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Editorial: Tyrant Technology

By Ed Downs

Tyrant Technology is a term this writer thought was the title of a book or at least well known. Regrettably, I could not find the source through a search engine, an information failure to be discussed later in this essay. I apologize to the person who invented the term for not giving credit… so let’s just give it our own meaning. Just a few days ago, this writer taught a sUAS class in a large city, staying at a new, super modern hotel.  Neat place. The shower had five different controls to guarantee the best possible experience, none of which I could get to work. It was finally necessary to download a hotel app just to figure out how to use devices that have been in play for more than 300 years. Is this a misuse of technology, or is this writer simply “not with it?”

That same question comes into play in modern aviation. The application of digital technology in general aviation has expanded at an exponential rate. This old CFI sometimes wonders if aviation has been turned over to computer gamers, for whom flying is not a hand/eye/kinetic skill to be enjoyed by one’s entire being but simply a digital exercise designed to accomplish a goal that someone else invented. 

Now, let’s be clear, this essay is not being written to deplore technology in favor of the “the good old days.” I am quite fond of automobiles, airplanes, electricity, communication capabilities, and flush toilets (without an app). But the FAA has been showing significant concern regarding amateur use of highly sophisticated, fully automated light aircraft. Flight Instructor Revalidation Clinics are now required to teach the dangers of over reliance on automation, and that the over-use of automation and computer-based guidance systems can lead to operating mode confusion and a significant loss of situational awareness. 

Task loads are recognized as being much higher when flying an airplane through “programs” versus flight controls, with overall pilot skills seen to be decreasing. But such observations do not mean automation and technology are bad, it simply means that they are being used to supplement skills not possessed by the pilot, as opposed to a tool for skill “force multiplying.”

Obviously, this discussion could dig into details regarding specific airplanes, integrated primary flight displays and auto flight systems, specific mode selections and sub menus.  But, let’s not go there, the topic is simply too large and filled with conflicting opinions.  Leave it to consider just one factor. The old “steam gauge” technology and “knob controlled” electronics evolved over a hundred-year period. Even that technology dates from the early days of the industrial revolution. By the time “steam gauge” technology hit its peak in the mid 1990s, it had been in play for millions of user hours and reflected experience through use. It evolved; it was not “invented” as with modern digital systems.  Given an historical perspective, digital evolution has just begun.

Let’s just narrow down the topic of technology to new VFR students. This CFI works with more than 300 newbies every year and has seen a remarkable change in the tools being used on the training end of amateur aviation. Yes, the following discussion is based on anecdotal information, but it is the opinion of this writer, and many pilots from all disciplines, that a trend is developing. Virtually no student shows up for flight lessons or a class with a sectional chart, FAA Chart Supplement (Airport/Facility Directory), E-6B computer, plotter or POH/AFM. Even those who have completed their cross-country training have never used a VOR, know what a magnetic course is, or have reviewed the topography much more than 50 miles (sometimes as little as 15 miles) in front of their present position. 

Welcome to the wonderful world of the tablet-based electronic flight bag, often compressed down to the size of a smart phone. To be sure, the compacting of data into a small electronic package can greatly improve the organization of the cockpit. The ability to load an aircraft profile into such a device for the automatic computation of performance and weight and balance problems is great. To a well-trained aviator, thoroughly familiar with the basics of navigation and aircraft performance, such digital automation can be a terrific tool to double check flight expectations and help make sure a flight is progressing as planned. 

But consider the use of tablet technology as a set of instructions that must be followed, moment-by-moment, by one that does not know any flight-planning basics. Such a pilot is simply keeping the little airplane icon over a line created by the computer. Consider the difficulty of navigating through the various modes of tablet operations, blinded by a bright sun while flying in turbulence. Envision a dying or dead battery, or worse yet, an overheated battery. Is that tablet still your friend?

In the past, new pilots were required to learn a skill to the extent of being able to demonstrate that skill. Study results in knowledge, knowledge is amplified by experience, and through practice, one gains a demonstrable skill. It must be remembered that “knowing something” is vastly different than “doing something.” It has been said that today we live in a new world of “information,” the web, and digitally stored information (welcome to “Siri” and “Hey Google”, plus other services). Prior to the web, we learned with virtually all our senses, reading, listening, touching, seeing, and, yes, in some cases, smelling, the most powerful of all memory joggers. 

Study and research are a version of practice, ending in a skill where the learned information is translated into a demonstrable skill. Today’s students (in both primary and advanced learning institutions) simply “look up answers” without taking the other steps. We are very good at acquiring “information” but maybe not so good at acquiring knowledge that is transferable into behavior. There are at least two, perhaps three, generations of flight instructors now trying to build time so that they can get a job with a regional air carrier on their way to the majors. They were brought up in the “information world” and teach the same way. 

More and more, our new pilots are totally dependent upon point-to-point GPS navigation and digital data called up just before the need arises. The trip planning at the kitchen table the night before a flight is virtually a thing of the past. In modern advanced technology aircraft, preflight planning often begins only after the radio master switch is on. 

So, how do new pilots get by the written exams and flight test? Instructors like this writer are part of the challenge, as we teach weekend classes designed to pass the test, but little else. Sure, all the self-study and two-day presenters make it clear that much more must be learned, but unless reinforced by the student’s flight instructor, that message often falls on ears plugged with ear buds. The private written exam may have only five or six questions dealing with the fundamentals of navigation. One only needs to get a couple of these correct to get a good score. Electronic flight bags may now be used for a check ride, and detailed test briefing can prepare a student to give the correct answer to basic navigation issues. It is all too easy for a new pilot to be turned loose with little, if any, demonstrable skills in cross-country flight planning or flying. 

Yes, this is an essay, not necessarily an editorial, as it is hard to direct such concerns in any specific direction. Perhaps it is up to those of us who have been around a while to help newbies understand that the basics are important, and that information and knowledge are two very different things, especially in aviation. Perhaps we should take a lesson from the classic movie, Karate Kid, wherein Karate Master Miyagi has his poor student, Daniel, washing cars and painting fences, all to learn the basics. But in the end, those motions became knowledge, and knowledge became demonstrable skills… at least in the movie!



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