The role of automation in the piloted cockpit

 One thing that has always helped make the airline industry strong and safe is the concept that pilot’s all captain’s authority. What that means is we have a measure of autonomy, the ability to make an independent, professional judgment within the framework of professional standards.

The problem today is that pilots are viewed differently. Over the years, we’ve lost a good deal of respect from our management, our fellow employees, and the general public. The whole concept of being a pilot has diminished, and I worry that safety can be compromised as a result. People used to say that airline pilots were one step below astronauts. Now the joke is: We’re one step above bus drivers, but bus drivers have better pensions.

Whether you’re flying by hand or using technology to help, you’re ultimately flying the airplane with your mind by developing and maintaining an accurate real-time mental model of your reality, the airplane, the environment, and the situation. The question is: how many different levels of technology do you want to place between your brain and the control surfaces?

The plane is never going somewhere on its own without you. It’s always going where you tell it to go. A computer can only do what it is told to do. The choice is: Do I tell it to do something by pushing on the control stick with my hand, or do I tell it to do something by using some intervening technology? Technology is no substitute for experience, skill and judgment.

It’s good that all airlines are more standardized today. There are appropriate procedures and we are bound to follow them. These days there are virtually no cowboys in the skies, ignoring items on their checklists. At the same time, however, I am concerned that compliance alone is not sufficient. Judgment is paramount.

With authority comes great responsibility. A captain needs leadership skills to take the individuals on his crew and make them feel and perform like a team. It’s heavy professional burden on the captain to know he may be called upon to tap into the depths of his experience, the breadth of his knowledge, and his ability to think quickly, weighing everything he knows while accounting for what he cannot know.

By courtesy: Excerpts from Highest Duty by Capt. Chesley Sullenberger & Jeff Zaslow

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