Debate: do electronic stability systems improve safety?

Piper recently announced an upgraded version of their Meridian turboprop, and one of the most important features is something that was previously found only on airliners. The Piper’s airplane new Electronic Stability and Protection system is a high tech pilot in the background that uses the autopilot servos to prevent excessive airspeed, stalls and unusual attitudes. As Garmin says:

ESP™ functions independently of the aircraft’s autopilot system (although it uses the same control servos), so it basically operates “in the background” whenever the pilot is hand-flying the airplane – gently nudging the controls back towards stable flight whenever pitch, roll or high-speed deviations exceed the recommended limits. ESP will then disengage when the aircraft returns to its normal flight regime.

Garmin ESP screen
Someone’s watching you…

The Meridian is not the only airplane with this technology. ESP has been available since 2010, and is available on the Cirrus SR22, the King Air 200 and even experimental airplanes with the G3X glass cockpit. While quite rare on older airplanes, it’s a safe bet that ESP systems will only become more common as time goes on.

The question is, does this new technology improve safety?

Proponents say unequivocally yes. Loss of control is still a leading cause of fatal accidents, and ESP can directly prevent a lot of these. If you’re getting slow on final, the system will gently push the nose forward just enough to prevent a stall. The same goes for overspeed or overbank situations. Crucially, because ESP is always on, the pilot doesn’t have to remember to turn it on in an emergency – it’s always working.

Not everyone is convinced, though. Many pilots caution that aviation has a long history of new technologies that promise to improve safety, but fail. The latest string of airline crashes prove that fly-by-wire, autothrottles and all the latest gadgets can’t make up for poor airmanship.

What do you think? Will these types of passive safety systems improve general aviation safety or not? Add a comment below.

18 Comments

  • It has the possibility of making an improvement, but only extensive field experience will tell. I think the Mooney Positive Control from the past probably reduced the Mooney LoC type accidents. I have no statistical evidence to prove that; maybe Richard does. I don’t believe it was real popular because you had to hold the button down all the time to fly the airplane.

    I think the main thing is that the pilot has to be willing to let the electronics take over. The natural reaction is to fight the controls which won’t work out well for the pilot or the electronics.

  • “If you’re getting slow on final, the system will gently push the nose forward just enough to prevent a stall.” Because, let’s all admit it, impacting the ground a half a mile short of the runway is a way better outcome! Right?

    This is moronic. It’s a paradigm that, in this case, values airspeed above all else. Recently, we heard about an “enhancement” to Garmin’s G3000 system, that will decide that the pilot has become incapacitated, and consequently descend to a non-hypoxia-inducing altitude – regardless of terrain considerations! Again, absolutely moronic.

    Want to rely on “George” to keep you safe? Then surrender all authority to Autonomous George, and enjoy the ride in a cockpit-less aircraft. Otherwise, think – before creating additional one-trick-pony black boxes.

    I wouldn’t want to be the Garmin attorney who has to explain to a jury why their multi-six-figure system flew the plaintiffs’ loved ones into the side of a mountain that it already “knew” was there! Moronic.

    • Tom,

      It’s not clear that the Piper/Garmin hypoxia recovery feature is as moronic as you make it out to be. From Piper’s website:

      “The Hypoxia Recognition System detects pilot incapacitation as a result of hypoxia by monitoring pilot interaction with the PFD, MFD, and Autopilot Controller at altitudes above cabin altitudes of 14,900 feet with the autopilot engaged. If no interaction is detected within a specified time period, this system will engage Automatic Descent Mode and bring the aircraft to a lower altitude in an effort to allow recovery from hypoxia. The M350 can safely fly itself to lower altitudes in the unlikely case the pilot becomes unresponsive.”

      So, this system won’t function at all unless you’re on autopilot above 14,900 feet, higher than any terrain in the lower 48 states. Secondly, it’s purpose is only to get the cabin altitude low enough to allow a pilot to recover consciousness. The website doesn’t say what that altitude is, but per FAR that need be only 12,500 feet, and practically, nobody is going to lose or fail to regain consciousness even as high as 14,900 ft (though a pilot may not be functionally competent at much lower altitudes).

      The Piper website does not state, contrary to some early media stories, that the aircraft will descend regardless of altitude, right into a mountainside if need be. The website says the aircraft will go to a “safe altitude”. To disregard terrain would be incredibly stupid, and would be incredibly unnecessary, and would set Piper and Garmin up for a string of hundred-million dollar lawsuits.

      Finally a ESP system that provides nose down nudges when airspeed gets low on final is not as stupid as you make it out to be. It’s just a reminder – the pilot remains in full control of the stick just as with any autopilot servo, and can easily override it.

      But at least the system provides a reminder to the pilot, who if so brain-dead that he/she refuses to acknowledge the reminder, and continues right into a stall spin to earth, that pilot is probably not destined to live long anyway. The worst case condition, as you describe it, is that the aircraft makes a short landing. I’d say that a short landing with the aircraft still flying will, most of the time, be a better outcome than will turning your aircraft into a lawn dart in a stall/spin accident, which is nearly always fatal.

      Nobody is claiming these systems are a panacea, and will eliminate all pilot error, and will end all aircraft stall-spin accidents forever … that’s simply a straw man argument. But given the persistence of such fatal loss of control accidents, it is clear that a whole lotta pilots too often forget to fly the airplane, and they (and especially their passengers) could use a helping hand from time to time to avoid dying unnecessarily.

      We can’t make human piloted aircraft pilot-proof. But we can make them pilot resistant.

      • Duane:

        My beef is with one-trick-ponies. Like autopilots that can be put in “altitude hold mode,” and subsequently stall the aircraft while trying to maintain altitude.

        -Yars

        • Oh come on. That’s like raging against TV because it doesn’t require imagination like radio did. Are you against air conditioning and indoor plumbing too?

  • John,

    I replied to Yars on the specifics of his complaints about the Garmin systems on the new Pipers.

    More generally, we know the following to be true facts:

    1) Most private aviation flights are flown by single pilots, providing few or no human checks on the PIC’s actions as commercial multi-pilot aircraft enjoy; if lacking an autopilot, the single pilot in a light aircraft is thus totally at the mercy of his own competence 100% of the time.

    2) The fatal accident rate for private aviation is far, far higher than it is for commercial aviation.

    3) Commercial aircraft, particularly the later generations, have much more in the way of automation and pilot aids than do private aircraft, in addition to having multiple pilots.

    4) If private aviation could reduce the fatal accident rates to something comparable to commercial aviation, we’d all be much better off

    So given all of the above, there is no rational argument against providing more and better automated pilot aids on light aircraft.

    As for the arguments by too many that automation is causing pilots to forget how to fly the airplane, that may be a factor in the very few accidents that we’ve see in commercial aviation, but that factor is greatly overblown and exaggerated and unfairly applied.

    Often times the accidents cited as “proof” of over-automation (AF447, and Asiana 214) aren’t proof of that argument at all. Both were the result of crazy and/or incompetent pilots flying, not the automation. I’ve explained that in detail previously in prior threads here at Air Facts Journal, so will not go through the details again here.

    Automation doesn’t crash airplanes. Incompetent or crazy pilots crash airplanes.

    To blame automation, which is much more common on passenger airliners than on light aircraft, without also acknowledging that passenger airliners are the safest mode of human transportation ever used (safer even than walking on the floor in your own house, statistically speaking) is just silly. Automation on balance obviously saves many lives.

    Humans are imperfect machines prone to numerous errors and weaknesses, and cannot be relied upon to achieve the safety record that we’ve built in the passenger airline business. Whether we pilots want to admit it or not, that’s the truth. We all need a little help from our friends from time to time, including our electronic friends, especially when we’re operating single pilot.

    • I agree with Duane’s arguments and understand Tom’s as well. I hate the idea of abdicating hand-flying to a computer and believe that if we think a computer can save us, it will breed complacency. I love flying for the sensation and for the challenge of doing something safely that nobody else without proper training can pull-off without certain death.

      Alone, and for the pure sensation of flight I love soaring. In a sailplane, with little risk to others, I can better my stick and rudder skills and feel around for the lift that takes me out of gliding distance from my home airport. If I fail to make it back, I can land off-field and only risk my own hiney. However, I also frequently use a Mooney for family trips with my wife and two young children. When I fly my family around, safety is paramount and is why I constantly keep current and fly IFR regularly.

      Having flown single-pilot IFR with passengers and with another experienced pilot, I know I need all the help I can get. Although I am comfortable most days flying single pilot IFR, it really helps having another pilot riding along for another set of eyes, hands and a brain.

      That said, I think ESP is a great idea. As Duane noted, just a little nudge on final after a rocky, three hour flight in the clag, while fatigued, may save lives in just the reminder it gives a tired pilot. If a nudge alerted me to an impending stall, I would be annoyed at myself but also very happy not to have augered-in with my family, now dead in a smoking hole.

      Automobiles have gotten constantly more advanced. Now cruise control can automatically modulate speed and activate brakes. I have only heard wide praise of these systems that can save a distracted driver from rear-ending another car. ESP is a little like that although, so much more is possible with the wide sky, many fewer hard surfaces to hit and many more options (up down and left and right) available for saving airplanes from destruction. I am excited to see how this system continues to develop.

    • Agreed! Have all the possible automation that’s available and know how to fly the airplane if the automation fails. This takes effort – but it’s worth it.

      My experimental will have the Garmin G3X with the ESP and I’ll be glad it’s there. If humans were perfect we wouldn’t need it, but we’re not…

  • In a none scientific way I would say that 90% of the great airline safety record comes from the computers they have onboard… that is why the computer is flying the airplane and the pilot is assisting.

    We need more safety features in our small planes, but befote we talk about ESP why don’t we start with the simple things? like shoulder harnesses that don’t cost like a mortgage payment!

  • There is at least one accident where the autopilot’s “envelope protection” feature saved the human pilot’s life. See NTSB report WPR13LA186 for the accident at Silver Peak, Nevada on April 10, 2013.

    Now, in that case the pilot was actually trying to cause a crash. But the same result could have occurred if the pilot had been incapacitated for reasons outside his control.

  • Precious few of today’s new pilots have ever been in, no even seen, a spin. Neither have many experienced a full stall, except when landing, when one is absolutely required in order to stay on the earth. And few indeed have become proficient at slow flight. And while new students are taught 45- and even 60-degree angles of bank, neither of these are normally considered safety procedures nor techniques.

    Glass panes, by and large, encourage the pilot to stay within the cockpit, for the most part ignoring what’s going on outside. How many newly minted pilots today can fly safely and comfortably on primary panel? Very sure, I’m certain.

    It’s my belief that glass panels don’t really add much to flying safety for the largest segment of GA. While they can surely add to the pilots arsenal, I personally wouldn’t move up to glass panels for love nor money. We seem to have forgotten the first rule of flight: FLY THE AIRPLANE.

    • Mort,

      If you’re talking about a typical AHRS/EFIS that reproduces the 6 pack and engine monitoring that steam gauges used to give you why does that keep your eyes in the cockpit? Weather it is a needle moving over a scale or a scrolling tape with a number displayed it’s the same information. You may prefer one over the other but it is the same information and in my experience I spend about as much eye time on either type.

  • Hi, Joby,

    While the delay in weather depiction is short, it is still a delay. Beyond that, I still think it’s a good idea for the pilot to visually look at the environment around him for traffic. Flight following assisted in that, but it’s still the pilot’s job to safely fly his airplane. Moreover, a typical instrument scan doesn’t take much time, usually only a few seconds. And last but surely not least is the matter of a full electrical fire, even a necessary engine shutdown. I appreciate that the glass panel has electrical backup, but my 21,000 hours tell me that if it CAN fail, it quite well MAY fail.

    Just as spin and full stall instruction has been removed from a student’s training syllabus, so has proper rudder control. today’s most common training planes are tricycle geared airplanes, sending the student into the air without the full knowledge and skills to properly use the plane’s rudder. If I have an occasion to rent an airplane for some reason, and an insurance checkride is required, the instructor’s first comment is that he can tell I’ve flown taildraggers because my rudder skills are well honed, skills that are seriously lacking taught during nosewheel training.

    And primary panel flight is completely ignored, a fact that I consider truly dangerous. Even today’s ATP pilots appear too caught up in an almost fly-by-wire environment. I’m just not sure that today’s glass panels add much, if anything, to a pilot’s basic skills and the conduct of safe flight. And the lack of those basic skills has robbed many pilots of their lives, in my estimation. Remember that the famous Berlin Airlift was conducted through the use of some pretty basic instruments, final GCA assistance aside.

  • Like any automation, ESP will need time in the field to prove it’s benefits and refine it’s function. I think it is clear that many aircraft accidents occur due to distractions. I fly a lot of single pilot IFR and have no autopilot. Clearly navigation and weather info distractions can take us off the assigned altitude and heading. Distractions in the pattern can take us off airspeed and coordinated flight. I personnally would appreciate someone looking over my shoulder, even if it is a computer.

    • Yes, exactly! This was a deciding factor in my choice of the Garmin G3X in my experimental (still being built).

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