Broken Glass

The industry welcomed glass cockpit airplanes. This new generation of aircraft replaced the archaic "buttons and knobs" with (now liquid crystal) screens, incorporating all previous devices.

In current airplanes, altimeters, airspeed and navigation indicators are relegated to tiny corners of our cockpits, far away from the main parts of the instrument panel, to be used in emergency cases only. The new planes provide us with the required tools to quickly get all necessary flight information and their electronic controls turn our requests into soft manoeuvres, making the travel much more comfortable for passengers.

Nevertheless, there are some "black holes" which should be considered in the design of the future aircrafts. The new glass cockpits are designed by engineers, not by pilots, and provide the latter with a huge amount of information, without necessarily making it easier for pilots to get the essential parameters in case of primary system breakdowns.

Crew training and refresher programs, shorter and shorter because of business profits, are now mainly aimed at abnormalities in this kind of aircraft, rather than to monitor crucial elements for Flight Safety. The focus is on the solution of machine problems rather than solving the difficulties related to the task, i.e. flying.

Some accidents prove that the current airplanes disdain something as basic as the ease to check our position. As it was shown in the accident in Cali, we rely completely on the machine and forget air navigation basics, such as check positions, corridors and minimum altitudes?

That B-757 flew to the place wrongly introduced by the crew, who was not able to realise their error partially because they were acting as machine operators rather than aviators. The glass cockpit airplane crew creates a virtual and beautiful world in which the machine provides a huge range of options, but the machine is incapable of judging the right option.

The problem is that the world outside is not virtual, but real, with its mountains and things that can change those beautiful screens into insignificant broken glass. Traditional procedures have not been simplified by these developments. Some-thing that was as natural as a VORDME Approach has now become a complex series of actions making it more difficult to operate the aircraft particularly under uncertain weather conditions, as it happened in Zurich in 2001. Another broken glass.

Policies which privilege design over pilot senses can prevent the pilot from swift reactions, because of the delay between the visual perceptions and the body sensations. I am talking about Toronto 2005, where an Air France A-340 crashed, due to windshear that the pilot could not "feel" before it was too late. Broken glass.

The innovative plane structures can get deformed or break up if the pilot exceeds the limits for which they were designed. Broken glass in Queens, 2001, when an A-300 falls into an inhabited area, after its tail split. The cause was the pilot's persistent manoeuvres in reaction to turbulence. I am sure that the engineer that designed this structure never asked a pilot what manoeuvres could be necessary to re-establish normal flight conditions in a plane that had entered a high turbulence area.

Let's hope that future planes will be continue to be the same beautiful machines that simplified our operation in normal situations. But it is not too much to ask that those who use them will have a say in their future design, in order to improve their interaction with us, to simplify things when they get hazardous and to provide us with the necessary information to check if we use it properly. The only aim is to have less broken glass.

Capt. Oscar Molina, SEPLA Member