Saturday, December 7, 2013

Automation vs. Pilots (An Anecdote)

This past Wednesday, December 4, 2013, we were flying several flights to and from Chicago O'Hare airport.  The weather was wintry with low clouds, gusty winds and somewhat reduced visibility.  These are the days when pilots sit up straight and focus, like a driver does when driving in similar conditions.  Let's admit it, when the weather is beautiful we relax whether driving a car or flying an airplane; but not this day.

My First officer was the flying pilot on this leg into Chicago.  For reasons of proficiency and sharing the work we typically alternate the flying duties from flight to flight.  He is a good pilot, as pilots go these days.  That is, he is proficient at operating the airplane with the auto-pilot.  I do not know how well he operates without an auto-pilot because I have never seen him try.

As we were being vectored onto the runway 9L instrument approach the first officer armed the flight control system and watched as it captured the electronic course and aligned the airplane with the still invisible runway.  At this point, as he watched the aircraft making constant pitch and bank corrections to wind gust displacements, he uttered what I think is a telling comment concerning our modern pilot's reliance on automation, "Man, I hope it does a good job."

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