The Curse and Benefits of Automated Aircraft Cockpit

Bob Agostino flies a Gulfstream G650 these days, but he still considers himself as a student of aviation safety and also at the art of flying. He has served as a member of the internal accident investigation team at Bombardier, and happens to be the right source to ask about the first safety meeting of the company that he assisted in creating in 1996.

The Safety Standdown started internal educational sessions for test pilots at Bombardier and Learjet demonstration. In the last 20 years it has grown into a premier aviation safety experience in the world.

When we take a look at the beginning of Standdown, it provides some interesting insights as to why such high value is placed by so many aviators on the annual event in Wichita, Kansas. It has been acknowledged by few pilots that it has been the first conversation about loss of control, stalls and stall recovery, high-altitude aerodynamics, and upset prevention and recovery training (UPRT) which started at Safety Standdown nearly 10 years back.

Agostino, a flight instructor and a veteran of the National Test Pilot School at Mojave remembers the time when, as director of flight operations at Bombardier, he was faced with many Learjet accidents and other mishaps involving aircraft.

The nameplate of the aircraft is not important, what was important was the accidents that were happening again and again. Agostino asked safety officer Dave Ryan and other demonstration pilots if it is possible to prevent such accidents.

More than a decade back there were only a handful of participants at Standdown. A legendary test pilot, late Scott Crossfield advised Agostino that he does not believe in safety. He has more trust on competency and a competent pilot is safe. Safety cannot come without competency.

Nearly two decades back there were very few civil pilots who climbed to 41,000 feet. In the present scenario, business jets have no problem in climbing to FL 510. The understanding of many pilot about this environment or how their aircraft climbed there is as thin as the air that surrounds the aircraft.

These days most pilots are trained as operators of heavy equipment. It is something often heard at Safety Standdown sessions these days. But what understanding today’s technicians and pilots have about this?

Nearly 500 additions have been made to FAR Part 25 (used for aircraft certification) between 1975 and 2005. in this same period not much has changed in pilot training. There is no demand for upset recovery training or spin recovery.

When this kind of training is not given to student pilots, accidents related to loss-of-control are bound to happen. According to Agostino, there is a difference between US military and civilian pilot training. The focus of civilian training is more on systems with minimal tactics and the final check ride.

Many civilian pilots clear the type-rating check for high-end transport aircraft without setting foot inside the actual aircraft. On the other hand, military pilots undergo intense academic training by those who have lived such situations. Military pilots pass through intensive ground and simulation training before they move ahead for flight training.

It is for this reason Safety Standdown was created. Pilots and mechanics are good and dedicated people. The only problem is they have not been taught in the right manner.

The Early Days in Wichita

Dave Ryan and Agostino remember that it was in 1996 that the idea of Safety Standdown gained momentum. The Bombardier team started to invite a number of people to attend. In the next three years, FAA attended and supported the idea to train pilots beyond minimums. By 2005, nearly 550 people from the public sector, the US military, general aviation and business were part of the Safety Standdown.

In the beginning, Safety Standdown looked into topics which the demo and test pilots at Bombardier considered were missing from civilian pilot training. This include aviation psychology, high-altitude physiology, and intensive aerodynamics.

Agostino and his team were aware that they need people who are more than just good speakers. There is requirement of people who are experts on subject-matter if they want to have some changing effect on people. They don’t want people who are speaking after reading a book. They want people who have written those books.

Gene Cernan, the last man to land on the moon, was asked and he said yes. One of the first regular speakers was Tony Kern, an expert on Human factors. Ryan made a cold-call to Kern and before he realized they had already talked for nearly an hour and a half on aviation safety.

Kern was then asked if he could spare some time for Standdown and since than he has been a regular speaker here. The airmanship model of Kern is still being used today and forms an important element of the program.

According to Ryan, Standdown uses a strategy to provide the audience with just enough content which makes them to look for the speaker after the conversation to look for more help. It should be noted here that none of the speakers are paid and it has not affected the quality of their presentation.

Some of the expert speakers in recent years at Standdown include sleep authority Dr. Mark Rosekind, psychologist Dr. Jerome Berlin, Tom Anthony from the Univesity of Southern California’s School of Aviation Safety & Security and the National Transportation Safety Board’s Robert Sumwalt, who was given the 2016 Safety Standdown Award. Sessions on high-altitude aerodynamics is given by B J Ransbury from Aviation Performance Solutions.

Interestingly, none of the attendees at the Bombardier Safety Standdown have ever been charged a dime, even during recession period. Credit for this goes to Bombardier and attendees are served with breakfast, lunch and even dinner at times. Attendees only pay for their hotel and transportation costs.

Considering the importance of aviation safety and the purpose for which Standdown was formed, the group has moved to digital world as well. Some breakout events and major sessions can be seen live on the internet and archived later on

Changing behavior of people is not easy, including convincing them that there are other options worth considering. It was surprising to learn for Agostino and his team that many pilots consider intensive training in human factors, aerodynamics and loss-of-control is not important, just because it is not required by FAA.

The aviation industry is still suffering from the believes of many pilots that electronic glittering cockpit will keep them safe. Most of the professional pilots are taught and trained to remain in the flight envelope anyway. A pilot’s abilities are put to test when something out of the ordinary happens. Many pilots get terrified when the aircraft gets into 70 degrees turn just 1,800 feet above the ground.

The 2016 Standdown

Flying an aircraft is both a science and an art. Most accidents can be eliminated by fixing the human part. Training for this should start now. Agostino picked up the topic of cognitive dissonance and stated that many pilots only look at information that they are already aware of and rarely look at things that speaks against them.

This is where the role of Safety Standdown comes into play. Every pilot, including those who rarely felt the need for alternate thinking, should attend Safety Standdown.

Last year’s event saw topics picked up from various areas of aviation training, including:

  • Hazardous Mental Attitudes Surrounding Loss of Control by B J Ransbury
  • I know You Can Fly, But Are You a Good Leader by Robert Sumwalt
  • The Will Is More Important Than the Wings by Tony Kern
  • The Seven Elements of Aviation Security by USC’s Tom Anthony
  • Automation Airmanship and the 21st Century Go-Around by Chris Lutat
  • Ending Substance Impairment in Aviation by Dr. Quay Snyder

In all 30 different topics were discussed by people who have already written a book or two on the subject spoken.

It is important to keep mood light in the middle of all these serious aviation talks. Kern talked about “Sorcerers, Mad Scientists and Safety” in this year’s event. The easy going style of Kern brings in a bit of humor as he shares his decades of experience and study in military flying and history.

Flying procedures created these days at times have intereference from lawyers to minimize litigation. Pilots are clever people and it is easy for them to find loop holes in these procedures. They live with the belief that automated cockpits serve as shields against any form of flying danger.

According to Kern automated cockpits are making pilots less competent and work against safety of aviation. The new electronic environment makes many aviators feel un-engaging sometimes, which ultimately leads to more events of noncompliance.

Future pilots should be taught to fly an aircraft that is completely automated and almost boring.

A complete pilot is the one who is not just aware on how to fly his or aircraft but is also aware of how personal habits can effect flying.

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