Cockpit automation is still very much a work in progress

 - January 11, 2008, 9:10 AM

“One of the myths about the impact of automation on human performance is that as the investment in automation increases, the investment needed in human expertise decreases. In fact, increased automation creates new knowledge and skill requirements.”        
–Dr. David Woods
Professor, Ohio State University;
technical advisor for FAA human-factors report

In the preautomation days of the early 1980s, pilots were the central information processing units for all flights, keeping the required vision of their planned route in an ever-moving 3-D display inside their heads. The intended purpose of the transition from round cockpit instruments and E6Bs to electronic flight displays was to reduce pilot workload, hence making aircraft management more efficient. Increased operational safety through improved situational awareness was to be a welcome byproduct.

But solving one problem often creates another. Pilots of highly automated aircraft frequently found themselves struggling with data-entry issues that sometimes required more time than the flight itself.

And as these technologies continued to evolve into sophisticated flight management systems, even more gear was added, such as TCAS and EGPWS. Pilots complained of being overwhelmed with too much information and little logical flow. Increasing amounts of head-down time during some of the busiest phases of flight brought cries of decreased, not increased, flight safety. The early 1980s and 1990s also offered few effective training aids for pilots to learn their way around automated cockpits, translating into a high learning curve and war stories of old gray-hairs unable effectively to make the transition to computerized flying.

“Increasing use of automation in the cockpit has resulted in much publicity about the changing role of the pilot, underscoring the fact that he is becoming more of a manager, or supervisor, than an active controller of the aircraft,” said a Flight Safety Foundation report. “However, their basic goal remains the same–to fly an aircraft safely from Point A to Point B. It is only the way in which the pilot carries out that role that has changed.”

Cockpit automation also developed its own idiomatic in-flight phrases such as, “Where’s the airplane going now?” or “How can we get it to do that again?” These phrases reflect a lack of pilot understanding about the capabilities of the systems they were operating, an issue at the core of automation-related pilot errors. But what these complex computerized cockpits demanded operationally, they more than compensated for with their versatility. Flying direct to an intersection often shaved minutes and sometime hours from the total flight times necessary for long flights, once the crews understood how to program the technology effectively.

Robert Sumwalt, chairman of ALPA’s human factors and training group, recalls early jet training, often labeled as a culprit in automation errors. “Traditionally we went to ground school and spent weeks learning systems, with little time spent on cockpit-instrumentation training. Autopilots were simple, but even in the new automated airplanes we kept teaching too many systems. We believed crews could pick up the automation operations out on the line.

“But there were so many variations of how to work these boxes that many pilots might understand only a few of them before their first takeoff. I don’t think the manufacturers were aware of all the concerns about these systems that one day might surface. I think we are now doing a better job of integrating the pilot-machine interface. Awareness of the problem is a good place to start, because the more you fly [a highly automated airplane], the more you learn what you don’t know.”

A Falcon 900 pilot in Denver said, “More time still needs to be spent on automation and avionics training. Heads are still bobbing up and down way too much to confirm information rather than looking out the windows. There is still an awful lot of on-the-job training.”

A Hawker pilot recalled his type rating at FSI Wilmington in 2000: “My company flew a Collins-equipped aircraft, but the simulator was Honeywell equipped. The simulator box FSI gave me to play with was an even earlier version of the software than was in the sim. It was pretty useless. Luckily, my sim partner was an experienced Honeywell guy.”

At a few thousand dollars an hour for simulator time, the cost to bring some pilots up to speed is still considered by some companies to be a luxury. In fact, safety analyst Robert Breiling said, “There really are no business aviation accidents that can be attributed directly to automation training or execution errors.”

The Technology Factor
In the business aviation sector, pilots transitioning to highly automated cockpits are normally highly experienced aviators, which helps ease the pain of using complicated technology. On the regional airline level, where pilots often enter sophisticated cockpits with minimal flight experience, the wash-out rate has been tremendous until recently. While no one can point to a regional airline accident attributable directly to cockpit automation issues, that doesn’t necessarily mean there have not been some close calls with pilots misunderstanding the technology in the cockpits, only that they are most likely being caught in time to prevent a tragedy and simply not reported.

When pilots and their flight management system are in sync, all is right with the world. But when one problem cascades upon another, such as a last-minute approach change at Teterboro with deteriorating weather, most pilots, let alone those new to highly automated aircraft, can begin to lose situational awareness. Richard Jones, a Citation 650 contract pilot, emphasized, “The hardest part of learning an automated cockpit is learning how to change things on the fly when you need them in a hurry. Schools never teach you that. It’s usually a baptism by fire. On-the-job training is not the best way, but what else do you have in some companies where training dollars are scarce?”

As one Dallas-based Gulfstream captain said, “I’ve been to factory schools and taken the dynamic computer-based training, and it helps. But the bottom line is that you need to use the boxes in a dynamic flight environment to become any good with them. The time to figure out how to use them is now, not after you’ve been cleared for the approach.” Automation confusion can easily translate into a proficiency nightmare for flight departments operating different aircraft equipped with a variety of technology. All use different kinds of boxes.

Val Trent, a Challenger contract pilot, recalled his early automation training: “Back in 1995 FlightSafety didn’t have a way to teach the [automated] boxes. We couldn’t even get any training from Universal on the UNS-1B. We just took our check ride and stayed pretty basic with the entire airplane for a while as we learned. The biggest issue on old airplanes is the poor integration of those systems. Our early 601 was a marriage of many different-vintage boxes and instruments. We didn’t even have a multifunction display (MFD) to check our work as we typed. That’s often what happens when you buy a used airplane.”

Regional airline training failure rates on EFIS and FMS issues for transitioning pilots are as high as 50 percent, according to Eric Norber, codirector of Pan Am Academy’s career-pilot division. “The regional airline people said the high pilot failure rate on automation issues was hurting them because anyone who needs additional simulator time is simply an added expense. But a training failure is a completely unmanageable expense because the airline is now short a pilot as well.” In the old days pilots who climbed the traditional career ladder often acquired experience in a longer timeframe and had time to absorb things more slowly, no matter what system they used.

“Now people are coming out of training and jumping right into the CRJ,” said Norber. “The learning curve of the FMS can overwhelm the pilot during training, especially since the airlines expect pilots to be prepared for every challenge. But simulator availability is limited and expensive. Operators have not had the time or the funds to focus on just FMS and automation operations. Training has normally focused on flying the airplane to meet required standards.”

Befuddling Pilots
In the endless search for a sometimes elusive automated safety net for every flight regime, we may actually have befuddled more pilots, not simply by building electronic displays that offer more options than any two pilots together might opt for, but by integrating an ever-expanding series of warning and alerting systems that clamor for the pilot’s attention. Consider the voice alerts, horns, klaxons, bells, cavalry charges, buzzers, klackers, blinking lights, flashing displays and shakers that everyone considers normal today.

After reviewing a few highly visible airline accidents, such as the 1994 China Airlines A300 crash at Nagoya, Japan, and the American Airlines 757 crash near Cali, Colombia, the FAA decided in 1996 to investigate the root causes of cockpit automation accidents and incidents. Those results were published in “The Interfaces Between Flight Crews and Modern Flight Deck Systems.” This report states, “Concerns [about automation errors] are highly interrelated and are evidence of aviation system problems, not just isolated human or machine errors. Therefore, we need system solutions, not just solutions to individual problems. To treat one issue or underlying cause in isolation will ultimately fail to fundamentally increase the safety of aircraft operations and may even decrease safety.”

Pan Am Academy began offering the regional airlines an automated cockpit training solution in 2000. “We spent $2 million for two Farous-Wicat fully functioning CRJ200 FTDs with visual capabilities, but no motion,” according to Norber. A full-motion simulator would have cost $10 million. “These FTDs offer no type ratings, but definitely flatten the learning curve on integrated flight management systems at a more affordable cost.” Pan Am offers three weeks of systems ground school and some turbojet operations training to new regional pilots, but the majority of the school is focused on FMS, EFIS and autopilot operation. To date, none of their graduates– even some with as few as 750 hours TT–has failed out in the field.

EASy Does It
Dassault believes it has a cockpit system–dubbed EASy–that will revolutionize not only the operation of modern automated airplanes, but the training of pilots who fly them. The company said it learned early on that keeping pilots in the loop was much easier said than done. Rather than attempt to patch current automated cockpit/human-factors problems, Dassault began with a clean-sheet design approach that would provide the simplest, most intuitive way for pilots to find the information they needed while still keeping their heads outside the cockpit the vast majority of the time. The EASy cockpit uses four 14-inch LCD screens–two outer screens for tactical information and two inner ones for strategic data. Information can be input from either seat through the use of a trackball and selector knobs without the need to look down.

Woody Saland, FlightSafety International’s program manager for the EASy cockpit, commented, “Dassault eliminated things in the EASy flight deck that were gotchas. It is a safer cockpit because its designers worried about so many things.” He admitted that the breakthrough for Dassault and FlightSafety came when “we wondered how to get two pilots to work together. We decided to put all tactical information in front of both pilots–air data, engines, everything. We put long-range issues in the center of the cockpit so nothing is hidden from either pilot and each can always see what the other is doing. The consequences of a problem being displayed in front of both pilots encourage them to work together. We got phenomenal training input from the Dassault flight-test and software engineers about how they built this equipment.”

Saland added, “For the first time at FSI, Dassault has played a major role in defining the training curriculum for an automated cockpit.” Dassault will also provide the training documents for the course for EASy, rather than allowing FSI to develop its own, as has been the tradition. “All instruction will be operationally based. That is, when discussing a system, only what the pilot ‘sees’ in the cockpit relating to that system will be covered, as well as the operational consequences of those problems.”

Rich Iudice, director of flight operations at Dassault Falcon Jet in Teterboro, said, “Dassault is taking over the training on EASy, with more emphasis on presenting the operational end of what pilots need to know…[because] operators are demanding more from aircraft manufacturers on how they train pilots, rather than using the same old fire-hose technique.”

But while the new Dassault solution will be a welcome breakthrough for new Falcon operators, Sumwalt believes “many pilots still do not understand what they are asking their automated machines to do and may not fully appreciate all the ramifications of the buttons they’re pushing. To monitor an aircraft, the pilot must understand the system’s capabilities, and that’s where the gap is.”

Sumwalt sees a partial solution in the way we offer checkrides: “When you sit down in a traditional oral exam, they put you in front of a panel and ask what happens if you flip this switch or if that light goes on. But we should be asking lots of pragmatic automation questions as well. ‘When you get to 1,000 feet in the climb and you set the speed bug for 250 knots, what will this annunciator show and what does this all mean to the flight right this minute?’ We are not doing that now.”

The ATC Factor
But cockpit design and pilot training issues are not the only area still in need of reform. As one Miami-based pilot said of ATC in the Aviation Safety Reporting System database, “Controllers need to understand the increase in workload they place on a two-man crew using an FMS when they quickly spew out restrictions and holding instructions. We are just plagued with late clearances and frequent changes.” A few more specific examples include, “clearances near the performance limits of the aircraft under many automated conditions such as the slam-dunk approach, last-minute runway changes or even late clearances that include crossing restrictions.”

The advantage of the new cockpits and training systems, such as Dassault’s, clearly demonstrates the weaknesses of older, yet highly sophisticated aircraft and their associated training systems. Saland added, “Manufacturers did not integrate that kind of information into the training organizations before.” And will this new, even more pragmatically focused training filter down to the older aircraft for which FSI trains pilots? “Only if we get the same level of commitment from the manufacturers,” Saland said.

Pilots of older aircraft may simply have to work harder to learn the intricacies of their aircraft’s automation. One Citation charter pilot in Las Vegas reported his company training on an FMS consisted of the captain telling him to sit in the airplane and run the avionics. The captain tossed the new copilot a book on the Global GNS and said, “Don’t come out of the airplane until you know how to run this thing backwards and forwards.”

And with no business aviation accidents to point to, the goal might be to try to keep that kind of on-the-job training system alive. A Dallas-based Gulfstream captain suggested, however, that pilots be more aggressive and demand attendance at a company school on the FMS equipment they fly most often. “Write down every question you can possibly think of before you arrive at class and ask questions like mad while you’re there. This can work if pilots are willing to play with the boxes in their aircraft, but this can be a pretty tough way to learn.” When Trent returned to FlightSafety for a Challenger 604 type rating in 1999, he realized that for that aircraft “FlightSafety had already come a long way in automation training.”

Are pilots better off as cockpit managers today? “I’m not so sure sometimes,” said Jones. “In the old days of flying instruments, you kept that three-dimensional picture of what your aircraft was doing in your head. Now it is all in front of you. But if a system fails, you still need that picture somewhere in your head to make certain it all makes sense. The downside of this cockpit automation can be information overload. And even worse, you don’t know you’re overloaded because you’re overloaded. But there is a real sense of satisfaction in shooting a totally automated coupled FMS nonprecision approach, too.”

While automated cockpits can offer crews a chance to sit back and more easily monitor the operation of the flight, pilots of all models of aircraft using integrated flight management systems need in-depth education on how this technology works long before the first flight. Pilots cannot simply hope they’ll be lucky enough to connect with an instructor or a system somewhere along the line to show them what they need to know. And they must demand better training before they learn–the hard way–the answer to the question, “What’s it doing now?”

Finger trouble

Any pilot who has operated an advanced automated cockpit knows that the most frequent mistakes made by pilots, even after they know how the system operates, are:

• Pushing the wrong buttons at the right time.

• Pushing the right buttons at the wrong time.

• Pushing the right buttons in the wrong sequence.

• Thinking that an automated function is off when it is on.

• Thinking that an automated function is on when it is off.

The Automated Bugaboos

Experts warn about these human-factor black holes when flying highly automated aircraft:

• Absorption–Being so focused on a task that other issues are excluded.

• Fixation–Becoming locked into one solution despite evidence that supports alternative actions, for example, believing an unstable approach can be salvaged despite warnings from the other cockpit crewmember.

• Preoccupation–The pilot’s attention is drawn somewhere else, essentially daydreaming, because the airplane is flying so well.

• Under load–Sustained attention is difficult because the workload is low.

• Complacency–Flight crews rely on these highly dependable cockpit systems so much that a flight crew might not recognize a failure when it occurs.