Several years ago my company had a number of senior pilots transitioning off of traditional “round dial” airplanes, such as the B-727 and DC-10 as the airplanes were being retired from the fleet. The pilots were moving directly to the left seat of advanced 4th generation glass cockpits, and quite a few did not take to the transition easily. It was a big jump, although to be fair, the DC-10, and even the B-727, were far more advanced than what was present in the 1960s, with much more sophisticated autopilots and flight directors. Both airplanes were certificated for Category III autolands, for example.
I was teaching at the time, a Line Check Airman, so I would take students for the line operating experience portion of their training. For those outside of the airline industry, this is done after the conclusion of the student’s ground training, which includes systems, simulators, a type-ride, simulator “line training” and the rest. So, technically speaking, my “student” was completely qualified, type rated in the airplane and just needed some actual line experience. Recall that these were already very experienced pilots, many of whom had been flying large wide-body airplanes around the world for years. One would think it a simple matter to just integrate the new skills that they had just learned in the simulator with their previous experience.
However, most of these experienced captains would be visibly nervous as they approached the real airplane portion of the training. Perhaps it is the realization that this is where the “rubber meets the pavement”, in other words, it is the real thing now. In a simulator a person can mess up and the consequences are not that large. The real airplane is something else entirely, and there is no “freezing the simulator” or “repeats” possible. Here a small screw up would entail loss of face, but a larger one means a real violation or worse. Being nervous is no way to learn. In addition, I was often given students that were having trouble – they had already had to repeat some portion of their training or even had “busted out” of previous line training. These students were doubly nervous.
Recall that these are pilots that had no problem just flying the machine. They had lots of experience and had passed many checkrides. It was the automation that made them nervous. So many modes and different ways to accomplish tasks – so many ways to mess it up! While computers added a lot of functionality, they had also greatly complicated things. With each additional feature comes more required knowledge to understand that feature and how to use it, but like most everything, the context in which it is being used changes aspects of how we implement it. When we mix in different human responses, different ways and timing of activating features, the environment and design of the procedures, as Yoda might say “confusing it gets”! This is a textbook example of complexity.
So I developed a routine. After a bit of small talk to establish where the student was, mentally, based on experience, background, what occurred in previous training, etc., I would tell them “look, all that matters is that you know for sure what the airplane is doing. I don’t care if that requires turning off all the automation and just hand-flying, or downgrade it, if you are not 100% sure what the system will do next, put it in a mode that you do”. The stress would visibly vanish off their face. I would add “figuring out the way to maximize the use of automation is not what we will do while flying the airplane. I only care that you comply with the clearances, the aircraft limitations and are safe — we can discuss how to best use the automation on the ground”. I should add that in my experience, these discussions are best over an adult beverage!
In every case my students passed their training and went on to do a fine job in the airplane. By the end of our time together they were no longer uncomfortable with the automation. They had added it incrementally, while maintaining the base of “actually flying the airplane”. They knew how to get it to do what they needed, but more importantly, they knew when to disconnect it. During my time as an instructor I had a 100% success rate for pilots continuing to the line.
In the Spring of 2017, as I discussed in a previous article, I presented a paper with MIT research professor, Dr. John Thomas, on a re-analysis of the Asiana 214 accident in San Francisco utilizing the MIT STAMP method developed by Dr. Nancy Leveson. In addition to discovering many more causal factors during the course of the work, during the research I found that there were several automation modes that were not even in the flight manuals for the airplane — at least those that are typically provided to the crews. In addition, none of the interviewed B-777 pilots (including training pilots) understood every automation mode. There are just too many different combinations. This is not just true of Boeing, in fact, I believe it is probable that the same is true for all the advanced flight deck airplanes that are currently operating.
The thing that jumps out at me from all this is that there is only one way for a pilot to be sure what the airplane will do, and that is to turn off all the automation, autopilot, autothrottles, and just fly the airplane. Even then if they are in a fly-by-wire airplane there are aspects that they will not be aware of, but turning off the automation will solve most of the disconnect between their perceptions and what the airplane will do.
What we see, as recently described in an article by Ross Detwiler in Aviation Week’s Business and Commercial Aviation publication, is that instead of turning it off or even downgrading to a lower mode, pilots attempting to “fix” the automation when it is not doing what they want. I believe he is correct that pilots then tend to focus on that to the exclusion of the “big picture”, and if both pilots get into that mode, particularly near the ground, the outcome is usually bad.
A big part of the reason for this, I believe, is that we believe that it is not behaving the way we expect due to something we did, i.e., programming error or wrong selection. To be sure, that is often true, but trying to fix it “on the fly” (literally) puts us into a feedback loop. Breaking out of the mode is not unlike the problem of PIO, which I discussed in a previous article. It is hard to “let go”, but changing what we are doing is the only way to get out of the feedback cycle. Unlike a PIO, in this case the cycle is with our cognitive process trying to “solve the problem” rather than just abandon it. Each solution we try provides a positive or negative reinforcement giving us a dopamine shot like a video game or social media app. Like I have told many students, the time to solve the problem is not in the air. Turn off the automation. Do something different. Like training pilots to exit PIO, this too can be trained. We just need to do it.