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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Pilot or Systems Engineer?

By Lee Benson

The Pilot’s Bill of Rights Act, authored by Rep. Samuel Graves (R-Mo.) with a concurring bill offered by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), has passed both the House and Senate and is awaiting President Obama’s signature. Now as long as the politicos that advise the president don’t identify 10 stray cats as a constituency that will support him if he vetoes the bill, it should be signed shortly. If that sounded political, opinionated and frustrated, you are quite perceptive. The support of the Helicopter Association International for this bill had drawn my attention and I supported its passage in the May issue of Rotor & Wing (see “System Mindset,” page 50).

In an attempt to remain relevant to our foreign readers—seems fair, you pay for your subscriptions too—I would suggest a read of U.S. House Bill 3816 to my pilot peers in other countries. It’s not a law that requires new funding or people to manage it. The bill only requires transparency and efficiency from the U.S. FAA, translating into greater fairness for the regulated from the regulators. In today’s world, that seems like a very good thing.

I sometimes reflect on what it was like to fly helicopters in the 1970s: my fellow Vietnam veterans and I were leaving the U.S. military in droves, jobs where hard to find, but the persistent among us succeeded in the effort. The norm in the helicopter business was long, hard hours and poor pay. But man did we have fun, what an adventure—you never knew what tomorrow would bring. From 1974 until 1981, I averaged 900 helicopter flight hours per year. One day I was landing on a destroyer, 100 miles offshore, supporting a weapon system test for the Navy, and two days later I was in Utah landing on a 10,000-foot mountain. No, we didn’t have all the safety programs and rules and regulations that we have today. At that time you had a chief pilot, whose word was law. The chief pilots I worked for were excellent pilots and if you had a question, you knew you could ask without fear of recrimination. Furthermore, bad decision-making on your part was a quick trip to the unemployment line. The number of helicopter operators was small and they all knew each other, your history as a pilot was a phone call away. Today we have safety programs as far as the eye can see. Modern hiring and termination laws make the process much harder to base on the fact that a pilot is good, or not so. The documentation required to fire someone is exhaustive.

I wonder how many accidents would have been avoided by three words, “YOU ARE FIRED.” How many chief pilots have said post-accident: “I was building a folder of documents to take to the human resources department but this happened before I could act.” I know I have heard those words.

The other thing we have today is technology, in the cockpit and on the aircraft that we could only see on Star Trek in 1970. Acronyms that go on for days—GPS, GPWS, TCAS, EFIS, the list goes on. Systems like next power parameter exceedance gauges, four-axis autopilots, fly by wire . . . you get the drift. My thought is which system produced the better pilots? The safety and technical systems today are far superior to what was available in the past.

My question is: Has all this modernization created a environment where pilots can become an accomplished pilot or does it lead to a good systems engineer?

I know you’re wondering where all this came from, “even Lee is not that deep into the old man and the sea thing.” I guess it started at HAI with an engineer that was trying to convince me that touchscreens are the next big thing in helicopter controls. I endeavored to express the frustrations of the touchscreen on my Android cell phone and the shortfalls that this technology would present in a helicopter and how inappropriate it is to think about hitting a helicopter with a hammer. Then I thought, doesn’t he get the fact that the controls in a helicopter need to be positive in action and the best controls should let you feel their position without diverting the pilot’s attention to look down and see the status? Then I realized I was talking to a systems engineer. I’m going to go study my old Hiller 12E flight manual now.

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