Masters of the magenta – the real story

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.

Instrument approach G1000
Are you slavishly following the magenta line?

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.

Cub flying over lake
Do you have to choose old school or new school?

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.

Two pilots in the cockit
All that glass requires serious instruction, not just button pushing.

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.

13 Comments

  • Meh … I’ve never been drawn like a brainless moth to a flame by the so-called “magenta line”, even though I’ve got several of them in my panel or on my yolk. Glass panels and GPS units with FMS connected to auto pilots are nothing more than pilot aids, no better or worse, and with no more tendency to be “moth drawing” than needles on VORs, or those little airplane symbols on attitude indicators. Any pilot who flies his or her aircraft solely by a single instrument indicator during IMC (and thus failing to do the proper cross checks) isn’t really flying in the same way the hypothetical “magenta line pilot” isn’t flying but is playing a video game with real world consequences.

    Knowing how to fly the gages is necessary if you have’em .. just as it’s necessary to know how to fly by the seat of your pants and by looking out the window at the real world.

    We keep seeing these tiresome diatribes on aviation sites over and over again, conflating single pilot GA flying using glass panels with airline flying, and complaining about these hypothetical GA “magenta line pilots”. Commercial airline flying and GA flying are simply not the same. Like night and day.

    The circumstances, the procedures and rules, the redundant flight deck crews, and the equipment the pro’s use are entirely different from what we typical GA flyers use. It may be theoretically possible that a small number of private GA pilots totally mimic airline flying and thereby becomes slaves to automation, but I cannot imagine anyone I’ve ever known who would do that, or why. Most of us GA pilots like to fly because we like to fly.

    Airline pilots generally don’t seem to all that enthusiastic about the highly automated, highly regimented, rules based, “keep it comfy for the passengers in back” style of passenger transport, but they do it because that’s their job, and they have no other choice but to comply to keep their jobs. But the lack of tactile hand flying in the airline cockpit is probably why so many of the pro’s get their kicks off the job by flying aerobatics, instructing newbies, back country flying, etc. No pilot needs succumb to losing the joy of flight.

  • Duane,

    Good comment. Well written and direct. You might consider publishing something not so tiresome for us. From my perspective, and yours, it likely would be a refreshing read.

    I look forward to reading it.

    Until then, blue skies and tailwinds.

    Chuck

    • Chuck – You are probably one of the most qualified persons around in a position to provide insight to general aviation pilots on how to better utilize the technology available in our panels, to help us fly safer. It would be much more productive to share your insight on that, than for us non-professional pilots to suffer through yet another warning about the hypothetical dangers of private pilots going stupid from exposure to magenta lines. I think there is real value to be gained from the former, and relatively little value to be gained from the latter … at least, for must of us who don’t work on commercial transport flight decks but truly enjoy hand-flying our little airplanes, while hopefully benefiting from time to time from our little electronic co-pilots.

      We’ve been warned continuously by the “Cassandras of the magenta line” that they turn us into idiots in the cockpit and cause GA accident rates to skyrocket. That argument might have had some heft 15 years ago when the technologies were just beginning to enter the GA fleet. But now we know better.

      In 1999, the fatal accident rate for GA was 1.26 per 100,000 hours. For 2014, the last full year for which the Nall Report provided accident rate data, the rate had dropped below 1.0 for the first time in aviation history. Per the FAA’s website, the agency reports that the rate has continued to drop to as low as 0.81 in March 2016, with 5 straight months below 1.0.

      That means that our fatal accident rate in GA has been cut by about 36% since the advent of TAA and TAA-related retrofits of legacy aircraft. I think that definitively proves the Cassandras were wrong on an empirical basis, though the exact causes of the reduction are probably many-fold.

      I am pretty sure that we could cut that fatal rate a whole lot more too. Simply because there are many more aircraft still subject to upgrades, and because our skills as pilots obviously need upgrading too (both stick and rudder, as well as in using technology).

      Anyway, it sure seems as if for every article in aviation pubs that provide insight and guidance on how to better use the technology we have, we get another fifty more articles repeating the same old warnings about magenta line stupidity. I’d rather see that ratio flipped. Guys like you are the ones best equipped to make that happen.

  • Chuck,

    Good piece. The regulatory phrase, “The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.” means that the pilot is also the final authority over the magenta line. Exercising that authority does indeed require more thinking rather than less. It always has, regardless of the tools at hand. The craftsmanship comes from knowing how to use the tools to execute the authority. You start by understanding what the required control inputs and navigational criteria are; then you can figure out how you’re going to get those inputs to happen and the criteria to be met.

  • As a guy who pretty much only flies long cross countries for business, I really benefitted from this article.

    For 1, I hadn’t seen that great video for a number of years and it was a timely reminder for me.

    For 2, it helped me understand better a recent conversation I had with a 747 captain. His insight showed that it used to be you took a pilot who had limited tech flying in their background and you trained the tech. Now, you often see pilots with a ton of tech but much less flying know how. Often the cirrus they trained in has MORE tech then the 747!

    Personally, I feel today should be considered the golden age of GA. For the price of a big Mercedes or BMW you can buy a great bonanza or 182 fully dressed with wonderful tools – weather, geo referenced sectionals and approaches, terrain, traffic and auto pilot. You can use these planes for flight seeing or flight being (serious travel). I believe these tools have great potential to make my flying safer. I believe they do for me. I would not relish flying Chicago, Atlanta or Boston airspace withou active traffic, for instance. Or landing at an unfamiliar airport for gas in the Alleghenies in the rain.

    The caution well explained here is making sure you are the master and the tech is your servant. We can never be reminded enough and very infrequently reminded as clearly as Chuck has. Thank you!

  • I agree – I was never allowed to use anything but basics until they were well learned – and still go back to them on a regular basis to stay sharp.

  • Sometimes we wax nostalgically about the need to navigate the old way, but I think some forget that most of the time we were LOST with only a vague idea of location. I’ve never been lost, mind you, but I’ve heard it can be scary. Worst case scenario was usually an off field landing somewhere or landing at an unknown airport desperately looking for the sign so as not to appear too dumb to the locals. Should be about the same with a TAA gone dark except maybe now one would “pull the chute”.

    • That’s so true!

      ” . . . landing at an unknown airport desperately looking for the sign so as not to appear too dumb to the locals.”

      I remember actually doing that at Mineral Wells, TX, mid-70’s.

      I’ve also done that, also many years ago, hopping around mountaintop airstrips in Sinaloa looking for the one I was after. Even today I doubt those strips – if still there – are cataloged in anybody’s database. It might still require landing to ask the locals what the name of the strip is, if anybody is around to ask.

      As GPS has become such an integral part of aviation, it’s getting harder to remember just what a miracle it was to be able to precisely know where we are, all the time. I was flying bush in Mozambique when the Garmin GPS 100 arrived and overnight made pilotage skills mostly unnecessary. I resented that my uncanny sense of direction and was no longer something that set me apart from those who had not developed such skills. Any dumbass could now find their way to even the most obscure jungle strip. But I was as astonished and appreciative of GPS’s utility as anyone. This post does bring back the days of being comfortable not knowing precisely where I was most of the time . . . while at the same time not at all being “lost”.

      If GPS ever gets knocked out for whatever reason, pilotage skills will be a good back-up – if I still have them. I don’t even know anymore.

  • I agree with the premise, that no pilot is safe who needs every piece of equipment to be functioning exactly as expected in order to fly the aircraft safely.

    For training though I see two potential alternatives:
    1) (suggested here) Train pilots primarily as though magenta lines do not exist, so that they can be used purely as workload reduction and never fully relied upon. Continually hone hand flying, hand navigating skills.
    2) Teach pilots to keep reduntant systems, and to cross check with both high tech and low tech navigational tools. Teach them to recognize that a GPS (or autopilot) failure may warrant landing to reassess their and their aircraft’s capabilities.

  • I agree Conrad. In addition, I would note that flying with magenta allows me to confidently spot small features of terrain as I correlate the VFR map with where I KNOW I am so I can recognize landmarks and items later and become a better pilotage pilot, for that day when the magenta fails. It is a matter of paying attention.

    I wonder if pilots had the same discussion when the fancy VORs were introduced and we were somehow masters of the radionavigation and losing pilotage skills.

    Each one has its place. Master them all and depend on no single piece of the flying puzzle. I will keep my G1000 but can still go if map fails.

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