Working out the bugs

Last night, our son sent us a text message from an airplane traveling between Chicago and Seattle. I got out my phone, touched an app, and brought up a real-time display of commercial airliners over South Dakota. I touched the icons one by one until I found the flight upon which he was traveling. I watched it cross the border of North Dakota after traveling across the northeast corner of South Dakota. I watched it cross the Missouri River, heading west towards his home and family. I thought to myself, “My dad would have loved this technology.”

There are parts of our technological revolution that are truly wonderful and I am both grateful for and dependent upon some pretty sophisticated technological innovations. The thought that I would be able to write and publish an essay every day never occurred to anyone when I was a student. Now I can display three or four articles on one screen and write my essay on another one all at the same time. I can watch a video made in New Zealand a few hours ago and one made in England a few minutes ago before I have my breakfast.

The technology is great when it works. It doesn’t always work.

Yesterday, we were using our best skills to keep members of our congregation informed as a blizzard waned in our town. We can update our phone messages remotely when everything works, but for some reason our voicemail system crashed yesterday and I had to go to the basement and reset the device in order for it to accept the update. The result was that some people got the wrong message when they called the church. It wasn’t a big deal, as we would have gone to the church anyway, but if the roads had been impassable, the messages would have been wrong until we could physically get to the church to reset the system.

Facebook and Instagram’s recent meltdown affected a whole lot more people. I didn’t notice, not paying much attention to either platform in the first place.

Technology upgrades in airplanes are incredible when it comes to navigation and situational awareness. Pilots fly with multiple GPS units that keep them aware of their location at all times - and some broadcast the information so a father can track his son’s flight as he crosses his home state. I am no longer an active pilot, but I have many pilot friends and I join in discussions of the Foreflight application. It can be run on a phone or an iPad and will display location, weather, traffic and other information. It assists pilots with planning and filing flight plans. It has all of the Jeppesen flight charts so that a pilot will never be caught with an outdated paper map. The system even has 3D views of airports. It must be a bit strange to look at the app and see the airport in the middle of the summer as you are looking out the winter at banks of snow on the ground.

Pilots become dependent upon the technology. I recently read of a pilot who was making the ocean crossing from the Bahamas to Florida in a single engine plane when his GPS system suddenly picked up a cell phone signal. The strong signal gave the device an opportunity to download and install an upgrade. The screen went blank as the system restarted. The pilot had a backup system, was trained in other modes of navigation and had good communication with air traffic control. It wasn’t dangerous to have the display go black for a few seconds, but it was unnerving. You’d think with all of the technology, the system would have a basic sensor that would tell it that it was being used in flight and stop the upgrade until the plane was safely on the ground.

I am no expert and I don’t know what is going on with the Boeing 737-max jets, but I suspect that the issue has something to do with the sophisticated systems that are present in the airplanes. They have autopilots that not only can fly and navigate the plane, but they also can detect and override pilot errors. If the pilot is inattentive and the angle of attack becomes too steep and a stall is threatened, they autopilot will react more quickly than a human pilot can. Modern airliners have redundant systems to allow the plane to be safely flown when a component fails. But there are a lot of components in these modern systems. Real, living pilots are still an essential component ini passenger aviation. Sometimes the automatic systems don’t work and real pilots have to fly the planes by hand. That usually isn’t a problem, but when the system thinks the pilot is making an error and the pilot thinks the system is making an error, specific procedures have to be followed in order to override the system. When the airplane is in critical flight moments, such as takeoff or landing, there isn’t much time to resolve the problem.

The solution may lie in advanced training for pilots. It should be possible to recreate the problem in a flight simulator and have the pilots practice overriding the system in a few seconds.

My father would tell the story of having to bail out of an airplane when the engine experienced catastrophic failure that resulted in damaging or destroying a control rod that ran close to the engine. He was ferrying a used P39 Aircobra to a salvage yard. He succeeded in bailing from the plane and his life was saved by a parachute. When he told the story, he emphasized how important it was that he had memorized the emergency procedures from the flight manual. He didn’t have to think about where the door latch was located or how to release his seatbelt as the airplane experienced extreme g-forces and began to break up in flight. He made me memorize emergency procedures and checklists as part of my flight training.

Yesterday, it took me two attempts to reset the phone answering system. My memorized technique didn’t work on the first try. I unplugged the wrong unit to reset. Flying an airplane wouldn’t grant the grace of a second opportunity.

Parking the planes while we figure all of this out makes sense to me.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!