By Hemant Bhana
I clearly remember my first trip in the Boeing 727 as a new pilot for United Airlines, back in the summer of 2000. With all the dials, switches, levers and knobs, the airplane looked like the lunar module of NASA's heady Apollo days. First flown in 1963, the airplane lacked flight management computers. It required three pilots who relied on skill and experience to get it to its destination.
I remember settling into my seat, trying to hide my nervousness from the instructor pilot assigned to complete my training. Somehow, we made it from Denver to San Jose that afternoon. We even made it back to Denver afterward.
I loved flying the 727. It was loud, smoky, obnoxious, grimy, gas guzzling and bullet-proof. Nothing put a bigger smile on my face than knowing we were setting off car alarms in the parking lots adjacent to the airport on each take-off.
Perhaps the greatest accolade about the venerable tri-jet was that it truly was a pilot's airplane. Navigating required considerable mental math and pilot skills. Moreover, because the autopilot was so basic, flying required constant attention. If the pilot wanted to initiate a descent, he or she manually adjusted the aircraft and the throttles. The airplane required its pilots to be engaged in the flight. All of us who flew the airplane loved it.
Fast forward to the spring of 2007, when I began to fly the Airbus 320, the type of aircraft whose distracted pilots flew beyond the Twin Cities last week. The A320, nicknamed "Fi-Fi" because of its French lineage, is an exceptionally sophisticated aircraft with enough computers to make Bill Gates smile.
The A320 is the polar opposite of the 727. It is quiet, clean, efficient, shiny and prone to minor computer glitches. The airplane's silky-smooth autopilot and advanced flight management computers greatly simplified navigation and significantly decreased the level of attention required for a successful flight. The autopilot and autothrust systems can fly from coast to coast with minimal engagement. Frankly, "Fi-Fi" can fly better than I can.
This is the crux of the problem confronting modern airline pilots. As airplanes and technology progress, the nature of the airline pilot's job is changing. The level of professionalism will never change, as all of us take our responsibility to our passengers very seriously. However, this paradigm shift is increasingly relegating pilots to monitors of the automation instead of active participants in the flight.
Fully automated aircraft simply do not need as much attention as non-automated aircraft. Think about the differences between driving a manual transmission vs. an automatic. The stick shift driver is much more in tune with how his or her car is performing than the automatic transmission driver. Unfortunately, one of the unintended consequences of the changed work nature is an increased amount of boredom.
What are the effects of boredom? Does boredom affect complacency, especially automation-related complacency? The complete answer to that question is too complex to summarize in one paragraph. I should know -- I wrote my master's thesis on this very topic. The simple answer is yes.
My research on airline pilots indicated that bored pilots are also more complacent. In addition, bored pilots have a greater number of minor attention lapses, such as missing a radio call from Air Traffic Control or skipping a checklist item. There are a ton of factors that influence this equation -- far too many to list without writing another thesis. Nevertheless, solving the boredom problem could prove invaluable in reducing the instances of complacency and attention lapses.
Still unknown are the long-term consequences of advanced automation. Have we as over-automated our airplanes? Have we reached a point where the safety returns on increasing automation are diminishing?
Not quite. One unexpected finding of my research indicated that pilots are adept at generating coping mechanisms. For example, many pilots deliberately turn off the autopilot and hand-fly, or otherwise reduce the automation level in order to maintain their flight skills and remain engaged in the flight. Other behaviors include activities such as light reading or chatting with fellow pilots. Research has proven these activities significantly reduce boredom.
Airlines that prohibit activities like hand-flying or reading on the flight deck inhibit these coping mechanisms. Of course, pilots should never read or chat at inappropriate times, nor should they become so engrossed in their activities that they forget to land at their destination. However, the benefits of keeping mentally stimulated and engaged through reading and chatting (at the appropriate time) far outweigh any risks.
If these activities can help solve the boredom problem, then the subsequent issues of complacency and attention lapses can be mitigated. Perhaps creating awareness of the issue can help avoid another embarrassing incident.
Hemant Bhana, Vancouver, Wash., a contractor for the FAA in the Western Flight Procedures Office, was an airline pilot for more than 10 years. His graduate degree is from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.