How to infuriate a traditional Boeing pilot

Today I was replying to a message from a good friend in Maryland, and found that I’d written to him what I have wanted to put up here for a while.

He had picked up on something I wrote in FlightGlobal/Flight International a month or so ago about Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun’s thoughts on the kind of control interface that would be best for pilots flying Boeing’s next clean-sheet-of-paper aeroplane in tomorrow’s skies.

This is what I suggested to him:

“I don’t actually know what Boeing will do with the pilot’s “joystick” or yoke equivalent in its next-generation aircraft. My observation that you picked up on was based entirely on the musings of Boeing’s new boss Dave Calhoun when he suggested they might need to have to do a complete re-think of how to tomorrow’s pilots should interface with tomorrow’s aeroplanes.

The thing about the airline piloting job now is that it has drastically changed. Even aircraft originally designed in the 1960s, like the 737 series, in their latest versions put just as many computers between the pilots and the flying control surfaces as Airbus does with its FBW fleet. So any remaining efforts to fool the pilots into believing that the control feedback they feel is the real thing is just artifice. And like any part of the system, the artificial feedback can fail and thus mislead.

The only aeroplanes in which Bob-Hoover type stick-and-rudder skills were ever really needed is manually controlled aerobatic machines flown in perfect VMC during a display. Modern combat aircraft, built for aerodynamic instability so as to be manoeuvrable, have had FBW sidesticks for decades, and the pilot’s main task is to direct the mission and its defence, not to use finely-honed skills to keep it flying. The stick is just a device for pointing such an aircraft where you want it to go.

In an airliner you were never supposed to handle it as if you were Bob Hoover flying a display. Nowadays, if you have to fly it manually at all – and 99% of the time you are told not to – your job is ABSOLUTELY NOT to fly it by the seat of your pants, it’s to select the attitude/power combination you need to get you elegantly from where you are to where your passengers wish to go. I can tell you from experience, a spring-loaded sidestick is an easier device than a yoke for selecting an attitude, and as for selecting power, throttle levers do the same everywhere, back-driven or not.

So I’d guess Boeing probably will go down that track. Pilots who still need to be flattered by being presented with controls that look like the old fashioned ones but do not work like them are no longer in the right job!”

No pilot/aeroplane interface is perfect. But choosing the best one for the next Boeing is going to be an interesting job for Calhoun.

7 thoughts on “How to infuriate a traditional Boeing pilot

  1. Spot on! And no harm in infuriating a pilot:) Not gonna take a cheap shot at Boeing in these tough times, though.

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  2. That is brilliant! The harsh truth the whole harsh truth and nothing but the harsh truth…..
    If a pilot gets upset about this, there is probably a slightly high horse to come off and let reality sink in.

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  3. The important point is not the shape or the positioning of the lever for manual control of an airliner, but how natural if feels in failure situations. Remember, ALL the fancy electronics, gizmos and software on a modern machine are certified on the condition that, when they fail, the pilots can fly the aeroplane manually to a safe landing. If, in extremis, the handling characteristics are so far removed from those of a traditional aeroplane as to be unfamiliar to normal line pilots, they are not being given the tools they need.
    For more on this, read my book: ‘I Have Control’ published by The Crowood Press, ISBN 978 – 1 – 78500 – 397 – 4.

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    • I think you’re being unkind to “normal line pilots” in assuming they can’t learn anything different.

      Back in 1884, I was in the left hand seat of an Airbus A300B2 flying over south-west France just north of the Pyrennees. It was the test machine for Airbus’s new FBW control system and the LHS was fitted with a sidestick that fed to banks of computers in the cabin, and through them to the flight control actuators.

      In the RHS was Bernard Ziegler, chief pilot and engineer for Airbus. He gave me control, and said: “stall it”. It was in normal mode, so Alpha Floor was operative. I won’t bore you with the complete procedure, but basically I felt how the stall protection system kicked in, then I recovered to straight and level flight and a sensible IAS.

      By the time I had done that I had forgotten that the control I was using was a spring-loaded sidestick, because it worked in all the normal senses. The only thing I found strange was that the aircraft did the trimming for you when you settled it at the attitude you chose. But that wasn’t difficult to learn. And I never had any problems returning to the use of trim on conventional aeroplanes because that was what I’d originally learned.

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  4. Great discussion David, but I think the solution was identified a very long time ago.

    I asked B test pilots many years ago, if they were given a bunch of computers and a clean slate, if they would design an interface like Airbus, their answer was “yes”.

    I think one manufacturer has given too much attention over the past 30 years to the interests of laggard pilots/airlines who had no experience with FBW, at the expense of technology, change, disruption and progress. The “2nd world war” yokes and other time-locked designs in those aircraft that remain, are anachronisms, with their concomitant problems.

    I think the legacy (yoke) user interface for FBW is time expired. Even Apollo 8 (and onwards), the first digital FBW systems in the world, had stick interfaces in the late 1960s.

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  5. Richard – I didn’t think for a moment that I was introducing these ideas, which I espoused 35 years ago. This is just an epitaph to an appealingly romantic creed from another era.

    The resistance from the Boeing traditionalist pilots has been powerful and relentless for all that time, but with the HF and tech realities brought to light by the two Max fatal crashes, and the new Boeing CEO intimating that he knows things have to change, even the dyed-in-the-wool yokers are taking their blinkers off.

    My simple narrative states the rationale for the future Boeing’s Dave Calhoun is hinting at but hasn’t specified. It will happen.

    Two years ago the same words would have generated acres of responses and arguments. This time, listen to the silence.

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  6. Yes David, line pilots are good at learning new things, and I know of no one who experienced any difficulty moving from conventional Boeing controls to an Airbus side-stick or back again. But, under benign conditions, Airbus Normal Mode offers little new to learn. When the control system reverts to Direct mode, which it will do in some failure scenarios, things get more difficult. It would help if the aircraft handled consistently whatever the circumstances.
    The shape and position of the lever forming the physical interface — side-stick or conventional control column – is probably irrelevant (though it is interesting to note that airbus still shapes the flap lever like a flap, and the gear lever like a wheel). But to throw away tactile feedback of the force needed to move the controls, along with the visual clue of throttles moving with changes in power, does seem cavalier. That removes layers of information contributing to situational awareness, and airline fatal accident reports over the last 25 years suggest that situational awareness is a commodity of which some pilots are in sore need.

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