives it a shot: “It includes a visceral sense of navigation, an operational understanding of weather and weather information, the ability to form mental maps of traffic flows, fluency in the nuance of radio communications and, especially, a deep appreciation for the interplay between energy, inertia, and wings. Airplanes are living things. The best pilots do not sit in cockpits so much as strap them on.”

Like any skill, airmanship atrophies if not regularly exercised, which rarely happens in the turbine-power automated aviation realms. Like any skill, airmanship is a relentless learning experience inculcated through training. Whether airmanship is part of the flight-training curriculum usually depends on the flight line goal of the training program.

Boeing-flight-simulator-2As the portal to the professional pilot pipeline, civilian flight schools (at almost every level) prepare students to pass a practical test, a checkride. They teach students to expect problems, and the article gives the example of the runaway trim problem during the third airline training flight in the 737 simulator. The students know it is coming and what rote procedure will advance them to the next item on the list. Combat is less structured than airline operations, so the military teaches its aviators to anticipate unexpected challenges at any time, altitude, and attitude.

“Expect” and “Anticipate” may seem like synonyms, but when it comes to airmanship, the difference is significant. To “Expect” means one looks forward to something, sees it as probable or certain, but it definitively does not come with the next step when the probable or certain situation arrives. To “Anticipate” includes advance thought and discussion, “to foresee and deal with in advance.” In other words, to expect the unexpected and prepare for it in advance by having a plan that begins with diagnosis based on total knowledge of the systems involved.

Image result for angle of attackLangeweishe provides the most concise and comprehensive explanation of the 737 Max’s MCAS I’ve read to date. Did you know that it only works when the flaps are up? Neither did I. And the article illustrates why this knowledge was important to the pilots of the Ethiopian Airlines 737.

Another revelation was the philosophical difference between Boeing and Airbus. Both acknowledge that automation makes today’s airliners ridiculously easy to fly—so long as everything is working correctly. Given the level of technology flying today, airline pilots are really system operators who only get a few minutes of hands-on exercise on takeoff and landing. Perhaps they might be better defined as automated pilots.

And that brings me back to the revelatory difference between Airbus and Boeing. Given the general lack of airmanship among today’s airline system operators, Airbus pursues the goal of safety through automation that makes its airplanes “pilot proof.” Boeing, on the other hand, still relies on the pilot’s airmanship as the last link in its safety chain.

The handwriting on the hangar wall suggests that technology is taking aviation down Airbus’s automation avenue, and if Boeing wants to compete in the surely coming era of single automated pilot airliners and automated no-pilot urban mobility vehicles, it must readjust its connections to safety.

But if an aircraft has a pilot, airmanship will never be any less important because even the best automated system, no matter how many redundant systems, can develop problems. In these cases, the aviator’s airmanship abilities will likely make a huge difference. Think about United Airlines Flight 232’s thrust-vectored arrival in Sioux City; US Air Flight 1549 that landed in the Hudson River after gobbling up a gander of geese; and Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 and its uncontained engine failure. What might have been were it not for the airmanship of the late Al Haynes (a former Marine Corps aviator); Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (who started his flying careen in gliders at the U.S. Air Force Academy and graduated to the F-4 Phantom); and Tammie Jo Shults (an EA-6B driver who was one of the first female naval aviators to qualify in the F-18).

Ultimately, Langeweishe’s article offered a pearl we should all remember because it applies to all professions, not just the airlines. “We know as a fact that half of airline pilots graduated in the bottom half of their class,” said Larry Rockliff, a former Canadian military and Airbus test pilot. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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