Staying Relevant as an Astronaut or Bus Driver

900px-Astronaut-EVAGlamor fades.  Whether it is the sun, radiation, or just the sum total of alcohol consumed by pilots, the trend is that we are on our way out.  And many of us don’t like such talk.  But this article on Sully and the Miracle on the Hudson really brought it home for me.  Learning years ago was harder since you had to do more of it yourself.  With a pen.  Or pencil.  And an E6B maybe.  Oh, and a watch.

The best quote from the article might have been: “Twenty-five years ago, we were a step below astronauts,” says one veteran pilot. “Now we’re a step above bus drivers. And the bus drivers have a better pension.”

I’m old and young enough (43 if you must know) I can act amazed by all the changes I’ve seen in the past 20 years of aviation evolution, but the purposes of this post is not to wail about how the times they are a changin’ but rather help my fellow aviators see that evolution is a good thing and embracing and learning about it, is how you stay relevant, happy and paid for your value.

Even Sully would tell you: It was day, it was VFR, and the river was the only smart / humane choice.  He was just doing his job.  He improvised and did it well.  But what the public doesn’t realize (and why they get in such a snit when there *is* an accident) is that we just don’t train to improvise a lot anymore because frankly the manufacturers don’t want you improvising.  They would rather you not encounter any situation that requires you to go off script.

But here’s the rub.  If you have to go off script, and you make a mistake, guess what? You get skewered for going off script.  Thankfully the safety stats show that on a per trip basis flying is getting a lot safer.  It still isn’t as safe as driving your car (on a per trip basis) but the data are statistically potent enough that even the most nervous flyer can rest easy on raw data despite the low pay and young faces up front you’ll get there just fine.

The larger question for aviators then becomes how do you stay relevant in an era where UAV’s will be soon shuttling the hordes up and and down the East Coast or at the very least carrying all the UPS and FedEx through the skies in the near future next to you?

The answer is to face it, accept it and if you really care, become curious, be an expert.  Learn how stuff works.  Amazingly, a good chunk of the pilot population has the curiosity of burnt toast.  If flying is a trade, then to be relevant in your trade you need to understand your role in the future of that trade.  Accepting the fact that computers (machines) are more predictable and reliable than human pilots is a tough pill to swallow, but the data proves it out.  What troubles the public, and pilots, however is the need for that astronaut to step in and save the day when everything is going wrong.

A problem with this need is that we aren’t making Sully’s anymore.  And that is perhaps the most poignant part of the article –  training and the path that one takes to go from uninitiated to captain is always changing.  What people did in the 1940’s (200 hour total time kids going into battle) vs. the 1960s and 80s and today, all have a very different depth and breadth of curriculum.

So what to do?

The simple answer is this – if you crave relevance, then be relevant.  While it may seem unfair that a newly minted pilot will quickly see their lack of economic opportunity and their increasing irrelevance, the way forward is to harness your passion and understand that UAVs should at least be something you can explain to non-flyers as a thing that, well, you’ll share the airspace with this week, if not next year.

Another great path to follow is to look at what has happened to avionics in the past 20 or 10 years.  The first time I walked by a booth at NBAA and saw an accelerometer that used the speed of light (sent through miles of tightly wound fiber in a box) to sense motion, I stopped and engaged the guy manning the booth.  He just told me what was coming, “Yeah, we use the speed of light, traveling over the distance in here, to detect acceleration.”  It was a great moment for the pro-MTBF people – no more moving parts. (MTBF = mean time before failure – very important to engineers and astronauts alike.)  Most accelerometers used my current aircraft computers don’t use this light method, but it opened my eyes to the passing of spinning gyros in favor of things that, so long as they’ve been invented, made a lot more sense to use.

A few years later I was flying aircraft with bona fide AHRS computers (Attitude Heading Reference System) that talked to the glass that told me, along with the FMS and other goodies, more than I ever imagined I’d know.  Knowing how that stuff worked (and actually reading up on what affects them, how they fail and how they have more redundancy than their analog predecessors) is key to maintaining your relevance.

While this may seem like a small goofy lesson, the fact is that taking the time to be curious, because you actually care how stuff works, will always keep you relevant.  Relevance can be found on a spectrum of putting yourself on autopilot and hoping to drift through the latest evolution of aviation harm free, or being able to articulate to the layperson exactly what is going on in the airplane and why there is no real magic to it.   It is just some science, engineering, and yes, more and more computers.

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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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