Every generation bemoans the imminent end of the good old days. The Platonists warned that the upstart Aristotelians would be the ruin of ancient Greece. The Aristotelians said the same of the Stoics, and the Stoics predicted civilization would end with the Epicureans. They were all wrong. From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, from splitting the atom to landing on the moon, humankind has limped tenaciously toward the actualization of its better self.
Man’s journey from central Africa to Silicone Valley hasn’t been direct. Paroxysms of hubris, apathy, and outright stupidity have diverted him through feudalism, the Crusades, two world wars, and boy-bands. Still, over the long-term, man’s efforts to surpass his forebears in knowledge and achievement have been largely successful.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Past performance—as any Nokia shareholder will attest—is no guarantee of future success. A frank assessment of the last twenty-years bears out a terrible truth. After millennia of tenacious ascent, humankind’s rise has stalled. And any aviator—from the greenest student pilot to the saltiest airline captain—knows what the stall most often precedes.
Calling attention to the aggregate failures of one’s own species is a complex business. It’s not enough to level vague accusations. A case must be built. Evidence must be presented. Claims must be proved.
In October 2019, the FAA formally petitioned the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to address the issue of declining manual flight skills among airline pilots. In a brief submitted to ICAO, the agency stated unequivocally that pilots have become too dependent on aircraft systems, and either haven’t adequately learned or have not maintained their ability to manually control their aircraft—particularly during emergencies that result in loss of the [autopilot/automation] systems.
Dassault has outfitted its new, Falcon 10X flagship with a single power-lever. The system, euphemistically dubbed SmartThrottle, effectively deprives pilots of direct thrust control. Management of the Falcon 10X’s two, Rolls-Royce Pearl engines is ceded entirely to the aircraft’s digital flight control system.
“Falcon has come up with this idiot-proof system called ‘smart throttle,’ which means that you cannot shut down the wrong engine.”
—Philip Rushton, Aviatrade
“Having to move just one lever to command whatever power is available is far simpler and less taxing than trying to figure out which engine has failed and then dealing with three separate levers.”
—Matt Thurber, AIN Online
Asimov, Bradbury, and P. K. Dick wrote of the perils inherent the unchecked pursuit of technology. The ability to do a thing—to build a bomb, to weaponize a virus, to make soy bacon—is not justification to do it. Dassault’s SmartThrottle system, though impressive within a very narrow, academic context, is bad for aviation. It exacerbates the worrying trend of diminishing pilot proficiency resultant of over-reliance on aircraft automation.
Regrettably, literary and philosophical calls for circumspection are seldom heeded by those drunk on possibility. Doctors Frankenstein and Jekyll, despite vehement public outcry, engineered memorable disasters. Whether or not Dassault’s specious creation is loosed upon the world may come down to:
Engine isolation: The power-plants must be arranged and isolated from each other to allow operation, in at least one configuration, so that the failure or malfunction of any engine, or of any system that can affect the engine, will not:
(1) Prevent the continued safe operation of the remaining engines; or
(2) Require immediate action by any crew-member for continued safe operation.
04 May 2017: FAA SAFO (Safety Alert For Operators) 17007
Flight Standards Service Washington, DC.
Subject: Manual Flight Operations Proficiency
Purpose: This SAFO encourages the development of training and line-operations policies which will ensure that proficiency in manual flight operations is developed and maintained for air carrier pilots.
Dassault introduces Recovery Mode, a demeaning absurdity that spares pilots the rigors of instrument interpretation, situational awareness, and unusual attitude recovery. Falcon crews faced with aircraft upset resultant of turbulence, wake-encounters, inattention, stupidity, etc., have only to push a single button, then sit back and look sheepishly on as the aircraft returns itself to a safe attitude. Dassault personnel framed their creation and the need thereof thusly:
“There are all kinds of unusual attitudes where the pilot may be lost a little bit and doesn’t know what to do. This [Recovery Mode] could bring many opportunities to the crew in these kinds of situations.”
—Alain Boucher, Dassault Engineer
“The idea is to prevent an upset, but if the pilot doesn’t react, maybe he is focused on other things, automation will take the lead.”
—Jean-Louis Montel, Special Advisor on Technical and Design Issues for Dassault
Messieurs’ Boucher’s and Montel’s sentiments are echoed in the aviation industry press.
“Newer-generation pilots tend to fly less hands-on and a recovery function can help get them out of trouble.”
—Matt Thurber, AIN Online
The tacit acknowledgement of diminishing pilot skills evident in Dassault’s technological objectives is deeply worrying. Assessment of recent, high-profile aviation disasters would compel a forward thinking civilization to conclude that over-reliance on automation has dulled the modern pilot’s edge. Such a civilization would strive to improve pilot proficiency by emphasizing rudimentary instrument skills and mandating increased hand-flying. Ours, however, is not such a civilization. This unattractive truth manifests in campaigns to circumvent pilot indolence by creating aircraft more conducive to engendering pilot indolence. It’s like treating obesity with Hollandaise sauce—another ironically named, French invention.
The FAA has recognized the perils of over-automation. Paris, however, is a long way from Oklahoma City, and Dassault, despite a great deal of compelling writing—both in print and on the wall—has made its move. Strenuous “identify/verify” mantras and antiquated notions of maintaining aircraft control have been rendered obsolete by the selfsame engineering culture that gave the world the Chauchat machine gun, the Maginot Line, and the Renault Dauphine. Vive la merde!
Since October 2014 there have been at least five King Air accidents during takeoff or initial climb. During each of these events, including the two most recent crashes, the pilot lost control of the aircraft shortly after takeoff. Here follow summaries of three of the aforementioned accidents:
30 October 2014, a King Air B200 crashed into a FlightSafety International (FSI) simulator building at Wichita Eisenhower Airport (KICT). The ATP-rated pilot was killed along with three people in the FSI facility. Post-accident examination did not identify any anomalies with the airplane, engines, or propellers that would prevent normal operation. A “sideslip thrust and rudder study” completed by the NTSB determined that the pilot likely applied substantial “inappropriate” left rudder input and failed to maintain lateral control of the airplane. Other contributing factors included the pilot’s failure to follow emergency procedures—including feathering the propeller and retracting the landing gear—for an engine failure.
23 January 2017, a King Air 300 crashed shortly after takeoff in Tucson, Arizona. The ATP-rated pilot and a passenger were fatally injured. Post-accident examination of the aircraft found no evidence of preexisting anomalies that would preclude normal operations. The NTSB determined probable cause as “the pilot’s exceedance of the airplane’s critical angle of attack during takeoff, which resulted in aerodynamic stall.
21 February 2017, a King Air B200 crashed into a shopping mall seconds after taking off from Essendon Airport in Melbourne, Australia. An investigation by the Australian Transport Safety Board (ATSB) determined that the accident was the result of a flight control trim tab being set incorrectly before takeoff.
The final reports published on all three accidents identify specific pilot actions as probable causes. None identify mechanical issues with the aircraft.
August 2020. Textron announces new King Airs to feature advanced automation. Henceforth, the venerable turboprops will leave the Wichita factory kitted out with the Innovative Solutions & Support (IS&S) ThrustSense auto-throttle system. According to Textron, the system helps tame workload, prevents engine over-torques and ITT over-temps, lets pilots fly selected airspeeds, and guards against under-speeds and over-speeds. IS&S says it takes just an hour of ground school and an hour’s flying time to master.
Henceforth, King Air pilots will need only line up on the runway, hold the brakes, and press the go-around button on the left power lever. Doing so engages takeoff mode, which brings up the flight director’s command bars to a 10-degree takeoff pitch attitude and simultaneously brings the engines to takeoff power. Unlike conventional auto-throttles, the IS&S system spares pilots the hardship of pushing the power levers up halfway before the system “grabs” them and takes over. The power levers start at the idle position, then move on their own to reach the target takeoff power setting—which is to say pilots will no longer need to calculate and set optimal torque values for prevailing pressure altitudes and temperature conditions.
After takeoff, the IS&S system enters climb mode. This puts the engines at either 100 percent torque or 785°C ITT, whichever comes first. Gone is the usual pilot workload of monitoring engine parameters and adjusting power.
A Single-Engine Protection (SEP) feature (IS&S calls it LifeGuard) kicks in when airspeed drops near VMCA (minimum single-engine control speed). SEP automatically reduces the operating engine’s power when airspeeds near VMCA. Textron encourages pilots to think of it as rollover protection.
Since the beginning of the digital age, humankind has charged relentlessly forward while giving little thought to what may lie ahead. The difficulties into which 21st Century man has crashed headlong owe more to lack of prudence than intellectual stagnation. Achievement is intoxicating, but like all intoxicants, dangerous if over-imbibed. The ease modern technology affords is infinitely sweeter than the determination, work, and hardship that sharpen the human mind and advance the facility of human hands. If he is to survive, man must resign himself to circumventing the perils of his own cleverness.
Freud posited that civilization was born the day an angry person cast a word instead of a rock. One wonders what Sigmund would have to say about a society that’s conceived of and built machines to cast its rocks.
Not guilty by reason of insanity.