Many years ago, I was conducting flight tests on one of the most technologically advanced helicopters ever designed. Between tests, I was also blessed with the opportunity to ferry the test article all over the U.S. On one of those trips, we left Las Vegas early morning to fly over the Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon before continuing east.
Nothing too difficult, except that I was barely familiar with the flight corridors, the aircraft experienced multiple maintenance issues, and, of course, the card reader wasn’t functional at that point of testing.
No problem, until the system hiccupped and dumped my route as we circled around the dam. Rinse, wash, repeat — I started hand-jamming again and didn’t catch my first breath until we descended into the canyons of grand. So there we were, computer managing the helicopter, copilot monitoring the computer and me (busy filling my camera). I was in full tourist mode when we hit our checkpoint and began a slow descent.
Then something clicked. We’d been at ten-five and should have been climbing to eleven-five, not descending. What was the co-pilot doing? Of course, also in tourist mode at the other window. And in the back? Same as the front. Four crewmembers were in the aircraft, but not one actually present. I even snapped a few pictures of the crew for my own amusement. We were in clear airspace, so I waited… And waited…
I let us go until I could see where my face would actually impact the canyon wall. I yanked the aircraft up and off coupled modes with the dramatic flair of a doctor on daytime television, then handed the helicopter back to the copilot before searching for my mistake. One missing 0. Just one — “1150” instead of “11500.” The beauty and burden of that system was it would obey every command I gave, even if it was to fly 1,000 feet below the Colorado River.
Before you ask: no, I’m not blaming anyone but myself. I got behind the aircraft, I made the mistakes, I didn’t double check my work, and I trusted a computer to save our lives. Bad pilot. Bad.
So when I was recently asked if more technology is always a good thing, I immediately thought of how my face would have looked framed on that canyon wall. I confidently answered that the right technology in the cockpit is a good thing. But too much or the wrong technology isn’t. While the great technological advances in aircraft operating systems have offloaded many pilot tasks and allowed us to become more precise and efficient, there is a dangerous and foreseeable point where the human in the cockpit goes from expert aviator to simple systems manager.
Fixed-wing pilots have been much quicker to accept the mind-broadening adventures of systems management, but helicopters are also witnessing that evolution. While that’s a good thing to some extent, it has been noted that some of our welded-winged brethren are losing their finer abilities to perform basic aviator tasks. This is a dangerous problem because the tools we use should always sharpen our skills, not leave us dulled by their use.
A major shift in aviation systems is on the horizon. The next generation of aircraft will see greater levels of autonomy. While we’re still far from flushing the pilots from most cockpits, the terms “unmanned vehicle” and “optionally piloted” (or “optimally piloted” for the thin of skin) are becoming as upsettingly commonplace as
“bae” and “fleek” in our vernacular. So the more immediate discussion is, what level of technology in the cockpit is the right amount? How much computer assistance allows us to be the most efficient and proficient aviators, and how much computer interference is acceptable before Skynet becomes self-aware?
While I still love the simplicity of a stick-and-rudder aircraft and the feel of a paper map, I also love the advances that allow a few extra moments of sheer wonderment while cruising the skies. Pilots are fallible creatures (some would almost call us human), and the right technology can be a great mission enhancer by creating cockpits that are more situationally aware, preemptive in nature and easy to operate.
There must be a sweet spot where simplicity meets technology to create total aerial nirvana. So the question remains, how much technology is too much? RWI