Friday, June 14, 2013

1500 hours or Nothing

 We seem to be at a weird crossroad. Congress is trying to mandate that the first officers, if they are in the cockpit must have 1500 hours for safety reasons. They are also being pushed to keep both pilots out of the cockpit, and leave them on the ground.

The UAV or drone folks want to keep the people out of the cockpit, while the safety people want more hours for the folks in the cockpit. I kind of get it, I guess, pilots are highly paid people, and technology is getting better, such that UAVs are pretty reliable. If only drones are in the air, then they should all cooperate, and everyone should be happy.

Well, how would you feel about a cockpit with no one in it while you were being whisked on your vacation in the Bahamas? There is someone on the ground paying attention to your airplane, should anything be out of the ordinary. They are paying attention to six or seven other flights as well, heck aircraft on autopilot re all pretty reliable.If the autopilot notices anything unusual, the pilot on the ground will control the aircraft to a landing.

Ice seems to be a common failure mode for recent passenger aircraft crashes. The Colgan 3407 had a captain that had switched aircraft types, and may have been confused about proper action with ice. The Air France 447 crash had ice that caused the autopilots to give up, and ask the less experienced co-pilots to fly the airplane. It is probably good that the FAA mandate more experience to crews, to insure that should something out of the ordinary happen, they will be able to take the proper action.

How much experience should someone on the ground have, if they are needed? Based on recent incidents, they ought to have lots of experience. They will not be dealing with "normal" flights, only abnormal situations. Maybe they will trying to get an ice laden commuter to a safe place at an airport, or a larger transport aircraft through a massive thunderstorm with no reliable airspeed indication. Either way, they will need all the feedback they can get to know what the situation is.

Airplanes are built on many systems. The pilots job is to be able to manage all these system in all situations. Sometimes the indications are providing questionable feedback, and correlating different dis-separate systems can yield hints to the true trouble. The human brain is still better at tasks where the data is really fuzzy.

There are arguments, should pilots be trained in full motion simulators, or are fixed simulators good enough. Well there certainly is a good bit of seat of the pants information that is available in a full motion simulator, but for many situations, the basic procedure trainer will get the normal flying situations covered.

 Should the remote pilot be in a full motion cockpit to help fly this broken airplane? I don't think anyone is considering that. Mostly the remote pilots are going to be expected to fly from a desk in an office somewhere.  Typically it will be a cockpit looking desk, but the chair will probably be on wheels, and just a couple computer displays will be in front of the pilot.

Depending on how bad the broken airplane is broken, it may not be able to provide any feedback. Maybe sensors have gone bad, and that is why the autopilot has given up would be the primary reason the remote motion cockpit will not work. Sometimes the computers in the aircraft don't work, and the remote pilot is going to rely on backups to backups.

Datalinks go bad. We are all used to always on internet, but how often does your internet go out? Your home internet isn't moving, so it should be very reliable. If you have satellite TV when it rains, what happens? Well, imagine flinging through the sky at 40000 feet, in a thunderstorm, 1500 miles from any land, how reliable will the communications link be there? Satellite is pretty reliable, especially in the rain? How about ground links, 1500 miles from the nearest based station, VHF and above won't cut it, and HF is too slow. So the autopilot should be 100% reliable, after getting struck by lightning 2 or 3 times? maybe.

Look I love technology, but I like to relax on my vacations. I don't mind paying a few bucks for the pilot to be sitting up in the front of the airplane. He has some skin in the game. If he messes up, he gets as hurt as me. A guy sitting in an office, might not think things are so important.

What do you think?

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