Friday, January 29, 2010

The Automation Trap

I was reading Peter Nesbitt’s post on The FAA Whistleblower this morning and nodding my head in agreement.

ALPA safety chief: Basic flying skills eroding

”The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) top safety official has echoed recent statements by FAA administrator Randy Babbitt that airline pilots may need to spend more time hand-flying aircraft to stave off the impacts of automation.

“There are several accident cases where you can look back and see erosion of basic flying skills,” says Rory Kay, ALPA’s executive air safety chairman. “

I assume most controllers recognize the parallels in our own profession. Referring to last night’s post, I can’t help but wonder how many people on the ERAM team have ever spent a few hours working without Flight Data Processing in a Center (ARTCC) ? I’d be willing to bet the answer to that question would be “zero”. I’m not sure that I ever spent more than a couple of hours without it in my entire career -- except for the midnight shift. But, it was a couple of very educational hours.

I would suggest to controllers that if you don’t think you could operate for a couple of hours without Flight Data Processing that something is very wrong in your profession. Just my opinion.

But back to pilots. There was one line in the article that really jumped out at me.

”“They understand that basic skills are eroding,” he adds. The practice varies by carrier, with some recommending pilots to engage or disengage the autopilot system as low as 1,000 ft (305m). Kay says he typically hand-flies the aircraft below 18,000 ft (5,486m). “

I instinctively approve of his decision to hand fly below FL180. But can I ? What about RNP -- Required Navigation Performance ? If you’ll look at that link on Wikipedia, down in the “Description” section you’ll see this:

”RNP requirements may limit the modes of operation of the aircraft, e.g. for low RNP, where flight technical error (FTE) is a significant factor, manual flight by the crew may not be allowed.“

( Emphasis added)

Whoops. As we all know, a big part of the FAA’s NextGen sales job is that increased accuracy (RNP) will allow us controllers to put more airplanes in the same amount of sky. That level of accuracy depends on computers and autopilots. And the airspace we’re talking about is below FL180. So much for hand flying. So much for safety.

Don Brown
January 29, 2010


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