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Friday, March 11, 2011

The Zen of Automation

I recently heard this parable and it certainly applies the technological evolution of the airline industry.

There is a story of a young, but earnest Zen student who approached his teacher, and asked the Master, "If I work very hard and diligently, how long will it take for me to find Zen? The Master thought about this, then replied, "Ten years."  The student then said, "But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast -- How long then?" Replied the Master, "Well, twenty years." "But, if I really, really work at it, how long then?" asked the student. "Thirty years," replied the Master. "But, I do not understand," said the disappointed student. "At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?" . The Master replied, "When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path."

The goal of the airline pilot has always been to get his plane to the destination.  The path is a relationship between man and machine that achieves a safe operation.

The chronological history of the airline industry can be divided into four distinct periods.  The first is the time in the 1930’s and early 1940’s when air transportation was just getting started and the only goal was to stay in business.  In that age of infancy companies frequently went in and out of business quickly.   They tried to carry any type of revenue capitalizing on the speed of a new mode of transportation.   These young companies tried everything in an effort to just to stay in business.  Planes were unreliable and navigation was “by the seat of the pants”.  It was during this period however, that Lawrence Sperry invented the autopilot.  That one innovation would forever change the relationship between pilots and their planes. 

The next distinct ssegment of airline history is the post war period from the late 1940’s until the late 1950’s.  Airlines had found out that there was indeed money to be made carrying passengers, freight and mail.  This period is characterized by great expansion.  Airplanes were becoming a viable option to trains and the interstate highway system was still just a vision.  Airlines utilized surplus pilots and equipment after the end of WWII to expand their businesses and route structure.  Bomber engineering was used to build large passenger aircraft. Propeller driven airplanes were powered by large reciprocating engines.  They flew at moderate speeds and altitudes where weather often made for spilled coffee and the airsickness bags were used mostly for their intended purpose rather than as a “SEAT OCCUPIED” placard.

The third, so-called “Golden Age of Air Travel”, period begins in the late 1950’s with the introduction of the B-707, the first practical intercontinental jet airliner, and continues through the end of the 1970’s. The Douglas DC-10, the Boeing 747, the Concorde were all examples of trying to push the limits of air transportation.  These 2 ½ decades were about bigger, faster, higher and farther. And doing it with style. Transatlantic flight in less than 3 hours was now possible.  Stewardess uniforms were created by the most famous fashion designers of the day.  Intercontinental jets featured pubs and piano lounges where popular entertainers would mingle with the passengers.  These airborne gargantuans were powered by state of the art turbofan engines. Up front on the flight deck, however, the navigation systems hadn’t changed much from the 1950s.  Finally in the late 1960s, as a windfall of the space program, inertial navigation was available to the airline industry.  Accurate navigation was now possible when out of range of land based navigation systems.

The fourth period, the high tech age we are now in, started in the early 1980’s with the advent of Flight Management Computers (FMCs) and Electronic Flight Information Systems (EFIS). The flight instruments were no longer a shoebox sized canister filled with pieces the size of watch parts.  The data is now displayed on a video screen.  All navigation, vertical and lateral is controlled by computers referencing laser gyros.  This age will be known for all the technological improvements that have been made possible by the micro-processor.  Today the airplanes don’t go any higher, farther or faster, they just do it more reliably, more efficiently and safer.  Computer technology is now used in every part of the airline industry from online reservations to the manufacture of just about every part of the airplane and its engines.  The dramatic defining change in this period of air transportation is that the pilots no longer “fly” the airplane.  There is no longer a physical connection between pilot and airplane.  The pilot now communicates with the computer and the computer flies the plane.

A profound paradigm shift took place between the third and forth periods.  From that remarkable day in December 1903 until the early 1980’s the pilot was always in direct control of the plane.  Even if the autopilot was engaged, vertical and lateral navigation was directly controlled by the pilot.  The airplane climbed, leveled off, turned, descended and landed at the hands of the pilot.  When the industry entered this new technological age, everything changed.  The Flight Management System, once programmed, could now control the aircraft both vertical and laterally with little or no input from the pilot.  The airplane could land itself in zero/zero weather.  Many duties previously performed by the pilots were removed or replaced by automation. 

This improved technology improved efficiency, reliability and safety by giving the pilot more and better resources to manage the flight.  Human nature being what it is, there also existed the opportunity for the pilots to let the airplane fly unsupervised. Sometimes with no consequences and sometimes resulting in catastrophe.  The airlines, with direction from the FAA, recognized that these technically complex airplanes needed additional procedures to standardize their operation.  Combine a complex auto-flight management system with detailed procedures and you get a scenario where pilots see procedural compliance as the goal not the means to it.  Also some complex procedures that are seldom used require additional recurrent training to maintain proficiency.  The theory being “Follow the procedures and everything will work out.”.  Although academically correct, that logic does not work well in practice.   Effective decision-making potentially becomes replaced with procedural (non)compliance.

Soon after the techno age started, the more progressive companies saw the need to look at how these new resources as well as traditional ones could be used more effectively in a crew environment.  That was the emergence of Crew Resource Management.  Initially CRM focused more on the relationship between the crew members and less on the relationship between the crew and the airplane.  As companies operated mixed types of highly automated as well less automated airplanes, this relationship between man and machine became more strained and confused.  There is the classic exchange between the pilot who is new to the automated airplane and the one who has been flying it for some time.  The first pilot says, “What’s it doing now?” and the second pilots responds, “I don’t know, but I’ve seen this before.”  In a recent engine failure of an A380, it literally took the crew hours to acknowledge and respond to the plethora of computer generated status and warning messages in an effort to assess the condition of the airplane.

Fortunately, the most profound characteristic of this techno age of air transportation will be the increased attention given to the study of human factors in aviation.  In the case of airline pilots specifically, it really means the study of defining the roles and establishing the relationship between pilot and airplane, i.e. the relationship between human and machine.  The two have both competing and complimentary roles in an aircraft and when the lines get blurred confusion occurs.  Who is responsible for what and when.  Does the machine monitor the human or vice versa or both.  In contrast to the first three periods of air transportation when the pilot “flew” the airplane, the pilot now manages the airplane.  The pilot still has the ability to fly the plane but because they are now designed to be operated primarily with the auto flight systems engaged, it actually creates a much higher workload for the crew. 

A number of recent high profile events demonstrates that pilots must maintain proficiency actually flying the airplane.  Here is the conundrum. Today’s airline pilots are disciplined to operate the aircraft utilizing as much of the technology as possible to achieve the safest, most efficient flight, while at the same time required to maintain awareness of all flight parameters as though they had none of it.

The Zen master would say, “It is the mind not the hand that flies the plane.”

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