Distracted by Automation: #5 of the Big 5

Although not yet reflected by a huge wave of incident reports. Regardless, technological distractions are a growing problem and one of the Big 5 accident/incident producers. Recently designed aircraft (like the Cirrus SRV, Diamond’s Katana line, their DA-40 and Lancair’s 300 and 400) greatly expand the performance envelope made familiar to pilots by Cessna 172s and Piper Archers. They also often offer avionics that are exponentially more capable than those with which many pilots are familiar. It may be ironic, but along with the simplicity of flight and improved situational awareness these packages offer, there is a greater need for care when using and learning to use these systems.

It is true that too much of a good thing can be dangerous. When automated systems are given the task of maintaining position or aircraft control, the pilot’s workload drops as he or she delegates tasks to the machines. But pilots can give away too much control and rely too heavily on the automated systems. There is a difference between knowing and using a system, and simply depending on one.

When I get a new computer program, I love just messing around with it — I seldom if ever read the manual. But that habit can be dangerous in the air. Attempting to learn a new system while enroute is a bad idea. Technological advances are terrific when they work well, but they can also be a distraction that can steal your awareness when you don’t fully understand or know how to use them.

A pilot using his new “toys” inadvertently penetrates Class B airspace
NASA Number: 449901

I was returning on a multiengine training flight. My student had chosen 6500 feet MSL for an enroute altitude. At the time he announced that altitude I knew this would be a problem in approximately 15 nautical miles, but elected to allow the student time to realize that 6500 would be a potential incursion into the Phoenix Class B Airspace. I decided to correct the situation myself, if the student hadn’t already by the time we reached Olberg, Arizona. That would have allowed us time to descend below 6000 feet well before reaching the point where the floor of the Class B lowered to 6000.

The aircraft was equipped with a GPS and an autopilot. The student asked me to demonstrate and explain the features of this equipment. This was only the student’s second flight in the airplane so I instructed him how to engage the autopilot and then proceeded to explain some of the more often used functions of the GPS. I began programming the vertical navigation, and entered the required rate of descent, when I noticed our position was roughly 3 nautical miles southeast of Sun Lakes, Arizona.

The “cue” to begin descent by the GPS had not activated, and we were watching the GPS display but not monitoring our position. When I realized that we were, in fact, inside the Class B airspace I immediately instructed the student to disengage the autopilot. I immediately exited Class B airspace.

We have many aircraft of the same make/model/type at our company. But these are the first aircraft purchased that have the GPS and autopilot. We have identified the “problem” already, and have cautioned the instructors and students that extra vigilance is necessary when instructing on, and experimenting with the new “toys.”

A flight crew almost strikes an obstruction while on a visual approach. The pilots flew the “visual” approach with heads down in the cockpit.
NASA Number: 446926

Arriving late at night to Spokane International Airport (GEG), I was anticipating an ILS approach to runway 21 based on the forecast winds. GEG does not have automated ATIS, so I was caught a little off guard when we finally received ATIS from the conventional communications radio and found out that we would be shooting a visual approach to runway 25.

I assumed that this would be an uneventful approach using a Precision Approach Path Indicator (PAPI) for vertical guidance, but in hindsight I was complacent in preparing for a night visual approach into an unfamiliar airport, after a long day and with fatigue setting in.

Arriving from the east, we encountered the runway visually while at 7000 feet and approximately 18 miles from the airport. We reported to approach control the airport in sight and they cleared us for a visual approach. I selected 4000 feet and initiated a descent to that altitude. At approximately 12 miles out and descending through 5000 feet, I finally noticed a group of very tall lighted towers ahead and slightly left of us. I leveled off. Approach control then asked, “do you have the towers in sight?” indicating that they were concerned. I then initiated a climb up to 5500 feet and visually cleared the towers by approximately 1000 feet and slightly to the north.

Although this was a visual approach, I was still heads down in the cockpit a lot using our glass automation (map display) and vertical path indications to fly in to the runway. This could have put me in conflict with these towers. I should have been heads up, using the PAPI, and looking for outside visual cues for this approach.

Fortunately I did notice the towers visually and they were slightly south of our course, but a conflict could easily have occurred given my mindset, unfamiliarity with the terrain around Spokane, and fatigue.

The moving map – GPS is a wonderful piece of equipment to have. It is designed to process information so that the pilot can use their time more efficiently. The system is supposed to present the pilot with the “big picture” as an aid to situation awareness. But over dependence on an automated system in these cases actually reduced the pilots’ awareness.

In the first case, had the Class B been an ADIZ (like the one in D.C.) the instructor and student could have made a very good headline (as far as the press is concerned) and a very bad day for themselves, and the rest of us.

In the second case the pilot could have caused an accident had the pilot not simply looked out the window.

THE BOTTOM LINE: While you’re at the controls, everything the aircraft does is your responsibility — regardless of whether you’ve delegated tasks to a machine or not. Learn your new systems on the ground and be a good manager in the air. Maybe one day it will be a realistic option, but for now — fly the airplane — never allow the airplane to fly you.