How Technology is Changing the Way Pilots Aviate for the Better and for the Worse

By: Rigo Gonzalez, Chief Pilot

Few industries, if any, have escaped the evolution of technology throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. From its humble beginnings in 1903, the powered aviation industry has undergone a series of rebirths as technology improved flight and design characteristics, cockpit automation, efficiency, and safety.  These changes marked a steady decrease in aviation accidents over the last few decades, solidifying its place as the safest means of travel today. While seemingly a desired trend, the emergence of autopilot, technologically advanced aircraft, and fully equipped glass cockpits have caused a spike in accidents resulting from an overreliance on automation and an underutilization of traditional hand flying and pilotage skills.

Let it be clear that I am not denouncing the implementation of cockpit technology and automation. During the last 12 years I have flown both categories of today’s aircraft throughout the majority of the Contiguous United States. The traditional style of flying is what most pilots of yesteryear are familiar with – stick and rudder hand flying, paper navigational charts, and navigational aids that do not utilize GPS.  It wasn’t until after completion of my Flight Instructor rating that I even saw an autopilot and GPS in an airplane let alone the recent advent of tablet apps which geo-reference your aircraft directly onto approach plates and navigation charts. All of these systems greatly assist pilots, easing mental workload and fatigue, increasing situational awareness and allowing the pilot in command to monitor the flight, reacting when circumstances dictate. But what happens when these systems fail, malfunction, or the pilot becomes complacent, confused, or overly reliant on their operation?

In the last 35 years there have been 42 accidents in which the NTSB has found[1] the probable accident cause to be failure to monitor automated flight. In past months and years we have been able to see firsthand what happens when autopilot is overly relied on or misunderstood. Take Asiana Flight 214 which crashed off the coast of San Francisco last year. What should have been a normal approach to landing on a sunny day instead resulted in 49 serious injuries, three passenger’s death, and the destruction of an aircraft costing hundreds of millions. All because the pilots, emphases on the plural, didn’t understand the functions of the selected autopilot mode. A study by the NTSB[2] concluded that 31 of 37 major accidents in a 12 year span when automation was introduced into commercial aviation were a direct result of inadequate monitoring during automated flight. The issue does not solely rest with big commercial jets either. As more general aviation aircraft become outfitted with 21st century cockpits, pilots, flight instructors, and students must be as comfortable flying WITHOUT automation as they are with it. The idea being that in the rare event of automation failure under the worst of circumstances, we as pilots fulfill the obligation to our families and passengers to arrive safely every time. One of the ways to help deter this is for aviators to have a comprehensive understanding of what is happening ‘behind the instrument panel’ in regards to their automation systems. As a pilot, if your understanding and appreciation of the auto pilot system is “when I push this button the airplane flies straight and level” you are sorely missing the point.

As an ambassador for Crew Resource Management, I believe pilots should utilize the 21st century cockpit, as it allows them to better focus on the overall safety of the aircraft and persons aboard, especially in inclement weather. That being said I still believe decisions to fly should have nothing to do with the aircraft having automation or not, or in other words, pilots must never rely solely on cockpit automation to get them through any set of circumstances.