The Fitzgerald and the Dangers of Technology

When I first started flying in the early 1980’s, the aircraft instruments were nothing more than dials with needles. They were analogs. My first flight computer was a sliding metallic strip with scales mounted on a circular plastic piece that rotated left and right. On its plastic face, I used a pencil to mark headings and rotated it to adjust for windage. It also served as a true and ground speed calculator as well as for temperature adjustments. My navigation computer, an Air Force Type MB-2A, was nothing more than a plastic circular disk with two additional rotating disks on each side with two additional plastic selectors, each marked with units for different scales. Depending on how the scales were used, I could determine things like MACH speeds, true airspeed, wind drifts and time and distance calculations. The computers were nothing more than slide rules for calculating the different components needed to get from point A to point B and how much fuel was needed.

All the flight planning was completed on paper. As I progressed from single engine to multi-engine, the calculations for each flight increased but the computers remained the same. Even the more sophisticated jets I flew had analog dials and I planned each flight on paper using the plastic doodads to complete a safe flight. To keep aircraft flying, even in bad weather, pilots started using dials in their cockpits to fly the “needle” unto a safe landing, in even the worst weather conditions. This was called ILS approaches, or a landing instrument system.

An ILS approach, when I was actively flying, entailed threading the needle. I would literally follow two needles on a dial, one telling me the direction and the other the glide scope I needed to keep until I was low enough to safely land on the runway, even in heavy cloud cover or rain. High performance aircraft, or jets, are especially difficult in that the pilot must “thread” the needles faster because of the high speed that must be maintained to keep the aircraft flying.

I regularly joke that my iPhone is more sophisticated then the most sophisticated aircraft I have ever flew. And, I have flown some cool aircraft.

Over time, I started to see some new tools that pilots were using for flight management. I had the opportunity to see a Boeing 737-800 landing heads up display (HUD) in use recently. Although the needles were still followed for an IFR (instrument flight rules) approach, everything was superimposed in front of the pilot and the pilot just had to keep two electronic circles centered in front of him. I was impressed and jealous.

The scariest moments in my flying career were cloud cover all that way down to minimums in a single-seat aircraft. My eyes focused on needles that I had to trust to get me down right to the runway threshold so that I could complete the landing at high speed. Looking out the window was a luxury and dangerous. Landing at between 155 and 170 miles per hour, meant that there wasn’t much time to look out the window to see that the runway was really in front of you before touch down. I had to implicitly trust the needles to get me where I needed to be: not too high, not too low and, for sure, at the right place.

Each new car I purchase has new electronic doodads that are impressive. GPS and anti-collision warnings and even automatic breaking seems to make the driving experience safer.

Or does it?

I have noticed that the more gadgets that are incorporated into cars, the lazier I get with my driving and the more distracted I become. The lane change warning has become too distracting as it seems to signal warnings, that under the conditions I am driving, are not dangerous at all. I tend to drive more aggressive than most drivers. The lane warnings started to make me second-guess my lane change decision and I soon realized that they made my driving more dangerous, instead of safer.

At the same time, I started to notice more stories of airliners landing on the wrong runways or even landing at the wrong airports. I kept asking myself, how is that even possible. I soon realized that pilots were becoming too dependent on the technology making all the decisions for them.

I believe that when you take the paper and the slide rules out of the equations and letting pilots type in destinations and weights into computers to create the flight profile is when incidents of landing on the wrong airports start to increase. As a matter of fact, I could not comprehend how a pilot, especially an airline pilot, could land on the wrong runway, much less the wrong airport. It is incomprehensible for me that after all the manual calculations and reviews of airport approach plates and navigation waypoints, that the aircraft would somehow end up at the wrong airport.

That is until I realized that computers were doing all the calculations and in many instances flying the airplane. All it took was entering the wrong call sign for the target airport.

As many of you know, the USS Fitzgerald was hit by the cargo ship ACX Crystal about a week ago. My first thought upon reading about the incident, is how is that even possible. How could a U.S. warship not see a huge cargo ship heading its way? Even at night or in bad weather.

I am not a sailor but I have seen enough war movies to get a rudimentary understanding of how a war ship operates. There is always a watch, one or more individuals scanning for dangers on the horizon. I assume this is true. I am also aware that the Fitzgerald is a missile destroyer which means to me that in addition to the normal shipboard radars, there must be more sophisticated radar systems for the missiles and for threat assessments.

Apparently, I am not the only one asking the same question about how this could have happened. As I am not a sailor I am not going to opine about who had the right of way or if there is a procedure for handling sea encounters such as this. What I am going to point out is that a war ship operating at sea is always a target. In addition, as it appears to be traditional for U.S. warships to keep their transponders off for secrecy purposes, I assume the responsibility for scanning against other ships in proximity lies on the ship that is not transmitting its position publicly.

As pilots, it is always our responsibility to avoid other traffic even if ATC has given us the all clear.

It is understandable that a single pilot could make a mistake and not respond to a dangerous situation. Even two pilots making a mistake is common. But a warship with hundreds of crew members and centuries-old processes? It doesn’t make sense until you factor technology into the equation.

There are already indications that technology played a role in the incident. The ACX Crystal has been rumored to be operating on automatic pilot.

It is still too soon to know what happened, but I believe that in the end, the inquiries will show that the various systems in place broke down because of too much dependence on automated systems and electronic warning systems. The reports may not be worded that way, (too much CYA) but I strongly believe that the incident happened because everyone involved assumed the computers would make it impossible for two ships to end up at the same place and at the same time on the same patch of ocean.

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