I’m frequently amazed at the connections that come as a result of having a simple conversation with someone.
While walking around chatting up fellow exhibitors at the recent Northwest Aviation Conference in Puyallup, Washington, I had the pleasure of meeting Shawn Christman. He was dutifully standing in his display at JetProp Partnerships.
In short, he owns a beautiful JetProp DLX and is looking for partners. But as we chatted, the conversation meandered among his back story, his career, our mutual flying experiences, and things we find interesting.
Among that wandering conversation, he told me about the podcast “99% Invisible” in general and the “Children of the Magenta” episode specifically. Shawn’s an architect, so his following a podcast that focuses on design makes sense. Being a pilot/owner of a rather sophisticated airplane, he found the topic of cockpit automation interesting and suggested I give it a listen. I pulled out my reporter’s notebook and jotted it down for later reference.
As often happens at aviation events, someone walked up to Shawn’s display and our conversation ended.
In the business of life, the priority of listening to the podcast drifted down the list.
But then on March 10, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed, killing all on board. Frequent readers of General Aviation News know that we don’t report on the happenings of the airline industry. But this fatal accident, and the eerily similar Lion Air accident just a few months prior, as well as all the follow-on discussion of automation, system management, flight training, and certification reminded me of my conversation with Shawn just a few weeks earlier.
So I fired up the Podcasts app on my phone and searched for “Children of the Magenta.” Quickly found, I downloaded it to my phone, popped in my earbuds, and set off on a walk.
Children of the Magenta was originally recorded in 2015 and discusses the fatal May 31, 2009, Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.
As I walked along, I heard “For however much automation has helped the airline passenger by increasing safety, it has had some negative consequences,” said interviewee and author William Langewiesche. “In this case it’s quite clear that these pilots had had experience stripped away from them for years.”
And the very next sentence is truly damning: “The captain of the Air France flight had logged 346 hours of flying over the past six months. But within those six months, there were only about four hours in which he was actually in control of an airplane — just the takeoffs and landings. The rest of the time, autopilot was flying the plane. Langewiesche believes this lack of experience left the pilots unprepared to do their jobs.”
A friend of mine is an instructor pilot at a leading U.S.-based cargo carrier and he told me he instructs his students that, “when time and conditions permit, manually control the airplane as much as you can.” He continues by saying, “if we don’t exercise our skill set, we lose it.”
But as our conversation continued I mentioned the idea that a pilot skill set must also include automation management. When any of us press any button in the cockpit, we must know what the airplane is going to do in response. My friend agreed without hesitation. “Ah, the double-edged sword of progress.”
Automation in the airline and business aviation sectors of the industry have played a huge part in the incredible levels of safety and utility. For those of us who don’t fly professionally, the lure of automation to increase utility requires no less proficiency than our professional pilot siblings.
This meandering line of thought was triggered by a random conversation with a guy I just met at an event in Puyallup. I hope you’ll continue to explore conversations with strangers. You’ll likely not regret it.
And if you happen to be in the greater Seattle area and are in the market for a shared ownership in a JetProp DLX, I know a guy.