I was attending a Wings safety seminar recently and the 1995 American Airlines crash in Colombia was discussed, including the video American Airlines made two years after the fact. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a click.
In this compelling video, the speaker says the words that I believe have subtly, but profoundly, influenced pilot training in the 21st century. Those words, “We have become children of the magenta.” The speaker links this phrase with statistical accident data to conclude – among other things – that pilots are losing situational awareness as a function of dependence on flight management systems.
The message that day was this: do not become dependent on the FMS to fly the airplane. A pilot must retain command and control of the airplane using the appropriate level of automation. Even if that means hand flying. Indeed, American changed their standard operating procedures to that end following the Cali accident.
There was another message. The speaker, a senior instructor and check pilot, after witnessing one of his trainees (in a simulator) try to avoid a midair collision by using the FMS, made a striking statement. He said, “I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to make you like this!” Read: Instructors make students children of the magenta.
In the nearly 20 years since this video went viral (for aviation), the technology in general aviation airplanes has come to parallel that of the airlines. And so now GA organizations like the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association have created their own traveling universities that blend simulators, ground school and in-flight training to focus on command and control.
But that 1997 one-liner, “children of the magenta,” has now morphed into “children of the magenta line” and it stuck, just in time for a turn-of-the-century introduction of sophisticated GPS navigators. These are often coupled to legacy autopilots, so 40-year-old GA airplanes were suddenly transformed into technologically advanced airplanes (TAA) with sophisticated and complex flight decks that heretofore were only operated by well-trained flight crews. That distinction – well-trained flight crews – is important. Why? Because even two well trained professional pilots in the front of airliners were found to be children of the magenta.
Led by Cirrus, Cessna, Avidyne and Garmin, glass soon covered the familiar round holes formerly occupied by steam gauges. These glass cockpits have become fully digital with integrated autopilots and nested capabilities that, truth be told, most of us still don’t fully understand. Still, this is the system that draws those maligned magenta lines. And with glass covering the panel, they were brighter, bigger and easier to see than ever before.
Today, those seeking private pilot training have choices. There is now a fork in the road created by the introduction of TAA. Take the left fork to good old-fashioned seat-of-the-pants, look-out-the-window, finger-on-the-map flight training. Veer to the right and enter a world where bright lights, buttons and knobs take center stage. The airplane, once the ultimate machine to master, is only the delivery vehicle for the magenta line.
Question is: left fork or right fork? Should an aspiring pilot learn in a TAA or not? Aviation sages like to wax poetic about mission specifics. So, if one’s mission is low, slow and simply recreational flying, take the left fork. If one is looking to get more utility out of piloting an airplane, say, career or business flying, then it’s the right fork. Will right-fork training make them children of the magenta? History tells us it will, but it doesn’t have to be that way. After all, the magenta line is all grown up now and here to stay. This is why I believe the magenta line is a tool to be learned and used by pilots for its intended purpose, to reduce pilot workload. It is that simple. Or is it?
The automation is there to serve at the pilot’s pleasure. When that is the case, workload goes down. The training one receives in TAA ought to reflect that, thereby rendering pilots as masters of the magenta, not slaves to it. The complex flight deck is just another tool in the box.
It’s been said that complex flight decks have not reduced pilot workload, only redirected it. In TAA today, there is no doubt pilot workload has been redirected. But why has it not also been reduced?
It has been my observation that this redirection appears really to be an outgrowth of a paradigm fabricated by the marketers of GPS units, glass panels and new airplanes. The paradigm, in simple terms, is that automation is there to replace the pilot.
I’m sure many reading this take exception to that statement. But if the airlines are having to retrain “well-trained” flight crews, then it is the height of arrogance to think GA pilots, flying single-pilot, have not become children of the magenta as well. It’s time to grow up.
My work doing transition training into TAA and glass cockpits has provided an opportunity to meet many pilots. When I explain that my job is to transition them into this new cockpit as the pilot in command, I often get “the look.” That eye up and to the right realization that I’m not simply going show them how to push the button that will automatically take them to altitude, point them in the right direction, remind them to switch tanks, suck O2 and turn on the pitot heat all while VNV and APR get them down and line them up with the runway.
My transition training is directly related to placing a thinking pilot in command. It makes the training easy. If choosing a level of automation increases pilot workload, it is not a good choice. If searching for information increases pilot workload, it is not a good choice. Recognizing the distinction is what ought to be taught and in my view, there is no better place than a simulator to test the possibilities and learn to think.
Such thinking requires a willing student, a fully proficient CFI, and the time, effort and money to get from rote to application. In theory, any transitioning pilot with the mental fortitude could figure it all out before the first lesson. But such pilots are rare, most coming from the left fork, where stick and rudder skills trump magenta lines.
Yet, for the new pilot in training, there is no requirement to get it all in minimum time like the transitioning pilot. Their flight instructors have the luxury of time to introduce the colorful lines, FMS functions, autopilots and encyclopedic volumes of buried information at a pace consistent with skill level. I’ve found that it’s more difficult to transition a pilot into TAA than to train one ab initio.
With practice, the philosophy that the automation is there to serve at the pleasure of the pilot becomes a way of thinking. When combined with a complete understanding of system capabilities, it will provide low pilot workload. Sometimes that means saying no to ATC, hand flying or tuning, identifying and tracking a VOR radial. The fail-safe is always the pilot, not the magenta line.
Yet, for the student pilot learning to fly cross-country, that magenta line is still there and poses an entirely different training problem. Pitch, power and trim don’t get washed out by the bright light of the magenta, but the nature of how we teach navigation does.
In TAA, one is not compelled to fill the cockpit full of plotters, charts and stopwatches. Today, student pilots arrive with electronic flight bags. Their training airplanes have flight management systems that draw magenta lines. Armed with tablets, mobile phones, and a portable XM receiver with GPS you have backups for the backups. Even smart watches are in play.
But what if? Even for the most tech-savvy students, instructors must inhibit their use of the magenta during pre- and post-solo training regardless of their whining and good arguments. Designated Pilot Examiners are still pulling the what if on private and instrument pilot applicants. What if everything goes dark? How will you find your way? The panel has gone black. Both your iPad and mobile phone batteries are dead. According to Mr. Murphy, if it can happen, it will.
Still, teaching tried-and-true navigation methods is about so much more than just passing check rides. It is a bonding experience, inside the sky, between the pilot and airplane. Following the road or river is fun, useful and should be learned. Spin the whiz wheel for speed, distance, fuel burn, headwinds and time all while filling in the blocks on the flight planning form. Magenta line not required.
The training road less traveled is the way of the modern pilot. Only those who seek true understanding can be masters of the magenta. It is a philosophy that takes more thinking, not less, and cannot be taught only by SOP.
Delaying gratification of the magenta, therefore, is more fundamental than Murphy. It teaches pilots to think. To understand what the numbers on those flat panels really mean. Yet the magenta line, for all it represents, is a powerfully addictive thing. Like a moth to flames, pilots are drawn to the pretty pink.
The magenta line is here to stay. Let’s stop maligning it and start using it the spirit for which it was designed. Not to replace the pilot but to serve at their pleasure.