The Max crux

Boeing, the FAA, and national aviation authorities (NAAs) from several other countries, met in Dallas on 23 May to consider the future of the 737 Max series of aircraft.

It is impossible to overstate how important this meeting is. The way civil aircraft manufacturing does business, not just in America, but all over the world, is under scrutiny.

Detail gradually emerging from Boeing and the FAA following the two 737 Max fatal crashes has upset such basic assumptions about the way modern aviation works that industry veterans – whose initial reaction was that this was just a case of finding a fix and getting the Max airborne again – are , only now, fully realising it’s not.

Like the Looney Tunes cartoon characters who ran over a cliff they didn’t know was there, we didn’t begin to fall until we looked down.

Let’s examine the proposal that all airliners nowadays are massively computerized, so adding some digital controls to the good old 737 to make it a Max is just bringing the 737 marque up to date.

After all, digital controls work on other types like Airbuses and Boeing’s own 777 and 787, and they are safe, so why not on the 737?

Back to basics.

All modern commercial airliners are supposed to be designed, in the first place, so they fly easily and intuitively, and have a natural aerodynamic stability within their flight envelope. That should hold true with or without computer control.

Designing an aircraft to be fly-by-wire, rather than conventionally controlled, can provide additional safeguards, but the airframe itself should still fly naturally.

Applying a digital solution to an airframe-related flight characteristic that is undesirable is a different matter entirely; but that is what Boeing chose to do when it installed the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) in the new Max.

The fact – revealed by the fatal accidents – that the MCAS could be triggered when it was not needed, and what consequences might follow its triggering, appears not to have been examined in any depth by Boeing or the FAA.

The fundamental questions for the FAA – and the foreign NAAs- are these: is the Max, as a simple airframe without digital corrections, sufficiently stable within its flight envelope to satisfy the regulators it is worthy of certification?

If not, is a digital fix sufficient to cover the undesirable flight characteristics lurking in a corner of its flight envelope? How reliable does the fix have to be to win approval?…and how can its reliability be proven?

For three decades the aviation world has agreed to operate a regime whereby the NAAs in countries where aircraft are manufactured all use the same standards when they certificate a new aircraft. So when the FAA certificated the 737 Max, the rest of the world accepted the FAA’s judgement and did not insist – as in the bad old days of the 1970s and before – on re-certificating it country by country.

What if, in this case, the FAA re-certificates the MCAS-modified Max, but foreign NAAs do not? The European Cockpit Association today has called on the European Union Aviation Safety Agency to scrutinize any FAA approvals, and EASA has pledged to do so. Is this “back to the bad old days”?

At the end of the Dallas meeting Boeing had this to say: “We appreciate the FAA’s leadership…in bringing global regulators together to share information and discuss the safe return to service of the 737 MAX….Once we have addressed the information requests from the FAA, we will be ready to schedule a certification test flight and submit final certification documentation.”

Industry speculation as to when the FAA will be ready to approve return to service varies massively, from a week to many months. These seers also seem to be preparing themselves for disagreement between the FAA and foreign NAAs.

This is the point at which you dare not look down.


Suddenly I see…

Today, air traffic control officers (ATCOs) on each side of the North Atlantic can see the aircraft they are controlling as they fly between Europe and North America.

It is almost impossible to convey the huge significance of this boring and apparently obvious piece of information, because most people don’t know that – yesterday – the same ATCOs couldn’t see the aircraft they were responsible for. They never had been able to see them, because the machines were outside radar range.

When flying between North American and Europe, until now aircraft of all kinds have always been invisible to air traffic control from the time they were about 350km off the coast on either side.

Under yesterday’s system, ATCOs knew approximately where each aircraft was because the pilots reported their position, their height and an estimate for the next reporting point every 15min or so. This worked safely because aircraft were painstakingly released into their pre-cleared, one-way oceanic tracks at specific heights, time intervals, and speeds, so they would maintain separation vertically and horizontally.

That system is a well-tried air traffic management (ATM) technique known as procedural control, and most of the world will continue to control air traffic procedurally over almost all oceanic and wilderness areas for some years yet.

In fact only 30% of the earth’s surface has radar coverage enabling aircraft surveillance for air traffic management (ATM) purposes.

But now, a new global constellation of 66 low-earth-orbit smart satellites – launched over the last decade by satcoms company Iridium Communications – each carries a device that links aircraft ADS-B datalink signals to ATM centres. Aircraft-mounted ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast) streams information about the aircraft’s position, height and much more. This enables ATCOs to track the aircraft in real time, with a radar-like update rate of 8 seconds.

Here’s the history (this announcement should really be preceded by a trumpet fanfare!): US-headquartered communications technology company Aireon yesterday announced that its space-based air traffic surveillance system was switched on, and active surveillance trials involving ANSPs (air navigation service providers) Nav Canada and UK NATS have begun on the busy North Atlantic routes that each manages from its respective oceanic base either side of the sea.

Aireon CEO Don Thoma was able to boast that “For the first time in history, we can surveil all ADS-B-equipped aircraft anywhere on Earth.”

Well, it’s true that they are set up to do so, but not all the world’s ANSPs are ready for it yet. Those who are ready include Nav Canada and NATS, but also the Irish Aviation Authority, Italy’s Enav, and Denmark’s Naviair.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is in the process of certificating the provision – by Aireon – of space-based surveillance over the whole continent. That will be another first: the provision of surveillance capability by an organisation that is not an ANSP nor the military.

Others will follow.

What the Max story says about safety oversight today

Yesterday the US Federal Aviation Administration joined most of the rest of the aviation world in grounding the Boeing 737 Max series of aircraft, the very latest version of the established 737 series. What took it so long?

Having entered service in May 2017, by early March this year the Max had suffered two fatal crashes within five months. This is extraordinary for a new commercial airliner today.

Evidence from the preliminary report on the earlier of the two accidents suggests a technical failure precipitated it. The first event, in October 2018, involved a nearly-new 737 Max 8 belonging to Indonesian carrier Lion Air. It crashed into the sea near Jakarta within about 10min of take-off. The second accident, on 10 March this year, involved an Ethiopian Airlines aircraft of the same type, and it plunged into the ground within six minutes of take-off from Addis Ababa. Pilots of both aircraft radioed that they were having trouble controlling the aircraft’s height, and this was evident on flight tracking systems.

The FAA issued its grounding order on 13 March. This was three days after the Ethiopian crash,  two days after China, Ethiopia and Singapore had banned Max operations, and a day later than the influential European Aviation Safety Agency – and many other states – had done the same.

Does this demonstrate that there are different safety standards – or safety philosophies – in different countries? Or does it suggest that the relationship – in this case – between the safety regulator and the manufacturer is too close?

On 12 March, resisting calls to ground the aircraft, the FAA said: “Thus far, our review shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft.”

The next day it stated: “The FAA is ordering the temporary grounding of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft operated by U.S. airlines or in U.S. territory. The agency made this decision as a result of the data gathering process and new evidence collected at the site [of the Ethiopian crash] and analyzed today. This evidence, together with newly refined satellite data available to FAA this morning, led to this decision.”

The safety principle behind aircraft design, for more than half a century, has been that all systems should “fail safe”. This means that any one critical system or piece of equipment, if it fails, will not directly cause an accident. This is achieved either by multiplexing critical systems so there is backup if one of them fails, or by ensuring that the failure does not render the aircraft unflyable.

The preliminary report from the Indonesian accident investigator NTSC suggests that a factor in the sequence of events leading to it was a faulty angle of attack (AoA) sensor. This device, says the report, sent false signals to a new stall protection system unique to the Max series of 737s, known as the manoeuvring control augmentation system (MCAS). According to the report, these signals wrongly indicated a very high AoA, and the MCAS triggered the horizontal stabiliser to trim the aircraft nose-down. Finally, the crew seems not to have known how to counteract this nose-down control demand.

The implication of the NTSC report – not the final verdict – is that the MCAS was not designed according to fail safe principles: a single unit failed, causing a software-controlled automatic system to motor the powerful horizontal stabiliser to pitch the aircraft nose-down, and it kept on doing this until the crew could not overcome the pitch-down force with elevator.

At that point disaster could still have been prevented if the crew had been familiar with the MCAS, or with the drill for a runaway stabiliser trim. But the MCAS would not have been expected to trigger at climb speeds during departure. The result was that in this case the crew failed to act as the final backup safety system.

In the months immediately following the Indonesian crash some pilot associations in the USA whose members operate the Max publicly claimed that there was a widespread ignorance among Max-qualified pilots of the very existence of the MCAS, and also many assumed that a runaway trim could be dealt with in exactly the same way as it was for all the earlier 737 marques. Actually the drill is quite different for the Max, as Boeing and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have pointed out. There is more detail on the MCAS in the preceding item in this blog – “This shouldn’t happen these days”.

Somehow, therefore, many 737 Max pilots in Boeing’s home territory had found themselves un-briefed on a system that was unique to the Max. They claimed lack of detail in the flight crew operations manual (FCOM), which described the system’s function but did not give it a name. US pilots who converted to the Max were all 737 type-rated and had flown the NG marque, but their conversion course to the Max consisted of computer-based learning, with no simulator time.

This ignorance among US pilots was soon corrected because the issue got plenty of intra-industry publicity, so if a US carrier pilot suffered an MCAS malfunction the crews would have known to apply the runaway trim checklist, and select the STAB TRIM switches to CUT OUT. Was this confidence about US crew knowledge the reason the FAA was able to maintain its sang-froid over grounding for longer than the rest?

On the other hand it is not a good principle to use a pilot as the back-up for a system that is not fail-safe.

In the 1990s there were several serious fatal accidents to 737s caused by what became known as “rudder hard-over”. This was a sudden, uncommanded move of the rudder to one extreme or the other, rendering the aircraft out of control, and unrecoverable if it happened at low altitude. The problem was ultimately solved by redesigning the rudder power control unit, for which there was no backup, thus no fail-safe.

If a Boeing product has a fault the responsibility is Boeing’s, but it is equally the FAA’s. The FAA is the safety overseer, and should satisfy itself that all critical systems are fail-safe and that the manufacturer has proven this through testing.

If America has an image it is that of the can-do, the entrepreneurial risk-taker. Why would Boeing or the FAA be different? One of the FAA’s stated values is this: “Innovation is our signature. We foster creativity and vision to provide solutions beyond today’s boundaries.”

The world has benefited from the USA’s risk-taking culture which has driven some aviation advances faster than they would have occurred in other more risk-averse cultures like that of Western Europe. An example of this is the massive extension of ETOPs (extended range twin engine operation) with the arrival on the market of the Boeing 777, which ultimately drove the four-engined Airbus A340 out of the market and influenced the early close-down of the A380 line. Boeing and the FAA took the risk together, and together they got away with it.

Is the 737 Max going to prove to be the one Boeing didn’t get away with? Time will tell.

But is certain Boeing will find a fix that will get the Max back in the sky. And although this episode, if it runs the course it seems likely to follow, will damage Boeing, the damage will be far from terminal. The company has an unbreakable brand name by virtue of being so good for so long, but trust will have suffered.

In the world at large, the art and science of safety oversight is changing dramatically. Technology is advancing so fast that the traditional system of close oversight by the regulator cannot work without stifling innovation, so “Performance-Based Regulation” (PBR) is the new watchword. Basically this means that the regulator prescribes what performance and reliability objectives a system or piece of equipment should meet, and the manufacturer has to prove to the regulator that it meets them. This is fine, providing that the regulator insists on the testing and the proof, and has the expertise and resources to carry out the oversight.

Although lack of oversight resources in the FAA seems unlikely, it would be a global disaster if it occurred. The same would be true of other national aviation agencies (NAA) in countries where aviation manufacturing takes place.

That risk of under-resourcing NAAs is a serious worry for the future, because all the signs are that most countries consider it a very low political priority, especially at a time of budget austerity.


This shouldn’t happen these days

In the last five years, statistics for fatal accidents to commercial passenger jets were so low they looked set to prove that a permanent zero fatal accident target was achievable.

Technology is accepted to be the main contributor to these remarkable safety performance improvements. The superb engineering and smart systems in the latest jets made them as different from their predecessors as today’s generation of automobiles is from cars of the 1970s.

But, on 29 October 2018, Lion Air flight JT610 crashed only about 12min after take-off from Jakarta, Indonesia. The aircraft was a Boeing 737 Max 8 that was delivered by the manufacturer to the airline less than three months before, one of 11 of this new marque in its fleet.

That was a shock, but when on 10 March this year another almost new 737 Max 8 also crashed within a few minutes of take-off from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia under circumstances that appear similar, a chill went through the entire aviation community.

Ethiopian Airlines has grounded its 737 Max fleet, Singapore has banned Max operations in its airspace, and the Chinese aviation authority CAAC has grounded all Maxes registered there – almost sixty of them. And on 12 March Australia, Ireland, France, Germany and the UK added themselves to the rapidly growing list of those who had banned operation of the type. Late on 12 March the biggest blow fell: European Union body the European Aviation Safety Agency has banned all 737 Max 8s and 9s from its skies except to fly, empty, to maintenance bases. The agency argued that it cannot be ruled out that the Ethiopian accident was caused by the same failure as that which appears to have caused the Lion Air crash. And, shortly before midnight, India had joined the doubters.

Now Latin America has begun a wave of groundings and, as a result, by the end of the Western European day on 12 March more than a third of all Maxes in service around the world had been affected by effective groundings. There has never been an event like this, where the original certificating authority has declared an aircraft airworthy but much of the rest of the world has decided it is not so confident.

Back to the accident issues. The two take-off airports couldn’t have been more different, one at sea level, the other at an elevation of more than 7,000ft, but in both cases it was daylight and the weather conditions were benign.

Both aircraft were seen to dive to impact.

The Indonesian investigator (NTSC) issued a preliminary factual report that doesn’t pretend to provide a verdict on the cause of the Lion Air crash, but suggests that a factor in the sequence of events leading to it was a faulty angle of attack (AoA) sensor. This device, says the report, sent false signals to a new stall protection system unique to the Max series of 737s, known as the manoeuvring control augmentation system (MCAS). According to the report, these signals wrongly indicated a very high AoA, and the MCAS triggered the horizontal stabiliser to trim the aircraft nose-down.  The crew seems not to have known how to counteract this nose-down control demand.

The NTSC did, however, provide fine detail about malfunctions on same airframe on the previous day (28 October), when almost exactly the same sequence of events occurred, including the signal from the faulty AoA sensor to the MCAS. But on that occasion the captain stopped the nose-down stabiliser trim rotation by selecting the STAB TRIM switches to CUT OUT, and then proceeded safely to the scheduled destination.

Some pilot associations in the USA whose members operate the Max have professed publicly that there was a widespread ignorance among Max-qualified pilots of the very existence of the MCAS, and also among them was an assumption that a runaway trim could be dealt with in exactly the same way as it was for all the earlier 737 marques. Actually the drill is different for the Max, as Boeing and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have pointed out.

The MCAS was developed for the Max because its more powerful engines are heavier and fitted further forward than those on earlier marques, affecting the aircraft’s centre of gravity and thus its behaviour at low speeds approaching the stall, so the manufacturer wanted to boost stall protection. It looks as if Boeing had either not foreseen the potential effect of a false high AoA indicator input to the MCAS, or it had failed to warn pilots clearly what that effect could be and how to react. The FAA also, it appears, had not anticipated this.

After the Lion Air crash the FAA put out an emergency airworthiness directive requiring operators of the Max to make clear to pilots the procedures for dealing with a runaway stabiliser trim. Boeing maintained that information was already available.

Pilots converting from earlier 737 marques to the Max are not required to undergo a new full type rating course or simulator sessions, because all 737s are deemed to have sufficient commonality to operate under the same type rating. Thus 737-rated pilots being prepared for the Max are required only to undergo a brief academic “differences course”. For example Southwest Airlines pilots had done their differences course entirely online, and American Airlines the same.

On 11 March, a day after the Ethiopian crash, the FAA revealed it has required Boeing to solve the software problem – and if applicable the hardware – that at present means that a false AoA input can trigger the MCAS stall protection when it is not needed, effectively causing a stabiliser pitch trim runaway. Meanwhile it has declared that the 737 Max series is airworthy.

But if it were to be found that there is a common cause of these two Max crashes – whatever that cause is determined to be – the implications for the manufacturer and the airlines are significant, given the massive size of the order book for 737 Max series aircraft.




The Shoreham verdict

Pilot Andy Hill, who flew the Hawker Hunter that crashed during the Shoreham air display in 2015 killing eleven people on the ground, has been judged not guilty of manslaughter by a jury.

My feelings on this are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but I am glad he was not convicted of the criminal offence of manslaughter by gross negligence.

I believe he was careless in his conduct of the display, having made a series of misjudgements leading up to the fatal manoeuvre, some of which must have been made consciously. His principle sin, shared by many pilots who have crashed during air displays, was to think he could push his luck just beyond the guidelines and get away with it. He has learned the the hard way that the guidelines are set where they are for good reason. Unfortunately his lesson was fatal for eleven other souls.

Any professional pilot knows that Andy Hill has probably died a thousand deaths since the accident, and he will live to die a thousand more.

Meanwhile the air display business in particular, and British aviation in general, have had cause to do some deep soul-searching. As a result of being put under the Air Accident Investigation Branch’s microscope, air displays will be different now, mostly by virtue of sticking to the rules that already existed instead of treating them just as guidance.

Some displays, like the Farnborough Air Show, with its airfield today surrounded closely by residential and industrial development, are already much more pedestrian than they used to be.

In the future, the most exciting air displays will be at rural aerodromes, or coastal displays where the action takes place over the sea and the audience watches from the beach front.

Has justice been done? Certainly change has already been the result of this intense scrutiny of the UK’s air show culture.

Europe is changing pilot training

A radical change in pilot training philosophy is being implemented in Europe over the next four years, overseen by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

A few airlines and approved training organisations (ATO) are ahead of the curve, but most are struggling to keep up.

The present systems for airline pilot training and recruitment have been under scrutiny for many years, and for good reason: they were designed for an earlier era.

Despite the scrutiny, however, nothing much has changed. But it is about to.

When airline accidents happen these days it is the result – more often than not – of a mistake or misjudgement by a person. Often by the pilot. But airline pilots are the product of the system that trained them and the airline that conducted an assessment before hiring them.

The fact that a new pilot has passed the existing exams and flying tests to win a commercial pilot licence (CPL) means he or she can be legally hired by an airline, but it does not mean he or she is a good pilot. It just demonstrates that a minimum legal standard was achieve on the days the tests were taken.

EASA puts figures on the relationship between pilots and accidents: “An analysis of fatal aircraft accidents worldwide for the period 2010–2011 shows that in more than 50% of these accidents the actions of the flight crew were the primary causal factor. This analysis shows that flight crew handling skills were a factor in 14% of the accidents, whereas flight crew non-technical skills were a factor in more than twice as many (32%).” Non-technical skills, basically, are knowledge, understanding and problem-solving.

Since 2011 the fatal accident rate has slightly decreased, but human factors causality in the accidents that occurred is as strong as it was in the earlier EASA study results.

During training for the commercial pilot licence and instrument rating (CPL/IR), some pilots pass the theory exam with the minimum score in the multiple-choice exam questions, and marginally pass the flying test – perhaps on the third attempt – but at a time of pilot shortages the temptation to hire anyone with a licence will inevitably increase.

Everyone in the industry knows this, but solving the problem will entail a cash investment in additional training. Few people – whether self-financing cadets or sponsoring airlines – are prepared to pay. It is easy to argue that accident rates are low, the attrition rates are therefore acceptable, and accidents happen to other people, so there is a temptation to do nothing.

In Europe the option to do nothing is evaporating. In January this year EASA triggered its plan for phasing in a total change in pilot training philosophy over four years, and by 31 January 2022 “at the latest” all airline training departments and ATOs in EASA countries must have implemented the changes. By that date, successful pilots will be graduating with their theoretical knowledge tested against a completely updated question bank.

The training philosophy changes entail moving away from “silo learning and testing” toward competency-based training, and from rote learning toward scenario-based teaching that confers understanding, not just factual knowledge. A new EASA concentration on “Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes” (KSA) embodies this philosophy change, the reference to “Attitude” indicating the need to select students for their approach to the learning process, which may speak volumes about their personal suitability for the job.

EASA observes: “Current teaching and learning tools are not sufficiently developed to encourage future pilots to use analytic and synthetic thinking or to challenge student pilots to enhance their decision-making skills, their problem-solving ability, and their level of understanding of assimilated knowledge.”

These are massive attitudinal changes. The preparation for them has been set up at ICAO level, but the practical changes EASA is overseeing have been driven, above all, by changes that have their origin in Ryanair’s training department. That airline’s head of training, Capt Andy O’Shea, also chairs EASA’s Aircrew Training Policy Group (ATPG), which has been working with the agency, the airlines and the training industry for several years now, and it has driven the changes now in the pipeline.

Now the largest European carrier by most measures, and still growing rapidly, Ryanair has a voracious appetite for new pilots, and became aware some years ago that there were problems obtaining the high quality crew they insisted upon. O’Shea revealed publicly that more than 50% of pilots who applied for Ryanair jobs were simply not good enough, whether ab-initio trained or even with airline experience. EasyJet has since confirmed it has had a similar recruiting experience.

A few years ago, despite this failure rate, Ryanair could still find enough good pilots among the applicants to meet its needs, but this is no longer true. It couldn’t wait for EASA and the industry to come up with solutions, so it set up its own in-house enhanced training schemes at entry for newly licensed pilots, simply because the raw CPL/IR product was not good enough, and even many of those who had added a standard multi-crew cooperation and jet orientation course (MCC/JOC) to their CPL/IR were not proving ready for a Ryanair Boeing 737 type rating course.

The result of Ryanair’s experience has been the evolution of a course – approved at EASA via the ATPG – called the Airline Pilot Standard MCC. O’Shea describes it as an enhanced MCC/JOC which takes in the KSA philosophy, and consolidates knowledge, skills and understanding through scenario-based learning. It adds about 20h to the training pilots get but, says O’Shea, a successful APS graduate is more or less guaranteed to pass the 737 type rating, and become a quality line pilot.

In the last few days Ryanair has gone further, and set up a mentored cadetship programme, working with Cork, Ireland-based Atlantic Fight Training Academy, which will produce 450 Ryanair-ready copilots over the next five years.

AFTA training fleet on its pan at Cork International Airport

O’Shea says Ryanair will be announcing more such alliances with European ATOs soon, driven by the need for large numbers of new flight-deck-ready pilots.

Meanwhile back on the line, Ryanair the employer is having to change too. It is evolving from the rabidly anti-union carrier it has traditionally been, into a company that recognises retention is as important as recruitment. Pilot and cabin crew union recognition is gradually being set up. This is not taking place without some hitches, but it looks as if they will get there in the end.




AI and future combat air systems

The year is 2035, and an RAF fastjet pilot walks across the pan to her Tempest aircraft.

Externally it looks quite like today’s latest stealth combat aircraft, but internally it isn’t. It can be operated pilotlessly from the ground and has massive autonomous operating capability.

So why is the pilot walking out to it?

Anyway, she climbs the ladder to the cockpit, the patient groundcrew perched there ready to help her strap in. But what she steps into is a featureless hole with an ejection seat in it. The seat has the usual  harness, a pair of tube connections for oxygen and the G-suit, and cable jacks to connect to her helmet systems.  The only sign of anything to interact with are two physical input devices, one for each hand, with just a few mode-selector buttons and a scrolling ball on them. There are no instrument displays, avionics or switches.

When she connects her helmet to the aircraft, a virtual cockpit suddenly surrounds her, projected on her visor so its components – and the outside world – are delivered in collimated visual form (infinity-focused) wherever she looks .

The mission, from brakes off to chocks-in is conducted by gesture-control in a synthetic visual world, with 360deg directional sound and vision in all three planes, so she can “hear” approaching threat cues as well as see them in the holographic world within her helmet. Directional sound cues enhance her awareness of battlespace threats – colour-coded on the visual display as friendly, hostile or unknown. The canopy above her head is glass, but the need for eyeball contact with the real airspace environment and its occupants is debatable.

The computing power available to the pilot is formidable. With advanced artificial intelligence (AI) capacity provided by chips that imitate the human brain’s neural processes, the aircraft has the ability to take decisions autonomously on behalf of its commander – like setting electronic warfare modes, zapping inbound missiles, adjusting mission priorities, selecting targets, arming appropriate weapons, firing them, and controlling the aircraft trajectory.

Flight trajectory guidance no longer relies on GPS – it’s too easy to jam or corrupt – so it’s directed by quantum sensors, the precision successor to inertial navigation systems.

Back to the original question: what’s the pilot doing there in this deadly environment?

“Team Tempest” is an experimental programme designed to find out the answers to questions like that, to push technology to its limits and above all to innovate, on the basis that innovation is the most effective way to keep military capability ahead of the enemy.

Team Tempest is led by BAE Systems in partnership with MBDA (weapons systems), Rolls-Royce (propulsion) and Leonardo (sensor systems), backed by the UK Ministry of Defence. It was unveiled on the first day of the Farnborough Air Show last week at BAE’s showroom there, creating considerable industry interest and signaling that BAE intends to be a major player in future combat air systems (FCAS), albeit with partners – almost certainly European ones.

The projected aircraft would have a stealthy design augmented by electronic warfare capability intended to keep it invisible in its airspace while able to track, identify and target traffic, operating as part of a battle group that has surveillance capability.

This provides a formidable task for the human at the centre of it, even aided by AI.

The fact that AI is able to control a formidable weapons system is arguably the reason for needing to put a pilot in the decision-making and control loop. The science-fiction nightmare of intelligent robotic systems taking over powerful weaponry means that limits have to be set as to what AI-managed systems are capable of doing. Presumably the pilot could elect to remove the limits. Warfare is not just technology.

Prof Nick Colosimo, in charge of “disruptive technologies” at BAE Systems, qualifies the use of AI in future combat air systems, saying it will be “trusted, scalable, human-in-loop”. His approach has a tentative, experimental feel to it.

Meanwhile, if the RAF is going to put its pilots in charge of the Tempest in 2035, whether in the aircraft or remotely controlling the system from the ground, what training will they need, and what tools will enable them to stay in full cognitive control of the aircraft’s mission while allowing AI to direct it? Can the human brain keep up with the AI?

Team Tempest’s task is to provide answers to those questions to enable significant system upgrades for the Typhoon and Lightning through their service life, and eventually replace them with the next generation of combat air systems.

Keeping humans in effective control is the parallel task.