Grandchildren of Magenta…

By Chris Shieff

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It’s hard to believe it was already back in ‘97 when the late and highly respected Captain Warren Vanderburgh delivered his iconic presentation to a cohort of American Airlines pilots.

He warned that we were becoming ‘Children of Magenta’ – overly dependent upon automation on the aircraft we were flying.

Rest assured, as a fairly experienced pilot of highly automated aircraft this is by no means an attempt to discredit any of his vastly experienced and relevant words. But it is simply a chance to question that perhaps twenty-four years years later, the industry owes itself the opportunity to revisit the notions of automation dependency in light of the types of aircraft we are flying today.

Lately, OPSGROUP has been hosting Danger Club

If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a comfortable space for pilots to come together, look at an incident and then talk about it in an open and honest way. It is an acceptance that we’re all vulnerable –  that we can all make mistakes.

Several of the incidents we have looked at in recent weeks have involved crew operating at very low levels of automation, or using none at all leading to perilous but thankfully recovered incidents.

Captain Vanderburgh in his iconic speech mentioned that when we become task fixated or encounter high workload or unexpected situations that we should scale back our level of automation to reduce workload.

However, contrary to this advice, recent events have shown that reducing automation levels too much in very highly automated aircraft can lead to loss of protections, exposing us to an age-old vulnerability – human fallacy. It seems we are subconsciously really adept at finding the holes in multiple slices of Swiss cheese.

Automation therefore might now be seen as a protection, rather than a solution.

Click-click, click-click. In aircraft specifically designed to be operated using automation, is AP/AT OFF opening another hole in our layers of protection?

But is it possible we are no longer Children of Magenta, but Grandchildren?

And does our approach to this issue need to be re-explored?

Modern aircraft are designed to be flown using automation. The Airbus A320 has been around since the 80s. But take more recent additions for example – the Boeing 787, the Airbus A350, the Global 5500 or the Falcon 6X. All packed full of tech designed to make our jobs easier, but also alleviate the threat that we might make a mistake.

Even the very system we fly in has followed similar lines. RVSM, RNP, PRM – loads of letters but predicated upon our aircraft being able to fly more accurately than we humans ever could.

And so, when it comes to things like visual approaches, is it still right to assume that we are in the safest hands possible when it is in fact our own hands on the controls? I’m not so sure anymore.

Now, more than ever, advanced procedures such as RNP approaches rely on us using automation.

This isn’t an attempt to discredit our ability to fly manually.

We have to be able to do that. As Captain Vanderburgh rightly mentioned, we must retain the ability and complete confidence to take over and fly our airplanes safely in any circumstance. And often in their most degraded conditions, this is exactly what our airplanes need us to do.

Then of course there are situations that we can’t predict – jet upset recovery training, stall or automation failures to name a few. There are indeed still many reasons why our manual flying skills need to be kept razor sharp.

But when it is ops normal, with passengers on board, if they were aware we were removing protections designed to keep them safe would the answer be quite so clear?

Instead, perhaps the focus of our training should be on using the abundance of automation available to us today to support our roles as pilots, rather than replace them…

I for one will always consider myself a pilot, not an automation manager. But can we be better trained to utilise and monitor our automation in busy, high work-load situations rather than turning it off completely?

It isn’t necessarily dependency or independency anymore. Perhaps now we have moved into an era of co-dependency on automation – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Or is it?

What do you think? We’d love to hear your opinion – there’s no right or wrong answer here. You can reach us at team@ops.group, on Slack or simply by replying to this blog.


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Chris Shieff

Chris Shieff

OPSGROUP team member and A320 pilot. Based in sunny Auckland, New Zealand. Question for us? Write to blog.team@ops.group.

4 Comments

  • Ben says:

    I’m inclined to agree with Owen and Pablo.

    Even in my own experience, as I’ve transitioned to aircraft with increasingly higher levels of automation, the training was more focused on the automation instead of how to actually hand fly the aircraft.

    Many of the junior pilots are coming into the industry straight from flight school, moving straight from a single engine trainer, straight into high performance aircraft with high levels of automation, Many are coming from college programs and are being well trained on the automation but when it comes to hands and feet, the lack of experience is obvious. On the line, when the automation fails to do what we expect, many get focused on trying to fix the problem instead of disconnecting the autopilot and taking control.

    I recall a conversation with a training pilot who was working with new hire. They were given a runway change just prior to the approach. The individual was trying unsuccessfully to reprogram the automation … the trainer asked “can you see the runway?”. The new hire said yes. The trainer turned off the FMS completely and said “then land the airplane.” The new hire froze for moment, uncertain of what to do, but eventually did what pilots do.

    The automation is a great tool to reduce the workload and make our jobs easier, but we should be able to handle the aircraft any time the situation calls for it.

  • Owen Rees says:

    I’m afraid I still believe Capt Van is still right. The issues Capt Van talked about haven’t changed, but what has changed are the pilots. Back then the problem was pilots forgetting their flying skills, now it’s pilots never having being taught them in the first place. Automation dependent from the beginning then crashing aircraft due to ignorance. Now experienced pilots who have never known how to fly are teaching the next generation that being dependent on automation is ok.

    • Pablo says:

      Fully agree with the comment above . It is a shame that pilots are not anymore confident to fly their aircraft without a big level of automation.
      The problem the industry faces is crew members have become extremely dependent in the magenta line , and most probably being taught by another pilot who is as dependent on automation as the trainee.
      You can only see if there is a pilot on board or a system operator when the automatic fails, which is very seldom but still happens once in a while.

      • Stefano says:

        I also agree with everything is been said here. The new generation of impostors (don’t call them pilots please) is pathetic. Here is what i would do .. put them on the sim one by one, keep the ICAO license parameters at hand (heading, speed, altitude). Make them fly with zero faults but IMC with no automation (no AP, FD and AT). Who fails gets fired on the spot. No question asked. Can you fly? Yes… good you maybe are a pilot. Can’t fly? Too bad, give me that freakin’ license back !! End of the story.

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