A ride on an A320

From:         stadler@apple.com (Andy Stadler)
Date:         09 Jun 93 01:29:30 PDT
Organization: Apple Computer Inc, Cupertino, CA
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Last week, I managed to sneak out of work for a week, and while no one was
looking, I went down the airport and grabbed a flight to Puerta Vallarta.

It's been a long time since I flew a non-US carrier, so I was looking forward
to finally seeing a cockpit while in-flight.  Imagine my surprise when I walked
up to the gate and discovered that I was about to board a shiny new Mexicana
A320.  After dropping my bags in my seat, I made my usual trip forward to
say hi and sneak a peak.  I chatted with the pilots for about 5 minutes or
so, and made appropriate ooh and aah noises at the panel.  I then asked if
it would be possible to visit again while we were in flight, and they said 

About an hour into our 3 hour flight, the copilot *came back* into the cabin,
found me, and said "hey, if you'd like to come up, any time.  By the way, if
you'd like, you can stay for the landing."  As you can imagine, my jaw hit
the floor....  I finished my lunch, took another nap (this was the start of
vacation after all), grabbed my camera, and headed forward.  At this point,
we were about 45 minutes away from landing.

The captain reached over and pulled out the jump seat and motioned for me to
sit down.  This was too much.  I had already identified myself as a pilot, so
they quickly set about showing off their new toy.  I got to see lots of
instrument display modes, play with the weather radar (tilted down you can
really see landforms easily), check out electronic approach plates for every
possible landing, view all sorts of system information screens, and so on,
and so on....

I asked many questions, and the copilot did most of the answering.  I tried
to elicit as much information as possible, without going on the attack.  I
got demos of the glideslope/descent rate controller (the infamous decimal
point), the autothrottles, the sidesticks, the nav computers, everything.
After a while, I think it became obvious to the copilot that I knew something
about the 320, because he finally turned around and said "look, I know what
you're thinking, but let me tell you something.  I love this airplane.  It's
the best airplane I've flown.  I wouldn't trade it for anything."  I have to
say, it sounded sincere - not just the company line.

At this time, we were already beginning our descent into Puerta Vallarta, so
I made an effort to be quiet and just enjoy the show.  Sterile cockpit was
not a rule I guess, because the crew continued to point things out, explain
operations, and so forth.  We essentially made a visual approach into the
area, on a long right base entry.  This was the charted approach, but we flew
it completely visually.  Descent control was handled completely by dialing
altitudes, descent rates, and airspeeds into the autopilot.  We turned in
behind an Alaska MD-80 and followed him into the airport.

Unfortunately, the spacing was a bit tight, and the Alaska jet took WAY too
long on the rollout, so at about 2000 AGL the captain zero'd the rate of 
descent and began a visual go-around!  This was incredible - we were at
about 2000, completely dirty, and essentially made a huge racetrack hold to
allow the Alaska jet time to get out of the way.  On the downwind, I noticed
just how high our angle of attack was, and I looked back over my shoulder,
through the open cockpit door, DOWN into the cabin.  I felt a little bad
for the passengers, but I have to admit I was loving it....

On the second pass, everything was OK for the landing, so we continued
inbound.  I was having a tough time deciding how much to spend through the
viewfinder (I have a great sequence of landing shots) and how much to enjoy
through my own eyeballs.  At 100 feet (maybe 200, can't remember) the GPWS
starting calling altitudes, in a loud male voice - "One Hundred"..."Seventy
Five"..."Fifty"..."Thirty Five"..."Thirty Five"..."Thirty Five"...  I 
couldn't figure out why it stuck at 35 until I started to feel side loading
and I realized we were mains down, but nose in the air.  The announcement
must have self-deactivated when the squat switch compressed, because we 
lowered the nose in silence and stopped fairly rapidly.

We turned off, and taxied to the terminal, and the pilots spent most of the
time just chatting with me about the flight and the landing.  I was surprised
(as I had been all along) at how *little* they had to do.  After we found our
spot and shut down, I thanked them profusely, and made my way back into the
cabin, where I had to fight the crowd to get back to my seat....

While in P.V., I of course made all of my friends hear my story over and over
again.  The return flight was also on an A320, but some other lucky fellow got
to the jump seat.  I did ride through most of the SFO profile descent (in IMC,
by the way) standing in the doorway, but when we went through 10,000 feet, I
went ahead and walked back to my seat.

Observations?  Obviously, I walked in with a ton of preconceptions about the
A320 program and aircraft.  I must say that I came away with much more mixed
feelings than I went into it with.

On the down side, issues like the additive side sticks, the confusing descent
controller (which I got a demo of, and it really IS hard to tell its mode),
the non-moving throttles, and the nature of software and software development
still bother me.

On the plus side, however, what I saw was automation used to really make 
flying simpler.  I got a demo of the FMS interface, and it certainly is a
big keyboard....  But they didn't really use it that much in the air.  I
was expecting to see "the fastest typists in the sky".  What I saw, however,
was an airplane that took care of the crap, and two pilots with their heads
on swivels, like they needed to be!  On both flights, one -very- VFR and one
in basic IFR, what I saw were pilots with extremely good situational 
awareness and a minimum of time spent on operational details.  At no time
did I feel like the pilots were along for the ride.

Based on this experience, I would guess that highly automated airplanes with
standard control laws (like the 747-400 or the 777) will be very successful.

One thing I found was that although the displays were extremely sophisticated,
they were really quite user friendly.  I measure this in two ways.

First, although there were many, many screens of data available, the displays
did an great job of automatically sequencing them to the correct positions.
Two examples:  During the flight, a cabin attendant came up and asked them
to adjust the temperature.  The captian reached up and twisted the "mid cabin
temp" knob, and the multi-mode data screen (the lower of the two center 
screens) instantly switched to a cabin airflow diagram, registered the change,
and after then knob had been released, a few seconds later returned to its 
original display.  Later, as we came in for the landing, the data screen
automatically switched to a brake temperature display.  So, although many
options were available, the "correct" option seemed to always come up when
you needed it.

Second, the displays were clear and extremely readable.  I don't have any
experience flying behind EFIS systems, but at all times, I was able to glance
at the screens and quickly determine exactly what information they were
providing.  The same was true of the non-CRT displays such as the autopilot
controls and the radios.  

One thing I found interesting:  In this world of spring loaded sidesticks
and non-moving throttles, the pitch trim wheel was constantly moving back
and forth.  An interesting piece of mechanical works in the otherwise digital

I found the autopilot and its capabilities to be quite interesting.  There was
essentially a sequence of four numeric displays across the glareshield.  The
four displays were speed, heading, altitude, and vertical speed.  Below
each display was a knob.  You could turn each knob to adjust the setting of
the display, or you could (pull, push, not sure) it to say "don't care".
There were also a set of buttons for special modes, such as "loc" (to change
the heading mode to track a localizer), "exped" to command greater rates of
altitude change, and "appr" which somehow modified the rate of descent (I 
suspect it commanded glideslope tracking).  I found the interface to be 
clear and non-confusing.  The autopilot knew how to resolve any combinations
of care/don't care among speed, alt, and angle.  That damn decimal point, 
however, is definitely too small.  The pilots flew the majority of
the flight with one hand on these knobs and the head looking out the window.
Is this autopilot configuration unique to the A320 or is it standard?

Well that's enough rambling for now.  It was really a great experience - I
recommend it highly....

--Andy    stadler@apple.com

P.S.  followups to sci.aeronautics.airliners.  If there are questions you
      have about anything I did or didn't describe, them, e-mail me and I'll
      condense into posted responses.