A certain darkness on the flight deck.

BA 747

Nothing wears a pilot out like watching the other guy fight the jet. And nothing degrades flight performance like the inevitable outcome–the jet wins, as it should.

This pointless tail chase arises out of two competing malignancies. First, there seems to be an inborn reluctance to consign more and more vertical and lateral (read: climbs, descents, and navigation) maneuvering to flight management systems. Part of that, I believe, comes not only from a reluctance to acquiesce to the reality that in most cases, the automation can do a better job than the humans, but in a real sense, from a backlash against the encroaching automation subsuming what used to be mostly art.

fms crz

Hogwash, in both cases. Because not only has such resistance to the encroachment of technology been going on since the Wright Flyer gave way to the Curtis Jenny, (when we first started getting CRT flight directors rather than the old mechanical gages, the crusty old guys swore they “didn’t work worth a damn” and distorted their vision), there’s also the incontrovertible fact that technology has made the airline industry the safest it’s ever been.

Ground Proximity Warning, Windshear Detection, terrain and weather escape–all possible because of the integrated software and hardware now part of the wraparound design technology inherent in the new jets.

lufthansa 747

The second, darker factor in the resistance playing out on flight decks worldwide is more insidious, but no less troublesome. That is, an undercurrent of frustration and dissatisfaction, most that has little or nothing to do with the technology that becomes the focus of the bad ideas. Specifically, there’s a generation of professional pilots who have seen their retirement wiped out, pay slashed, career stagnated, base (and thus domicile) closed, job moved or in thousands of cases, eliminated; families torn apart, a suicide rate grown to 4 times the national average, and promotions eliminated, reversed or in so many cases, downgraded.

When those factors are the undercurrent of the profession, they don’t simply vanish when the gear retracts.


The end result, the “kick the dog” outlet–knowingly or not, often becomes an opposition to standard operating procedures. Not necessarily blatant, but distinct: “These autothrottles don’t work worth a damn!” (Yes they do–and more smoothly and efficiently than you) or “This descent profile is bullsh!t” (No it’s not–and it would have saved the thousand pounds of fuel you wasted descending and flying level fifteen miles early).

This seems consistently evident in the case of pilots busted back from captain due to job cuts, or pilots forced from larger to smaller aircraft for the same reason: they hate–and fault find endlessly–in their “diminished” circumstances.

Which leaves a crew flying a complex jet with a few “I know better” techniques born of resistance to the new, nostalgia for the old, and a self-righteous need to pay back some of the huge bloodletting in an increasingly anemic career field.

Any step outside the normal operational profile throws a two-headed onus on the other guy. First, there’s the WTF paralysis as you try to figure out what the “new” technique is. Second, there’s the very complicated and moving target that is return to the normal profile–either from the computer’s design or more rudimentary airmanship. Are we getting there? How, when or even, if?


All the while, there hangs in the air the unasked, unanswered but certainly prescient question: when push comes to shove, will professionalism necessarily trump resentment?

So far, the industry-wide results speak for themselves–yet hardly create any assurance that they will continue to do so. I’m fortunate to fly in a Flight Department where Standard Operating Procedures rule the operation, period. And they always will, in my cockpit.

But with constant downward pressure on pilot pay, airline profitability, flight manning, and ultimately, the profession under siege, the unasked question may eventually provide its own answer, and my guess is, it ain’t gonna be pretty.

9 Responses to “A certain darkness on the flight deck.”

  1. Change pilot to physician and we are speaking the same language. Excellent post Captain!

  2. Well said Chris. Thank you. -C.

  3. Mike in YPPH Says:

    Change pilot to computer professional . . . Spot on the money.

  4. sm3gtastic Says:

    Interesting points made..

    I have been forced to change jobs a couple of times in the past and resolved to enjoy and get the best from whatever I was doing – whether it be delivering the mail or running a department, and each time I was swiftly promoted.

    Unfortunately there will always be those that “kick the dog” I just hope I don’t find myself on their aircraft!

    (nice to see the rubber band above the mcdu making an appearance!)

    All the best

    Dave from the UK

  5. google “children of the magenta” and watch the you tube video for a different perspective on cockpit automation

    • I attended the Warren Vanderberg presentation in person. He was warning of over-dependency (among other things) back when advanced automation was just becoming pervasive in flight ops. I’m talking about a divergence from SOP (which includes integrated automation) for all the wrong reasons.

  6. Frank Ch. Eigler Says:

    To what extent to you ascribe anti-automation attitudes to other causes, such as fear of the “children of magenta” phenomenon?

    • Not at all. I attended the briefing in the video in person (that’s Warren Vanderberg, one of our captains, giving the briefing) and the notion of “automation dependency,” which he’s bringing up, is the opposite of “automation animosity,” which I’m talking about. That is, an irrational movement away from advanced flight deck automation, for all of the wrong reasons.

  7. jamesaydelott Says:

    Excellent commentary about how a negative work environment breeds negative performance characteristics.

    Three points I might put forth for discussion.
    1. This is the second time around for SOP animosity. In the glory years of commercial aviation, many pilots were WWII vets, trained in an era of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants was encouraged, and following procedures may not have been. CRM was certainly not encouraged either, the Captain was the Captain (see KLM, Tenerife, 1975). I think as an industry, airlines were able to drill past that era, and they’d sure as hell better figure out a way to do so again!
    2. I think, as you pointed out very well, there is a reluctance to admit that the FMS can be better, smoother, more accurate and reliable, work environment notwithstanding. No one goes through flight training relying on FMS from the start. The role that commercial pilots perform better than any FMS is when normalcy breaks down. When there is an emergency or decisions need to be made because the flight has deviated from normal.
    3. This isn’t just a “commercial aviation” thing. All aspects of aviation suffer from this. Countless other professions do too. In meteorology for example, should I spend most of my day forecasting and ignore the wonderfully accurate and reliable computer models? Absolutely not. In “normal” weather, today’s multiple computer models will bushwhack even the best human forecaster. My job is when the proverbial S**t is hitting the fan, to make interpretation and warning decisions and implement them assertively and with understandable skill in communication.

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