Has Technology Killed the Art of Flying?

By Scott Spangler on December 10th, 2012

When he passes through town, a friend, a long-time CFI and designated pilot examiner, calls so we can catch up over coffee. Like many people today, pilots or not, an iPad seems permanently attached to my friend. Curious, I asked how many applicants flew with iPads. Many of them, and their number is growing, he said. His first checkride question to them was about their backup for the digital charts. If they don’t have one, the checkride is over. His backup? His iPhone, which runs the same software on the smaller screen.

Overwhelmed by his enthusiastic itemization of the iPad’s aeronautical benefits, an important question did not occur to me until I was halfway home. How has this technology affected the new pilot’s mastery of the art of flight? Certainly, all who pass stay within the parameters specified by the appropriate practical test standards. But I’m curious to know whether pilots are bouncing between these limits like a tumbling numbered globe in the Powerball barrel or fly a specified altitude, course, and speed with variations of plus-or-minus nothing?

Technology can be a wonderful tool, but seduced by its reliable perfections, too often people, not just pilots, surrender their responsibilities to it.  And therein lies the problem. Mastery of the aviation arts relies more on how pilots think, how they combine information from every available information source and bodily sense, than it does the control inputs derived from this metaphysical process. Technology is only as “smart” as the people who programmed it. It tells us what to think, not how to think. Perhaps it’s time to resurrect, with a modification, an admonition from my youth: Question Technology!

clip_image001 This lesson became painfully clear to me several years ago. In reporting stories over my career I’ve had the unlikely good fortune to fly a number of Level D simulators, from the L-1011 to the 737 to the 777. In benign weather, when all systems are working, technology makes them surprisingly easy to fly, with simplicity increasing with technology’s youth. Hand flying a perfect approach is no more difficult than following the flight director.

Because my visual approaches were uniformly successful, my instructor told the sim operator to make things more interesting just after I’d turned base to final. I adapted to the sudden ice fog by not looking outside as often. Hypnotized by the screen before me, I was right on the specified numbers. And then a sudden whump compressed our spines. Silently we looked at each other with wide eyes.

The sim instructor figured it out first, after he brought us back to visual conditions. We were on the runway. He hadn’t given me the altimeter setting that went with the ice fog. Neither the instructor nor I thought to ask for it. We had a self-conscious laugh and wondered how many times had we, over the years, parroted the maxim, High to Low, Lookout Below?

What was clear to me is that I’d become hypnotized by the glowing screen, that it was my one and only connection to the arcade of flight. How different it was from my first attempt to land on an 800-foot gravel bar in some unnamed river in British Columbia. There every sense was peaked and on edge. Wind ruffled leaves and water didn’t escape my notice. Sight, sound, and kinetic cues united in a decision making process that led to successfully putting the fat tires down on the first few stones at the water’s edge…on the fourth attempt.

Don’t get me wrong. I like technology and what it can do for us all. But we must keep it in its proper place and perspective. It is a tool that if not properly used may well lead to our demise. – Scott Spangler, Editor

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34 Responses to “Has Technology Killed the Art of Flying?”

  1. Jim Henderson Says:

    These fantastic digital scenes are mind magnets. People forget to look outside

  2. Donald Blust Says:


    Sensational post. A wonderful reminder to remain aware of the entirety of the flight’s context. Your description of the BC gravel bar landing reminded me of my first solo! Every landing should be considered as important as our very first.



  3. Has Technology Affected Flying? | High Altitude Flying Club Says:

    […] course it has. This JetWhine post ponders the aspects of the iPad pilot generation in training: “When he passes through […]

  4. Mitchell Rasmussen Says:

    Having done most of my flight training behind the glare of a glass cockpit, I find that current technology does not negatively impact my decision making skills nor situational awareness; if anything, it improves them. Sure, some new students will have trouble “looking outside” in the very early stages of their training. However, as they get more experienced, I believe that they develop into much better aviators than they would otherwise. Maybe it is just the new perspective of the younger generation, with their desensitized fondness of electronics, that makes them so skilled at glass CPM and the division of attention that comes with it.

  5. Andrew Says:

    Having grown up with technology, I appreciate what it has and continues to do for us. I appreciate the increased situational awareness it gives if used properly.

    The part of me that learned to fly before GPS, though, thinks that every student should learn the basics in a basic airplane. Not as basic as a Cub or 150 even, but a non glass 172 or whatever. Developing that sense of situational awareness without the aid of the magic box helps people learn to use automation as a tool, not a crutch.

    Everybody needs to get a little bit lost on at least one solo cross country, not just follow the pink line home!

  6. Tom Says:

    It used to be a pilot just had to be a pilot to fly IFR. Today it seems you need a few more qualifications in technology to achieve the same objective.

    The latest studies seem to indicate that all this cockpit technology does not make pilots safer, the question is, is it making things worse?

  7. Paul Depperschmidt Says:

    Having finished my PP license in 1980, it was well before the electronic age. Frankly, I always felt a little behind the plane back then. The instrumentation was just not that intuitive to provide situational awareness. I sat out of flying for quite a while. In the last 5 years I got back in with a vengeance. Purchased a plane, got an IFR ticket. Frankly, without the new technology I probably would have stayed out. I feel much more confident/safer now than back in 1980. It almost feels like cheating.

  8. Jim Lasch Says:

    On a layover a friend who flies jets for a living invited me to sit in the cockpit. The glass panel was all lit up and I remarked that a “scan” seemed to be harder. His comment was, “It’s not a scan anymore, it’s more like a stare.”

  9. Steve Ingraham Says:

    Your post reminds me a great deal of the discussion that went on during my childhood in the 70’s concerning the use of calculators in math classrooms. I recall my first calculator, I believe I was 8 years old at the time I received it. In today’s standards it could hardly be classified as a calculator. It could not do square roots or any other high level mathematics and had no memory function. It could add, subtract, multiply and divide but only up to 8 decimals.

    Even as limited as this rudimentary calculator was, my teachers and society as a whole was aghast at the idea of an elementary student losing his ability to do long division because he could now just punch buttons on a machine to get an answer. What ever would happen if the student found himself needing to calculate a mathematical equation and he did not have a calculator. Oh the Horror!

    Well, I can see this notion of “glass panels” in a similar light. The truth is born out in your own comment: “But we must keep it in its proper place and perspective. It is a tool that if not properly used may well lead to our demise.”

    The glass cockpit is a tool. Use it as you would any other tool and you will benefit from it. This is like other changes in training. There are those who believe training without experience in a taildragger airplane has made for less competent pilots. Those who never learned to navigate using ADF or DME are doomed to lose their way someday. All are examples of the doom and gloom of the “Back in my day. . .” crowd who had to walk up hill in the snow. . .BOTH WAYS, when they were young.

    Things change. Sometimes things are just different, not worse, not better, just different. Human nature learns to adjust and move forward. I sense this is another one of those times as well.

  10. Randy Africano Says:

    I believe that new technology has, and continues, to make my flying safer but I temper my comments analogous to flying a twin or using radar. In the hands of an experience operator, a twin-engined aircraft is a much safer alternative than a single. With that said, I remember seeing a statistic that engine outs in a twin resulted in a fatality rate four times higher than that of a single. The same can be said about radar… if you know how to use it properly, it adds to your safety but radar has also drawn many an inexperienced operator into deadly situations.

    I have an acquisition client of mine that insisted his Cirrus be equipped with dual AHRS systems, “In case one goes out.” When I asked about the standby artificial horizon, airspeed indicator and altimeter he said he could never fly the airplane “… with just those three instruments.”

    Take a well trained, tech savvy pilot and put him behind glass and he will do well but if increased technology only means we are making it easier for people to fly, give me the steam gauges. Calculator or not, we should all know our multiplication tables… so to speak.

    Keep the blue side up

  11. Steve Kane Says:

    This article makes an essential point. Even the pros can succumb to “technology hypnosis.” I chose to start learning to fly in gliders because by doing so I was forced to learn and practice basic flying skills. What do we do when there is an emergency, the wonderful gadgets are not working and we must actually fly the plane? The technology is wonderful and useful, but we should always have the skills and knowledge for a low-tech fallback if required.

  12. Joseph Says:

    Many interesting comments but most miss the point that technology is increasing at a geometric rate – not a linear rate. In the not too distant future we’ll have windscreen HUDs with SVS & EVS integrated with 3D weather and traffic. Furthermore, we’ll have voice & gesture control.

  13. Gary P. Says:

    Great article!
    Though as a pilot flying for personal business and pleasure I would never go back to the steam gauges.
    You know what he real issue is??? The training on the new technology is very poor in the GA arena.
    I am in the high tech business and understand the fundamental concepts of the inner workings of the information being presented to me. But ask your instructor during a glass panel transition course and they don’t have an answer. Based on what the reason for the inside hypnotic syndrome is the lack of understanding of what you are looking at the getting accustom to the data presented.
    To date in driving a Cirrus I suspect that I use about 70% of the capabilities due to improper or lack of knowledge from the training.
    Once you know what you have access to and the workflow behind it, the use of the technology will become second nature. Plus we as pilots have to push the vendors to provide the necessary training or videos on how to use and not “hunt and peck” for way to better use the technology.

  14. Lyle Peterson Says:

    “Technology is only as smart as the people who programmed it.” Programmers can speak only in hexadecimal. They have little idea of what the real world is all about. Even when one can give a programmer a detailed and precise explanation of what is need in a program, the programmer will find reasons or excuses to change the end result from what was desired. Sometimes it is due to limitations of the hardware. Sometimes it is because a programmer has a favorite way of doing things.

    In much less critical situations than aviation, I have run in to situations where the programmer had no idea what would work and the result was at best a dismal failure.

    Even such giants as Microsoft have their less than ideal products. The public lets them know in no uncertain terms that the product is not useful.

    For flight instruction there should be time spent on the use and usefulness of technology in the cockpit.

  15. Bert Rapp Says:

    A glass 182 pilot told me that he only flies the first and last 300 ft. This really blew my mind when a DA40 with the Garmin 1000 showed up. The VFR PIC explained to his passengers that the weather ahead is terrible including Tstorms. He will do a thorough runup, program the 1000 to do the approach at the next waypoint, and if he doesnt see anything he will program the next spot. It occurred to me that with the new technology, in the interest of getting to the destination, some pilots are allowing themselves to become passengers. Reality is that if the equipment dies, so do they and their passengers.

  16. Steven Armitage Says:

    Having retired with a bit under 15000 hours in B-737’s to B767’s and 4000+ in Cessna’s and such. I agree that the glass has it’s place where accuracy and efficiency is paramount. That being said I was surprised when having some military and a few general aviation types in the right seat, that a surprising number that had no “feel” for the airplane and what it was doing in a belligerent crosswind to a wet runway.
    The thought that all you have to do is maintain the attitude until impact still unnerves me. Most had no real concept of rudder use in those situations, and in most cases was simply reflective of primary training that somewhere disregarded the basics of stick and rudder. I recall a conversation that was bad mouthing the MD-80 and it’s lack of sophistication electronically, I voiced my opposing opinion that if all power was lost and the battery fell out I still could stand a chance at landing vs. his all electric fly by wire wonder that would “take him for a ride” under the same circumstances. Sadly many are out there today that have no concept even of attitude= power settings will result in given results, regardless of the bells and whistles i.e., the carrier off S America that allowed a perfectly good airplane to plunge into the sea because, “what’s going on, the warnings don’t make sense!”
    Back in the old steam gauge days in a B 737- 100/200 5 degrees pitch, wings level, 2500 lbs fuel flow basically gave you level flight @ 250kts, stabilize then figure out regardless what warnings are distracting you. Is anything taught like that now?

  17. Steve Beckwith Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve flown with new pilots, good pilots, who were so caught up in the Garmin 1000 that they didn’t get the C172 stepped out and in flying trim. “FLY THE AIRPLANE, FLY THE AIRPLANE.” When Murphy taps you on the shoulder, and he will, technology will not get you and your passengers safely on the ground. Technology is only one of many tools. It is not in any way the core of pilot skill and proficiency.

  18. Cary Alburn Says:

    When I was instructing, it was long before glass, and GPS was in its infancy and only available for boats and land vehicles. But the problems were the same, if the trainer was well equipped for the day. Students would be mesmerized by the gauges, instead of “feeling” the airplane. So one of my “instructor tools” was a dish towel, to drape over the panel if the student was obviously staring at the panel instead of looking outside.

    Too many of today’s students have little idea how an airplane “feels” in different situations. Thankfully, the FAA again requires training in stalls that are fully developed instead of merely “onset”, which I think led to “well, the buzzer’s on, we must be in the onset of a stall” instead of understanding the aerodynamics of the stall, like buffeting, mushy controls, which controls are still working, coordination, etc. But there’s much more to flying an airplane than learning stalls, and fancy technology is no substitute for good stick & rudder training.

    While today’s students may be comfortable with the fabulous technology of newer airplanes, I question whether they are better trained. Maybe if the goal is to become an airline pilot, using scenario-based training in technologically advanced aircraft has some benefits. But plenty of airline pilots learned first how to fly an airplane, and then transferred that knowledge to the big iron.

    When all that technology goes dark, which pilot will be able to get the airplane safely on the ground, the one who only knows how to program the computer and autopilot, or the one who can truly fly the airplane? I submit that the answer to that question lies in the results of the Hudson River landing vs. the Air France tragedy over the Atlantic and the Colgan airline tragedy in New York.


  19. Hobson Morgan Says:

    Are you by chance related to Gary Spangler who was a fraternity brother of mine at ERAU in the early seventies?

  20. Robert Sands Says:

    I enjoy flying, tablet computers are pretty, but that is not flying. Going low over the ocean and judging the air by the direction of the waves and treetops is real world and far more satisfying. If the batteries run out – it doesn’t affect my ability, my concern or my know how. P.S. I prefer standard shift to automatic transmission, I mentally check the math on my calculator as it is easy to push the wrong buttons and submit wrong entries, and menu after sub-menu after sub-menu tends to be boring and annoying. A well prepared flight with analogue equipment will be satisfying and get you where you wish to go. The other things are backups to confirm your primary setup. They are as said just extra tools which should be regarded as such, not primary instruments that are the necessary for flight.

  21. Mike Johnson/Bubba Says:

    well written over the ocean looking for illegal boats, well the ‘eyes’ have it

  22. Andy Robinson Says:

    My father remembers pilots arguing whether the artificial horizon would result in an atrophy of basic pilot skills. I’m sure the guys who flew without one consider themselves superior to those who took them for granted.

    Glass panels provide a good percentage of “all available information” in the cockpit, in relatively real time. In short, glass panels provide capabilities that are simply not available with traditional panels (human beings cannot store or process that much information, much less keep it up to date while flying). People who can effectively use these additional capabilities to make better decisions will be better overall pilots than those who can’t.

  23. Andy Robinson Says:

    I also want to address the post regarding using in-cockpit weather (such as NEXRAD) to navigate convective activity. When all you have to work from is a weather briefing, most go/no-go decisions are made on the ground. With in-cockpit weather depicted graphically and updated every 5-10 minutes, you have a very decent synoptic view of weather. You may not legally use this information for primary weather avoidance, but you may use it for situational awareness.

    This is a capability that even radar-equipped non-glass aircraft don’t have (radar provides a very limited picture compared to NEXRAD), so there is a tendency among traditionalists to think of it as dangerous. It is not. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking off in decent conditions and flying toward the soup, using your in-aircraft weather to inform your decisions–PROVIDED that you accept your responsibility to turn around and/or land when safety of flight is jeopardized.

    And on that score, I’ve seen plenty of old-school, stick-and-rudder pilots take crazy risks with weather. I’d much rather they had NEXRAD so at least they would be marginally informed crazy risks.

  24. Eric Jaderborg Says:

    In 1903, Wilber and Orville Wright successfully flew a new technology for 12 seconds on a windy dune in North Carolina. Within a few decades this new-fangled machine was transporting the mail with unprecedented speed, carrying desperately ill patients to centers of life-saving care, and delivering blockbuster messages of death and destruction to millions of suffering souls across Europe and Asia. My point? Technology is the product of the human mind and the human heart. Like all of the products of Homo Sapiens, it serves our loftiest hopes as well as the terror of our darkest dreams. We blame it for taking us to places we say we never wanted to go; we declare it Savior and Devil. In truth, we are the master, not the slave of our demon-saint, even when it leads us to the threshold of doom. It takes us where we will it to go, and this is as true of each individual human being as it is of the whole Human Experiment.

    The glass panel with its magenta magic and satellite surety is not different; it is the same. It is the expression of our Nature, and it will serve the cause of our fulfillment or the instinct of our self-destruction as we desire. Nothing more; nothing less.

    I learned on gut-feel and steam gauges because thats all there was when it was time for me to learn. Am I a better pilot than todays Children of the Magenta because of it? Might as well ask if Earnest Gann was a better pilot because he learned on the monotonous drone of A and N. Mr. Gann (I cant bring myself to call him by his first name) might have called me a Child of the VOR-house. Did I do any worse than he did? Is there even one of his contemporaries who wouldnt have traded-in his lousy loop receiver for a reliable GPS signal that told him where he really was and how fast he was really going? In the end, airmen are practical. We embrace the things that will bring us back alive to home and hearth.

    What I would mourn is the death of the Airman; the person (male and female) who doesnt need a magenta line to tell her where the world is; who doesnt need a machine to guide her to a perfect touchdown after a full-rudder slip in a crosswind; who can kick er out in the last 10 feet and feel her as she makes the calm, crashing rattle (thank-you Mr. Bach) in that last few inches above the blessed sod. I would mourn the one who cares to do it for herself; for the satisfaction of being connected to the magic and the loveyes, Loveof flight.

    Kill that, and I will weep like a wounded child.

  25. Paul Van Alstyne Says:

    I have flown a Twin Comanche (Piper PA30) into
    many places – Prague, Budapest, Kodiak, Florence,
    Barbados, Caracas, etc ….. using steam gauges.
    They work, and don’t require reading through hundreds of pages to use a screen that dominates your attention and leads you not to look outside the airplane. The new technology is nice, but must not be used in place of pilotage …. I flew
    with a pilot in an almost new 182 with the G1000
    who almost never looked outside to enjoy the view.

  26. Joseph Says:

    Eric, thank you for your lyrical post. No need to ever mourn or weep. There will always be “personal” flying that can be as “rustic” and “romantic” as one would like it to be. However, technology is progressing exponentially and commercial flying will be completely automated (as in no pilot required) in the not too distant future.

  27. Cathy Stevens Says:

    I use eSectionals for flight planning and their ePilotage add-on moving map software. I agree with your comment but that is why ePilotage is so valuable. It shows me where I am and then I can look outside and confirm it. That’s PILOTAGE.

  28. Brent Says:

    That is a very good post! Completely appropriate to the times we are living in. We can’t let flying take a back seat to high tech gadgetry. Sure having the latest and great stuff will help your flying, it’s shouldn’t be a crutch, or worse a distraction from it.

  29. Eugene Hollander Says:

    If the technology is increasing safety and reliability of passenger planes then I do not think it is a bad thing. It does take away from the art form that is aviation though

  30. Aaron Says:

    I am 25 years old (so most of the guys at the airport would say I am part of the tech savy generation) and I learned how to fly in a Cessna 150 with only a single NAV/COM and a single VOR. NO GPS. Oh… did I mention that I also learned inside of a Class Bravo AND inside the Washington D.C. SFRA?! I flew that little C150 for over 100 hrs all over the place. Bringing friends for rides, going on cross-country trips, I never had any problems navigating. All I needed was a paper chart and off I went. I fly with guys now though, that fly planes with panel GPS, a portable GPS, AND a backup portable GPS and wouldnt even dream about going anywhere without multiple GPS. Glass cockpit or not, technology for these guys is definitely a crutch. Even now, when I go flying with people and they say, “Aaron, where’s your iPad?” they always seem to look around nervously when I say “what?! I dont own one. Besides I have these” (while I proudly show off my paper chart) I now own a Cessna 177 with a G430 and a mounted Garmin 396 and I like it more for the ability to quickly look up and dial weather, approach, and airport frequencies than the ability to tell me where I am…. I already know where I am. I plan on becoming an instructor someday and I want my students to solo and go on their first solo cross country before I start to teach them how to use a GPS. There is nothing more satisfying for me than hoping into a basic airplane with just the bare essential instruments, and flying wherever I please. Thanks for the great article JetWhine

  31. @williamAirways Says:

    Technology, while it is a great addition, is also leading the degradation of pilot confidence and basic flying skills. I know quite a number of pilots who will no longer fly without a moving map GPS simply because they can no longer navigate and/or negotiate airspace boundaries without it. Sad state of affairs.

  32. Robin Rebhan Says:

    Reminds me of news article in Australia this week, 6 or so different people got lost in the Outback, ran out of gas for their vehicles and had found themselves in life threatening positions due to GPS Map App error. with no water, high temperatures, no food or shelter. Rescuers had to search hundreds of square miles for stranded motorists.
    Basic navigation skills and map reading would have prevented this. ( if they even had a map ).

  33. Richard Bartel Says:

    The human mind has processing limitations. Using technology to get more “situational awareness” may actually increase distraction, confusion, and limit processing power for rudimentary tasks and short term contingency planning.

    “Situational awareness” can be unnecessary and overwhelming, and should not be presented or avialable just for the sake of more data.

    Fundamental flying skills are suffering. An example can be the Air France flight over the Ocean from Brazil to Europe.

  34. Joseph Says:

    “Fundamental flying skills are suffering.”

    Similar to digital 3D (but different), we are currently sort of in an “uncanny valley” of aviation automation. Within the next 5 years we’ll be out of it and future next gen commercial aircraft won’t need “pilots” but might have a “flight supervisor.” There will be no need for “fundamental flying skills.”

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