My Response to Wall Street Journal Editorial on Cockpit Automation

After reading an Editorial in Wednesdays Wall Street Journal (Bring in the Robots) I felt compelled to respond. In my books (Project 7 Alpha, Vengeance and soon End Game) I write about basic flying skills and then build on them to explain combat flying and the importance of the basics for advanced skills like landing on an Aircraft Carrier. Below is my letter to the Editor.


Robots crash; a lot.

As I sat to write this hasty letter I was forced to reboot my computer; it had crashed over night for no apparent reason. Or should I say, apparent to me. No doubt there is a reason, but I am neither trained nor qualified to trouble shoot much less comment to the world on a fix.

I am however, uniquely qualified to comment on Mr. Jenkins WSJ Editorial dated 10 July: as a current FAA Certified Flight Instructor (basic/instrument/multi-engine), a former Advanced Strike Instructor/Test Pilot Instructor for the USN, active Airline Pilot and the CEO of Broken Wing LLC. Broken Wing is the only private company to successfully drone a full scale airliner (Discovery Documentary; Plane Crash).

Mr. Jenkins completely inverted Captain Scotts point that crews are being forced to over rely on automation; his take-away is a call for more. Lesson one in aviation is to teach the student to keep air flow (airspeed) over the wing so that it will continue to produce lift. Lesson one in instrument flight training is to develop the student’s scan of all the instruments; the paramount gauge is the airspeed indicator. Lesson one of Multi-engine training is to teach the student to maintain minimum critical airspeed, so that if an engine fails the pilot can control the aircraft. The common theme to all of the above modes of aviation is airspeed. Quite obviously the crew of Asiana 214 failed in their primary duty.
Apparently with the automation unavailable, they could not perform the most rudimentary pilot skill; executing a visual approach and returning the aircraft safely to the ground. Make no mistake this skill is demanded of an 18 year old student with 15 hours total time, before he/she is set free on their first solo flight. This is precisely what Captain Scott feared; a complete erosion of piloting skills due to over reliance on automation. That was his point.

Drones/UAVs/Robots- whatever you prefer to call them also have a common theme: they crash a lot. Modern technology is fantastic, triple redundancy (the practice of each computer checking itself against the other two) is a sound concept. Except it seems when the bad computer locks out the good computers and begins to wreak havoc. Qantas Flight 72 is a prime example; the final fix from this and similar incidents was for the human crew to de-energize the bad computer by pulling circuit breakers, like Dave did to HAL in the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey. Make no mistake the “Miracle on the Hudson” would have been a fireball in New York City without the human crew.

Any system externally controlled is susceptible to alternate or counter control. Simply put a Hackers/Terrorist/Rogue Nations dream.

Quite obviously Mr. Jenkins does not have a working knowledge of the Air Transportation System in the USA. It is in a word, antiquated. Most airports have no automated systems, in fact many of the Nation’s most busy airports would be forced to close or be restricted to half of the traffic they currently handle. I flew into Washington DC yesterday; the approach is down the Potomac River. The pilot flying (zero automation) weaves the aircraft like a Giant Slalom skier, keeping it within the rivers path. The bridges are your check points for altitude. At the last second, in close and at a couple hundred feet, the pilot yanks on a hard right turn dives over a soccer field full of children at tree top height and then lands on a short runway that has no over run. In New York for the Runway 13 Expressway Visual; you fly to a set of large white tanks, make a right turn following an expressway then hook a turn around the home of the Mets. San Diego’s primary runway (RWY-27) is not certified for an ILS (Instrument Landing System) because the approach is too steep and the crew has to dodge a parking garage on short final. Many Central and South American, probably two thirds of the world’s airports would have to be closed. Affordable and convenient Air Transportation would come to an end.

And what about liability? When a fully laden “Jumbo Jet” drops into a city because of a computer glitch, with no pilot on board (to save money) would that generate liability for the company? If Auto-Trains or a car stops, you simply step out and walk or make a cell phone call for help. A UAV ends up a smoking hole.
Finally cost; since this is a primarily financial publication I’ll address it last. Try and add up the costs of modifying most of the worlds: airports, aircraft, airspace and infrastructure required for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Every time Broken Wing put our QB-727 in the air we had 3 additional aircraft and nine pilots airborne. Granted it was a very specialized Test Flight. But the requirement remains the same; UAVs require a very long technological tail: satellites/controllers/pilots/engineers/technicians/operational planners/etc./etc. Who will pay the developmental cost? Who will pay for the satellite system? Who will pay for the control rooms? Who will pay for the complete overhaul of the world’s airspace? The amount required would dwarf the World Debt.
My solution is an easy one and would cost the equivalent of a Starbucks Coffee per passenger. Stop training crews to be system managers only. Stick and rudder skills, as we saw in San Francisco and on the Hudson, do matter. And pay the professional crews commensurate with their skills; you will then get the best and brightest in the cockpit.

A last thought; computers don’t think. Computers don’t have a seat of the pants feel. They cannot intuitively know something is not right, they cannot anticipate. When I was flying old F-4 Phantoms out of VX-30 as an Adversary Pilot, going up against the latest and greatest the fleet could throw at us. We had a saying: “Don’t fight the aircraft, you will lose. Fight the computer and you will win.”

Leland “chip” Shanle Jr./Webster Groves, Missouri
CEO Broken Wing LLC
Society of Experimental Test Pilots

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One comment on “My Response to Wall Street Journal Editorial on Cockpit Automation
  1. Gregg Shanle says:

    Well said…