Occam’s razor: the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.
I heard a National Public Radio story the other day about a paper that had come out regarding the Boeing 737 Max accidents. The crux of the interview was the quality of training, or lack thereof, pilots receive and the thought that maybe cockpits and cockpit procedures could be made easier, so recognition of problems would therefore be easier.
My initial reaction was one of defensiveness. I believe pilots as a whole are a fairly robust group. We’re conscientious. We’re obsessive in matters of safety, convention, and procedure. We’re intrinsically averse to the notion of tombstone technology. We’re… competent. It’s not an ego thing. Not even necessarily a confidence thing. It just is. If you endeavor to take to the skies, to leave terra firma behind, you commit to a level of competence and focus necessary to complete the task safely. All the time. Every time.
But then I took a mental fork in the road, defenses down, and followed another branch on the tree of possibility. Could there perhaps be something to the notion of making what we do, dare I say, easier? And let’s not confuse easier with easy. We’re not talking couch-potato easier here. We’re talking easier in a safety sense, an efficiency sense. What if there were an easier way to revert to manual control? To remove the so-called “envelope protection” algorithms built into modern flight control systems.
We’ve all heard the adage: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. But can you really aviate when control inputs are analyzed thousands of times a second and then spit out to the control surfaces? (Yes, I know, aviate is an all-encompassing word that means more than just flight control manipulation.) But when an aircraft is doing something you didn’t expect, and doing it relatively fast, especially at low altitude, you need to act NOW. Unlike some emergencies, this type rarely gives you the time to sleuth out a solution. When everything seems to be going awry and nothing makes sense, aviate means FLY THE PLANE. If a cargo door opens on one of our smaller GA aircraft, no big deal. Fly the plane. I think I heard Rod Machado once say, “Don’t drop the airplane to fly the cargo door.” Exactly! FLY THE PLANE.
What if there were a “Manual Override” button? Not a procedure. Not a checklist. A button. This button wouldn’t be a get-out-of-jail-free card or a save-me-now button. In fact, quite the contrary. It would return control – full control – to the pilots, giving them the authority needed to fly the aircraft, sans auto throttle, electric trim, augmentation, envelope “protection,” etc. The button wouldn’t be a solution in and of itself. It would simply provide the pilots with a chance to take desperate measures in a desperate time. I can think of several incidents/accidents that could possibly have been averted had such an option been available. (Air France 296 comes to mind.)
The pilot is still the most important safety feature on any aircraft. So, there needs to be a way he/she can actually pilot the aircraft when circumstances call for it. Barring some gross mechanical malfunction (e.g., Alaska Airlines Flight 261), if the aircraft remains flyable (e.g., United 232 and US Airways 1549), pilots will revert to their own internal autopilot mode. Their intuition as it were. The computer that is his/her brain will kick in.
Their innate flying sense, training, experience, and muscle memory will all coalesce in subconscious harmony to create a desired result; a state athletes refer to as the “zone.” Great NFL wide receivers don’t think about catching the ball. They just do. It’s almost like an out-of-body experience (see the book The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey). Instead of being dumbfounded by incongruent aircraft behavior which only feeds the fear/panic cycle, the pilot will instinctively do what is necessary to right the ship.
This state of selfless awareness is not something mystical. We’ve all felt it, if only briefly in the fleeting few seconds during the flare. It’s almost Zen-like. The temporary meditative state we feel when total concentration and focus push everything else away. It’s when we’re operating at our highest level, and a place where we can find the wherewithal necessary to calculate a way out of extreme danger.
Obviously, fly-by-wire is integrated in most, if not all, modern airliner flight control systems. The pilot/computer interface can’t necessarily be separated nor eliminated entirely. Aircraft use computational “laws” (automation, augmentation, protection modes), thus true raw-input control is virtually impossible. As it turns out, though, the computer seemingly doesn’t always know best in extreme cases.
Would better pilot training and aircraft manufacturer transparency help? Absolutely. But under certain conditions, the laws meant to protect and serve simply run interference. It is in these extremely rare instances a new sheriff needs to be instated. That sheriff is the pilot. The pilot must be given the opportunity to drop the computer and fly the plane.
We’re so caught up in the marvel and complexity of modern aircraft we may think it couldn’t possibly be that easy. There’s got to be more to it. Of course, the fly-by-wire/pilot control discussion is nothing new. Perhaps that is why we have such a hard time accepting accidents that seem to be so clearly avoidable. Sometimes we just want a plane to be a plane. There are indeed procedures in place to revert to some semblance of basic aircraft control. And Cirrus has their “LVL” button which is similar (though not the same) as what’s being proposed here. But still, when an aircraft’s flying qualities deteriorate and pilots find themselves in a Twilight Zone of altered perception and unfamiliar territory, there’s got to be a better out.
I used to work for a company that had an issue with a specific product from one of our third-party manufacturers. We were getting an inordinate number of returns due to component failure. When I approached the manufacturer about it, they took it personally: immediately dismissing the issue, stating their design and materials were not the problem. They insisted that customers were not using the product correctly and applying too much pressure, causing the failures. We went back and forth on these points to no avail.
In the end, my final word on the matter was that this was not personal. Whether you think your product is designed and built properly doesn’t really matter. The failures are occurring, the product is being returned, customers are unsatisfied and inconvenienced, and we can no longer sell the product unless it is redesigned and/or beefed up.
We can deliberate the deficiencies of pilots and pilot training ad infinitum. But that would deflect from the fact that these accidents did happen, and accidents like them can still happen. Up until the first Space Shuttle accident, the assumption of safety was misconstrued from the fact that nothing catastrophic had occurred in the previous flights to question it. But there is a clear demarcation between the absence of trouble on one side, and safety on the other. Though safety is unquestionably paramount in the minds of all involved, they are not equivalent. This could be an opportunity for change. Aviation, like everything else in life, is a progression.
Is the Manual Override button a gross oversimplification? Total naivety?
Sometimes the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. And sometimes, the simplest solution can save lives.