Do Glass Cockpits Make Us Safer?

“Does glass make us safer?” is a nuanced question.  Yes and no you might say.  The subject caught my eye while reading this month’s BCA magazine.  (A related podcast here.) In the intelligence section there was a blurb on how the NTSB can’t correlate any improvement in safety stats with increased use of and prevalence of glass cockpits. This is a significant lesson for humans regarding our use of and approach to better technology: We are a greedy species.  We take, but find it hard to give.

It has been said there are two kinds of people: Givers and takers.  It seems that when it comes to safety, pilots and even taxi drivers, collectively, are are takers.  Why mix cabbies with aerial chauffeurs?

If you are a Freakonomics fan (and can find the page in their first book,.. I can’t) you’ll remember the bit on the invention of ABS braking systems in the 1980s and the study done on two sets of taxi drivers in a German town: One group was given the new anti lock braking (ABS) technology and the other had to soldier on old school …. without ABS.  Guess who had more accidents? Yep, you got it – the gang with the glass cockpit, erm… ABS equipped cars.

I’m not saying the technology makes us lazy or dangerous, but here is the point made – when given more leeway on technology saving tools, we erode the margin.  In other words, what the engineers giveth, the pilot taketh away, it would seem.

In the case of glass, I would offer the following: It is much safer (feeling) to see everything at once, know what is going on, have the information well organized and for those who remember the steam gauge only realm (and Loran to GPS to GPS with pictures transitions) it is hard candy to give up.  But here’s a pilot confession:  When you do make the transition, you actually have to invent a new scan.  The glass forces a cross (left to right for speed and altitude) to up and down (pitch, attitude and situational awareness info.)

But the cognizance that you are more comfortable (because your imagination doesn’t have to work as hard setting up abstract pictures in your head about where you are relative to that mountain, the final approach course, etc.) is what we have to really appreciate if there are to be any safety gains.  In other words, despite all the great stuff being shown to you, a degree of skepticism about any presented information is key to catch something that does not make sense.

True design engineers go for the low hanging fruit – it is pilots that problem, once we can get them out of the cockpit, then science, process and redundancy can really get a handle on flying.  In the interim, however, the best we might offer in training is taking away the glass (in the sim) and forcing the trainee to muddle along old school in an emergency so that glass is more fully appreciated.

As far as cementing in some paranoia to keep the stats going the right way, I’m at a loss.  I’m still wondering what happened to the Air France 447 gang and how we can learn to put more stick and rudder, more (healthy) fear and respect about how stuff works.

If you found this interesting, take a look at our day jobs.  A related post is about my iPad.

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Aviation, technology, trends, society and the economic drivers that make it all happen is what makes me tick.

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