A conversation with three safety investigators about the downfalls of trusting technology too much in the cockpit.
Heavy reliance on technology in the cockpit has been a topic discussed at length in the aviation community over the past few years.
The messaging from us has remained the same – technology is there to help the pilot, not replace them.
But errors resulting from blindly trusting technology continue to contribute to accidents and incidents.
Experienced CAA safety investigators Sam Stephenson, Siobhan Mandich, and Colin Grounsell give Vector their insights into how pilots can use technology to make flying safer – without losing sight of who’s really flying the aircraft.
What’s the problem?
Colin: One way to look at this issue is that, more and more, pilots are trusting technology to fly their aircraft safely, instead of using their own learned skills. We see people feeling confident enough that they take a ‘back seat’, while still sitting up front in the cockpit.
Sam: Another aspect is that many of these aircraft aren’t certified to fly in cloud. When CFIT accidents occur, what we’re often seeing are VFR pilots who aren’t qualified to fly under IFR, and they’re using the avionics equipment to enable them to fly in conditions which aren’t suitable.
I guess it gives them some comfort that they’ve got a couple of EFIS displays showing them terrain, and there’s an autopilot to fly the aircraft.
They can become overconfident and a bit less risk-averse, and can put themselves in situations they probably shouldn’t be in.
Colin: That’s right, and then it’s their autopilot that quite literally flies them into the side of a hill.
Siobhan: I remember investigating an accident relating to this issue, that we touched on in the article “Not drowning in the tech” in the Spring 2021 issue of Vector.
It involved a VFR pilot who had AvPlan installed on their iPad®, but unfortunately they were using that technology with the warning systems turned off.
In addition, they didn’t do thorough flight planning, so they were relying on the technology to do the basic stuff they should’ve done before leaving. They ended up choosing to fly into fog – which they weren’t legally allowed to do – and didn’t realise there was a hill in between themselves and their destination.
Unfortunately, some VFR pilots get to that point where they use the technology in lieu of doing the required training, and getting the appropriate qualifications to be able to fly IFR. They feel like they can install this equipment into their aircraft – even though it’s not certified to be used for IFR – and still get the job done.
Colin: I think it becomes more of a problem when they perhaps upgrade the aircraft type they’re flying. Or they modernise the aircraft, or their next aircraft has a flight management system. They feel like all they have to do is input a route of Paraparaumu to Napier, for instance, and that automatically calculates the line on the map, and that’s it.
They can hop in the aeroplane and just fly, and they lose situational awareness of that flight track.
Whereas when you do your planning on a map, you would look five or ten miles on either side of that track, and look for the highest ground and any hazards that might be present along the way.
What are some of the reasons VFR pilots might choose this approach?
Siobhan: I think VFR pilots sometimes feel time and money are both barriers to gaining the qualifications needed to fly IFR.
Sam: Additionally, what are they going to do with that qualification if their aircraft isn’t certified for IFR? Even if the pilot has got themselves qualified, they can’t actually use their aircraft in cloud. That’s probably the biggest hurdle – most of these pilots would probably have to replace their aircraft and that’s expensive.
However, the equipment that can be retrofitted to certified aircraft is more accessible these days.
Siobhan: As I mentioned earlier, even if they’ve got all this equipment but they’re ignoring or disabling the warnings – like terrain for example, because they fly around low level a lot and are sick of getting all the warnings – they’re going to get into trouble.
What are some of the drawbacks of the technology?
Colin: People can jump into an aircraft and just say, ‘Well, let’s head direct to wherever we want to go.’ But they’re relying on this tech to warn them when there’s terrain coming up, or airspace ahead, which can change.
Something pilots need to be aware of is that they have to regularly update their airspace database, otherwise the information could be wrong, which could result in an airspace incursion.
Sam: That’s something the IFR pilot or the owner has to do on a regular basis every 28 days – update their navigation databases. It’s not as often for VFR flying, but those pilots still need to be aware of airspace changes.
Colin: One issue is that because this equipment isn’t certified, there’s no guarantee the database is 100 percent correct. An example of this is the ZK-SML fatal accident published on the CAA website.
Sam: That’s right, it’s important for pilots to know what they’re going to do if their tech fails. Sometimes screens can turn off, power supplies fail, or the equipment can give incorrect information, so it’s good to have a Plan B.
What advice do you have for pilots using technology in their aircraft?
Colin: I guess what it comes down to is pilots sticking to the rules. The rules are the minimum standard they should operate to, and hopefully they actually go further than what the rule requires. If pilots did that, we wouldn’t have people flying into hills, and getting into trouble in bad weather. The rules are there to keep pilots safe, and if they did stick by them, then we wouldn’t see half the accidents that we do, as far as flying into terrain is concerned. So it’s a matter of pilots understanding that.
Sam: If you keep within the limitations of the equipment and pilot qualifications, then you shouldn’t get yourself into this sort of situation in the first place.
Siobhan: There’s absolutely a time and place for technology. It’s just remembering that it’s also important to do proper flight planning, alongside using the technology appropriately.