I recently read about a study involving dogs in homes, dogs in shelters, and wolves. The researchers rounded up 10 animals from each category and gave them each a puzzle box containing a food reward. The catch was that the box could only be opened with some persistence.
Eight of the 10 wolves successfully opened the box. Only one of the 20 dogs succeeded.
According to the researchers, the wolves spent almost the entire time working the problem. The dogs spent almost none.
It seems funny that this study revealed a remarkable lack of interest in minor canine self-preservation. Dogs are highly intelligent, empathetic and coachable. But have they become lazier than wild animals due to human contact?
Pilots as a group have a reputation for being independent, lone wolves. But after reading several reports to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System like the one below, I wonder: Are we really more like domesticated dogs?
“I was heading to Pennsylvania from Colorado, and I was using my GPS for the airspaces. The GPS wasn’t looking right however, but I didn’t think much about it until I was looking at a runway on my left and right. I was split between Dayton and Wright-Patterson and my GPS wasn’t showing I was in their airspace, so I knew I was committed [to maintaining my present flight path] at that point and the GPS was not functioning properly.
“I quickly got the frequency for Columbus Approach and called them, and they told me that there may have been a problem and they gave me a phone number to call when I landed. I stayed with Flight Following the remainder of the flight, and the GPS started to work when I got to West Virginia and has been working correctly ever since. I called the number I was given and talked to the controller, but he said someone else may call back, but that did not occur. The controller thought that perhaps everything was OK, but I wanted to submit this report.”
I included his narrative verbatim in hopes you might get the same sense I got when reading it. I was reminded of the phrase, “There I was: Fat, dumb and happy.”
This perfectly capable pilot encountered a malfunction with his GPS. His first thought was to ask for help using another electronic device that might also have failed him during that flight. Or in dog-speak, “If I wag my tail, will you do it for me?”
Might minor self-preservation dictate that the pilot go to his sectionals? In the good ol’ days of the 1990s and early 2000s, it might. But, if the NASA reports I read indicate a trend, we have become a community too domesticated by our technology.
One experimental aircraft pilot submitted a report after inadvertently entering Class B airspace. He was flying in the northwest quadrant of KDEN.
“My GPS intermittently went blank. Instead of monitoring my flight path utilizing ground references, I devoted the majority of my attention to troubleshooting and regaining my GPS function.”
In his post-mortem, the pilot vowed to “ensure in the future that I am more aware of my flight path anytime I am near controlled airspace, and for that matter, at all times during flight.”
This pilot forgot that the saying goes, “Aviate, navigate, communicate,” not “Aviate, navigate, wait… what’s going on with this stupid box?”
Technology is awesome. Psychologist Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic says life has become more complex, but we hardly ever notice it because technology has simplified its complexity. We now know more with less.
For example, cockpit technology has increased our potential for situational awareness enormously. It also has reduced the complexity of how that information is presented to us. Instead of 10 or more displays, gauges and dials to scan and process, we now can read it all on one display screen. And yet…
“While flying an airplane on a local training flight, I inadvertently entered the Class D airspace to the south of the Abbotsford airport (CYXX). The aircraft I was flying is equipped with a Garmin 500 avionics suite and a Garmin GTN 750 GPS. Both units had current charts installed and are approved for navigation. The Abbotsford Control Tower’s airspace was not depicted on either system.”
Abbotsford Tower had radar contact with the aircraft, so no harm, no foul. Only after making the mandated phone call to Abbotsford Tower and apologizing for the incursion did the pilot learn Canadian airports may not be depicted on Garmin charts, even if said airspace extends into the U.S. They are, however, depicted on printed sectionals.
None of the three pilots above described going to their backup, paper sectionals once their GPS signals became compromised. If they had sectionals, why didn’t they pull them out? Why weren’t they folded on their kneeboards and at the ready in case a situation like the ones described actually occurred?
Some psychologists say it’s because technology hinders the development of knowledge. The more technology advances, the more we are able to outsource, crowdsource and cloudsource the storage and retrieval of information.
Where once someone with a capacious memory ruled the day, now whoever has the most RAM and the fastest connection is king. That means humans today are like most smartphones and tablets — our ability to solve problems depends less on the knowledge we can acquire and retain and more on long battery life and the latest processor.
Could it be that’s what domesticated dogs are doing in that study? They seemed to be outsourcing the problem-solving to their social network, human beings. If we pilots are doing the same thing, then does that mean technology is domesticating us? Are we becoming only as smart as our technology?
Why don’t we use all available technology more smartly? Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic states that the fluid intelligence of human beings — the ability to acquire and process information effectively — has increased substantially in the last 70 years. Based on that information, it should be easy for us pilots to absorb new information and still maintain our proficiency using older, backup resources at our disposal, right?
Wrong. Two things in human nature work against us. First, it’s human nature that if something tends to work, then we expect that it will always work. The more it works, the less inclined we are to rely on backup. We call it “being efficient.” Psychologists might label it “delusion.” Murphy’s Law proves that out daily.
It’s like the flight instructor who deluded himself into believing his handheld GPS would be sufficient for a night cross-country flight with a student, in marginal VFR. Naturally his handheld GPS failed. Its failure was the major factor in a Class C airspace incursion.
In his explanation, the instructor noted that he knew a handheld GPS was less reliable than a panel-mounted one, and he knew he should have used a plane equipped with a panel-mounted GPS. He chose not to use a different aircraft because it would have been inconvenient to switch.
Convenience is the second thing in human nature working against us. Studies show that when presented with visual information or an explanation by an individual, most people would rather have a person explain the information than have to read it themselves.
On my latest flight, I took a colleague on a tour over the Chesapeake Bay. I like to do that, if someone asks. It’s a rare privilege for me, so I try to make it special. Departing the W32 traffic pattern requires precision flying because the DCA-BWI Class B floor begins at 1,500 feet, just above the W32 pattern altitude. I try to be all business until well clear of the airport environment.
My colleague had previous small plane experience, so as soon as the Piper Arrow was cleaned up, I immediately began my tour guide spiel, pointing out the local amusement park to the right, the large shopping mall to the left, the power plant in the distance…
“Arrow 3252, do you wish permission to enter Class Bravo?”
“Negative, Potomac. Why?”
“Because you’re currently in it.” I quickly checked my altimeter and descended.
“Uh, thanks, Potomac. Sorry. Wrong altimeter setting. What have you got there, sir?”
“Roger. I had mine set for 30.08. Correcting now.”
I could blame it on the rush to get airborne. But that would be self-delusion. What I really was correcting for was violating my own rule. I’d let the plane drift up because I hadn’t paid attention to landmarks indicating where the 1,500 foot Class B floor rose to 2,500 foot.
I know that the trusty Garmin 430 provides airspace alerts to warn me when I am encroaching upon restricted airspace laterally. I just assumed it would do the same for me vertically. I was so keen to play tour guide, I’d allowed myself to believe that my GPS would keep me safe.
Which reminds me, this ol’ dog’s gotta go file his own NASA report right now.