Aviators or button pushers?

I recently came across a fantastic presentation from an American Airlines pilot called Children of the Magenta Line, in which Captain Vandenburgh details some of the pitfalls of automation dependency. He decries the drain on cockpit situational awareness that a dependency on the magenta flight director or magenta line of the GPS can cause. The situation he describes is on a clear VMC day, cleared for the visual approach, and at the last second tower changes the runway. What do many pilots do? Immediately go heads down, changing the FMS to the new runaway out of some sense of obligation, or programming, when what they should do is "click-click," turn off the autopilot and maneuver to land on the new runway.

This challenged me in my own experience of teaching very inexperienced pilots how to fly a multi-crew business jet. For what we use the Beechjet for, training students to operate in a crew environment in preparation for life as a cargo, tanker, or special operations pilot, in low-level, air refueling, and austere conditions, it is a fantastic machine. They learn how to wrestle a heavy-on-the-controls large aircraft while dealing with dutch roll, swept wing characteristics, and jet speeds. They learn how to be an effective pilot flying and monitoring on a crew in instrument conditions to minimums and all weather conditions. They learn systems, TOLD, weather, airspace, and so much more in this airplane.

But it's the transition from mostly hand-flying in the first portion of training to incorporating the automation in the instrument training of the second phase of training that needs the most careful attention in my view. We give them nearly full reign of the autopilot and the GPS almost overnight. My greatest concern is that we are teaching them to be button pushers, not aviators.

This is happening all throughout the aviation world. As Captain Vandenburgh correctly opined, the automation that is available in the cockpit that is supposed to enhance our situational awareness often becomes a serious drain on it instead. Without a high level of understanding of the system, its menus, buttons, and sub-functions, what should be a simple two-button change to a flight plan can become a dangerous situation if it is performed under the most unfavorable of circumstances--poor weather or night time, hand-flying or with a systems degradation, and the like.

Even something as "basic" as a Garmin GNS430 can cause this dependency. Not too long ago the Instrument ACS changed to allow an LPV or LNAV/VNAV approach satisfy what once had been a mandatory ILS for the precision approach portion. That's right, one only needs basic GPS approach capability, and no additional ground-based navaids are required to be installed on the airplane. It is easy to see how this equipage can lead to pure dependency on "direct-enter" without the underlying fundamentals of intercepts, instrument procedures, or even basic VFR navigation.

As it is right now, Air Force students only get a sample of the stuff they might need in a real pinch in the real world, and it is stuff that I know they will not be practicing when they get out in the system. They do one ASR or PAR in the airplane. They do one NDB, only in the sim. They are permitted to use the autopilot just prior to capturing the final approach course, including holding and course reversals. Many times as I am instructing I feel like we're giving them the keys to the kingdom, but they are illegitimate heirs.

My question is: are we teaching aviators or button pushers? I acknowledge that I am a dinosaur and I still love the more esoteric things like a procedure turn on an NDB approach with the navaid on the airfield. With Captain Vandenburgh's challenge, however, I have started flying my little Beechjet with a lot less flight director, and I can sense the ways in which I have also been lulled into becoming a child of the magenta.

But this old-school flying is not the way of the future, and the new challenge to instructors in this increasingly automated world is that we must ensure our students become good pilots and automation managers simultaneously. This is no easy task. It is very likely that the student who loves the automation is not as strong a stick, and vice versa. We must avoid creating children of the magenta line.


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