Seconds are frequently all we have.
When things start going bad on a flight deck, pilots may waste precious seconds denying that it’s happening. It doesn’t have to be.
Most pilots say that it won’t happen to them but accident data suggests otherwise. This denial process is quite common, even with some airplane warnings, it just doesn’t usually end in tragedy.
“the airplane knows, well before a crash, that problems are developing but gives no warning”
You’re sitting there trying to make sense out of something that shouldn’t be happening, or rationalizing a warning that’s blaring, because, well, you sure don’t want to go around. You see the field, the buildings, the traffic or whatever it’s warning about, or maybe you don’t know why it’s blaring. For example, it’s saying “Wind Shear” in snow—that doesn’t make sense—we don’t get wind shear in snow.
People marvel at how pilots can sit there quietly but it’s not like there’s an enemy attacking. The disaster is unfolding in relative comfort. Even if there’s a warning, you haven’t likely rehearsed reacting to that warning out of surprise. That fact, that we don’t rehearse some of these scenarios, is a failing of training programs, largely because of legal requirements.
Simulator Training Shortfall
During simulator training we never get surprise terrain, traffic, or other warnings where we’re expected to recover to a safer course immediately. That’s a shame.
Yes, we get these warnings, but we know when they’re coming. We can see the traffic or the terrain on our displays. It should be done during normal maneuvering, while focused on something else, and it just happens. Yes, that’s a false warning but we’re trying to get people to react to the warning NOT worry about whether it’s false or not. You’re getting vectored for an approach and get a terrain warning out of the blue. You’re expected to react immediately. Same thing with windshear, pull-up and traffic warnings. We should be getting basically erroneous warnings and practicing reacting then asking questions later. It’s *NOT* negative training if that’s the expected reaction!
We still have to think, of course. If we’re flying level while getting vectored for an approach in Chicago and get “Pull up, Terrain” then we can pass it off as erroneous. But that’s EXTRAORDINARILY rare. In my 20+ years of flying with these warning systems it has never happened. What HAS happened is pilots ignoring warnings and NEARLY balling it up.
At my airline they are improving training immensely in certain ways by allowing the practice of decision making at least in one area, the rejected takeoff. I have flown the new profile and it is valuable practice. Rehearsal is the key to success if you want humans to respond quickly to threats.
Being aware is good whether you’re crossing the street, driving, or flying. Here is one way to look at it.
1. In the Green
You’re “In the green” while things are proceeding as planned and there is attention to spare. You can look around, make sure upcoming frequencies are set, that the energy state is good (not high and fast), that the flight management system (FMS) is displaying useful pages, that the airplane is properly configured and maybe even glance at the cool landscape while looking for stray paramotor pilots.
Normal activities are being done far enough in advance that they can be stopped while dealing with interruptions like air traffic controller instructions, flight attendant requests, unusual sounds, etc.
2. In the Yellow
This is when a situation requires nearly full attention and immediate action. While cruising along at 31,000 feet the controller says “cross 35 miles southwest of MYTOE at 12,000 feet at 250 knots. You immediately bump into the yellow while you work the change because it requires immediate and full attention. It’s normal to go into the yellow like this and we manage it pretty well.
It’s mostly unplanned changes. If we already had the crossing entered (as we should if it was charted), there would be no going into the yellow. That’s because when we programmed it during cruise we could STOP programming due to a an interruption. This is why it’s so helpful to stay at least one step ahead on changes. For example, if you’re going into an airport where they commonly change runways, have the approach frequency for the other runway in standby. This is called “Staying ahead of the airplane.”
We want to minimize our time “in the yellow” to get back to the green monitoring role.
Being high on an approach is another good example because the airplane doesn’t slow down AND go down very well. All attention is focused on getting into “the slot” (on speed, on glidepath) by 1000′ above touchdown. This is common and, to be honest, is usually kind of a fun challenge, like a good stiff crosswind. San Diego is famous for this. They leave you high on downwind then clear you for the approach. It can either be a low-stress affair flown conservatively or can be a butt scrunching stress inducer. Sometimes air traffic control makes it worse with something like “Airline 123, cleared for the visual runway 27, make short approach.”
3. In the Red
You’re now violating a flying law, a physics law, and/or will soon crash. One euphemism is “undesirable aircraft state,” for example, balled up in a burning hulk beyond the seawall. Thankfully it’s usually something less dramatic like flying beyond a waypoint. But it may be that you’re lined up on the wrong runway or, far worse, line up for the wrong airport.
What gets missed is how we can go from green to red in the blink of an eye. Single mistakes can immediately put a flight into the red. That’s a really important thing to remember. One moment you’re fine and the next moment you’re way too slow. Or at least you REALIZE you’re way too slow.
Deny Deny Deny
Some things we humans don’t do well with; trauma is one of them. A common reaction is deny, deny, deny. As a bad situation unfolds our first reaction is “no, this isn’t really happening.” Precious seconds drift by unnoticed.
The best solution is training, especially if we can evoke similar emotions and uncertainties in the scenario. That’s tough, of course, but not impossible. For example, lets say you get a warning system squawking about terrain. You’ve been flying for years and have never heard it in real life or, worse yet, you’ve heard it before but it was daytime and you didn’t have to do anything drastic. Now it’s night. A clear night, to be sure–you see what you think it’s squawking about, and so you deny that’s it’s really serious and press on.
That reaction, where the pilot doesn’t respond right away, is amazingly dangerous. Yeah, most of the time he’ll be right, he’ll miss the building, but wow, what a bummer if it was squawking about a building he DIDN’T see!
We like to harbor the delusion “that would never happen to me.” And that’s true—most of the time.
Throw in fatigue, maybe some slightly unusual cockpit dynamics, etc., and the possibility grows. U.S. pilots like to brush this one aside as if these pilots where not used to flying visuals but that was a tiny part of it.
The Airplane Knows
The airplane knows, well before a crash, that problems are developing but gives no warning. The the flight management system knows where it is, where it’s going, airspeed, configuration (flaps, gear, spoilers, thrust, etc) and landing runway.
If a pilot steers towards the wrong runway why not have it say “Runway, Check Runway”? If the crew just got a last minute runway change they can cancel it, otherwise they go-around. There have been some close calls with airliners landing on the wrong runway, occasionally at the wrong airport. These were conscientious crews who, no doubt, thought there was no way that could happen to them. The warning system doesn’t have human factors, like denial, it just reports the facts.
The computer already has the current thrust setting, airspeed and trend. It could give an “airspeed” warning long before a dangerous condition develops. If the throttles are idle, and airspeed is decaying, a warning could be issued before it drops below the current target speed, giving PLENTY of time for the pilots to throttle up.
If the throttles are up but just not enough, airspeed decays slowly. The warning would wait longer to avoid nuisance alerts. Like all warning systems it must avoid, at all costs, giving false alarms.
We already have the really cool enhanced ground proximity warning system to give alerts, lets do more.
Asiana Boeing 777 SFO Crash
While watching a training video on the Asiana 777 crash in SFO I was surprised to see that, although they were initially scrambling to get down, the airplane did, in fact, get into a stable approach and the crew would have likely considered themselves “in the green” albeit briefly. There were many factors that contributed to this accident but one factor warrants more emphasize: there were a matter of seconds to act after getting “into the red.” Secondly, a more advanced warning system could have pulled them out of their denial phase with a warning for which they are trained to react.
I can hear it now “at some point we must let pilots be pilots.” That’s bullshit, frankly—a sentiment that should be screamed from the hulking wrecks of observed consequences. Of course we need to have sound stick and rudder training but that RARELY causes accidents. It didn’t cause this one. It doesn’t, in fact, cause many at all. The reality is that humans make terrible monitors. Let’s deal with that.
Also, there will ALWAYS be cultural, fatigue, cockpit dynamics, etc, and we should always be trying to reduce them, but history has shown that our best improvement in the last 20 years, ***BAR NONE*** have come from improving the human/machine interface.
These changes, along with training to incorporate them, will help pilots be warned, and then be more primed to act, to recover to a safer course.