0
$\begingroup$

I passenger travel short haul flights to the carribean islands every month for business. I typically fly on an Embraer E190 or Airbus-320...I feel confident on the 190, I suppose I like the standard control wheel/yoke and from a craft size and technology level standpoint, it just feels like a manageable piece of equipment. But on the Airbus, I just can't warm up to the joystick control. It doesn't seem natural; which provokes my question.

Given that all pilots are simply human, how in the world is it possible to have a comprehensive knowledge of all of the sophisticated computers and electronics that are required to interface to fly a plane safely? It seems to me that in truth, pilots have just enough knowledge to operate these new planes and systems under normal conditions and the moment a malfunction occurs it becomes a race to a safe landing with only troubleshooting guides to help understand what is happening and try to offset it long enough to get the plane safely of the ground.

This is a broad stroke assumption, but it seems that the simplest of a breach can affect the operation of another and pilots are reduced to a guessing game to keep systems operating normally; which is not very comforting. Isn't it better just to get back to the basics and avoid these overly complex computers?

$\endgroup$

closed as primarily opinion-based by fooot, David Richerby, TomMcW, SMS von der Tann, Pondlife Nov 14 '18 at 0:42

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ In both cases (Embraer and Airbus), the flight surfaces are operated by hydraulics. Why do you think it matters what kind of stick the pilots move to tell the plane to activate the hydraulic pumps? $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Nov 13 '18 at 16:54
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ To add to @DavidRicherby, the E190 is also a "Fly-By-Wire" system and the flight controls are not directly connected to the control surfaces in either the A320 or the E190, so the actual controls in the cockpit don't make any difference, they are both computer controlled. See details on the E190 system (Page 17). $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Nov 13 '18 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ Commercial pilots also undergo recurrent training (every 6 months I think, or 12 months) and checkrides to be up to snuff on handling the plane, with all kinds of emergency situations thrown at them (in a simulator), so they need to know the planes systems pretty well to handle all that. There are infrequent things where the plane can be stabilized and a solution looked up to find a solution; the first step in any situation is gonna be fly the airplane tho. $\endgroup$ – CrossRoads Nov 13 '18 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ thanks for your comments David Richerby and Ron Beyer. But neither makes me feel any better. Still trying to understand how pilots can grasp anything more than a very basic understanding of how these computers interface and more importantly, how to determine the reaction of one system failure upon another. Seeing as how computers control rudder-stabilizer-elevators-pitch etc... It just doesn't feel like more is better... thats all. I could be way off - just sayin'. Why is it better for computers to control instead of a human? $\endgroup$ – Dominic V Nov 13 '18 at 17:35
  • $\begingroup$ Take a look at the document I linked to show how many redundancies are in the system. The important thing to remember is that as airplanes got bigger, direct (cable) controls became impractical. The amount of force on the control column is directly related to the amount of force required to move the aircraft. The A320 has been flying since 1988 (30 years) and not a single accident has been attributed to the fly-by-wire system (although one pilot did blame it, data indicates he was actually at fault). $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Nov 13 '18 at 18:24
0
$\begingroup$

how in the world is it possible to have a comprehensive knowledge of all of the sophisticated computers and electronics that are required to interface to fly a plane safely?

The same way you learn about any aircraft, you study the operational manuals and related documentation. In theory aircraft that use the airbus fly by wire system are safer as they offer protection against the pilot inadvertently putting the aircraft into a dangerous situation (high G, stall, etc.).

I think that there are some misconceptions in your question about the required training for flying something like an A320. Pilots are required to know how the aircraft will respond in all situations and the errors and messages the computer may throw at them. This is no different than understanding what a tumbling mechanical attitude indicator is doing or how to identify a bad analog instrument. Broadly speaking failures are failures and identifying them has more to do with situational awareness, understanding of your systems, and to some extent experience. Digital cockpits merely change the text and pictures in the books but still require the same basic fundamentals to identify a failure.

Some might also say that analog cockpits are more complicated than their digital counterparts. So much so that jets that once required a crew of 3 in the analog days can now be flown by two.


It seems to me that in truth, pilots have just enough knowledge to operate these new planes and systems under normal conditions and the moment a malfunction occurs it becomes a race to a safe landing with only troubleshooting guides to help understand what is happening and try to offset it long enough to get the plane safely of the ground.

Pilots do not have just enough knowledge and frankly that is short changing the vast amount of hours required to be in command of even an A320. Pilots train in full motion simulators for all kinds of emergencies so that when the time comes they only need a quick reference card to get the plane safely on the ground.


Digital aircraft are not necessarily kaput if one thing fails and systems are designed such that a failure does not cause down stream effects. Systems often can independently be shut off and pulled out of sequence in the event of a failure. On top of that there are lots of failure modes (even in the side stick planes) that allow for all kinds of direct control.


But how does this all tie into a plane being safer...

The FAA main advice in any emergency is to "fly the plane" most training stresses (and most accidents cite a lack of) "Situational Awareness" so if we can provide a cockpit that offers a pilot more information on how the plane is flying, where they are, and whats going on we can make it easier to fly the plane and maintain your situational awareness in any event (even if some systems are failing). That all trickles out, ultimately, to a safer plane.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ thank you for the explanation. So, what about "pitot tubes". Pilots who are trained in $10 million full motion flight simulators that, as you say, "lack situational awareness" and are unable to identify inaccurate speed readings caused by a one-inch tube responsible for relaying critical speed and associated info that effects how the computers tolerate auto pilot, in-turn causing the pilots to slow the plane into a stall over fear of tearing it apart at 38k ft in the sky. How does this make any sense at all? It doesn't. ITS CRAZY.. "In theory"... anyway $\endgroup$ – Dominic V Nov 14 '18 at 1:17
  • $\begingroup$ @DominicV Analog aircraft and digital aircraft are susceptible to pitot failures in the same way. you are clearly referencing Air France 447 which is discussed elsewhere here and makes perfect sense if you fully understand the incident. The digital cockpit was not the issue, intermittent functionality was, the same speed reading intermittent issue would have read out on an old steam gauge. If you have a technical question about 447 consider asking it here there is lots of analysis and data on that incident. $\endgroup$ – Dave Nov 14 '18 at 1:24

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.