Pilot attitudes on A320 (RE: A320 cockpit visit)

From:         rdd@rascal.ics.utexas.edu (Robert Dorsett)
Date:         17 Jun 93 23:51:35 PDT
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>  It is very strange, I've spoke with people who do not fly A320, they do not
>like it, I've spoke with people who fly it, they are found of it ! I cannot
>understand that.

I've a theory on this.  Four components:

1.  Anyone remember MacEvangelism?  The sales and marketing effort for the
Macintosh, taken on a slightly "religious" bent.  Airbus shares a similar
culture, in almost every aspect of production and operations.  It *isn't* 
limited to the marketing people.  Engineers, pilots, training, all reflect 
this.  Airbus is proud of its technology, and explicitly makes a big deal of 
it, for the purpose of differentiating its products.  This is actually 
a fairly sharp tact, since *most* airlines aren't "Airbus airlines," and that 
single entry into the fleet has to make a significant, favorable impression.
What better way than characterizing the traditional, safe, conservative 
competition as technical Luddites?

2.  I suspect the first couple of crashes may be partially attributable to
this er, over-enthusiasm.  Aeroformation's training program is called VACBI,
Video-Audio-Computer-*Based* Instruction.  It can be likened to brainwashing:
very intensive, one-on-one interaction with the computer: answer the right
questions the right way enough times, and you become a Believer.  It goes
beyond "traditional" teaching techniques.  Well, a clear problem with the
early software was that it emphasized the gee-whiz features of the systems, 
at the detriment of basic airmanship and operational philosophies needed to 
maintain safe flight.  After the second plane augured in, Airbus issued
plaintive warnings to pilots to fly the airplane the "old fashioned way," 
and not to maneuver anywhere near the protections, since by default that 
means one is in a low-energy category to begin with, and may not have
sufficient maneuvering capability, to avoid pesky obstacles, like golf
courses.  Yet even now, as Andy's Mexicana visit article clearly shows, 
pilots are still flying well into the envelope.  There's no excuse for this.

3.  Pilots aren't the smartest creatures in the world.  Every two or three
months in AIRLINE PILOT, the ALPA rag, one sees "letters to the editor" from
A320 pilots.  These invariably boil down to "gee, it flies great, so why's
everyone criticising the airplane?"  Sort of like the attitudes of DC-10
pilots: "gee, it flies great, so why's everyone criticising the airplane?" 
:-)  Hey, it makes their landings look good!  Flies like a fighter!  All 
that rubbish.  The ramifications of an airplane design possibly being 
responsible for an unnecessary crash every few years doesn't seem to rate 
very highly among these people.

Another significant component of this is that a LOT of pilots, bless them,
confuse FBW with glass.  Thus, a pilot might upgrade to an A320 from a DC-9,
see all the glass, and think it's WONDERFUL, and attribute the existence of
glass to the FBW system.  This hasn't a great deal to do with the A320's
contribution to technology, though, and "glass" predated the A320 by seven
years or so.

4.  The "Can Do" mentality.  Pilots tend to be gadget hounds: they WANT to
fly the shiniest, newest airplane on the block, and, once in it, WILL make
it work.  After you fly a few trips and it doesn't kill you, you become a 
bit more trusting.  This relates to training: *total* immersion: forget
everything you've learned, and focus on the new airplane, "make it work."
Military pilots, for instance, are legendary in disparaging equipment they're 
*not* flying.  When they transition, though, they HAVE to make it 
work, or suffer the consequences.  It's common to see them become "instant 
converts."  Many pilots are frank about this.  I suspect the same psychology 
is at work, here.

Is this sort of "admiration" and "devotion" "real"?  Yeah, probably.  And I
have an ethical dilemma when discussing this sort of thing with pilots: is 
it wise to undermine their confidence in a system which they HAVE to make

*My* experience has been similar to the others: A320 pilots luuuuuuuuv their
airplanes.  Yet when I've probed a little bit, I've usually uncovered some
pretty spectacular problems, which they're "working around" to do their job,
or otherwise compensating for.  I also usually find a dichotomy of intense
fondness for the glass, but a real preference for older airplanes, like the
727.  "If only they were more glassy..."  

Whatever the reason, the FACT remains that there have been three A320 
crashes, in as many years.  No other aircraft of similar technological
vintage--757/767, A310, A300-600, 747-400--can claim the same.  It is 
very puzzling that, considering the "glassy" similarities among these air-
planes, there haven't been more problems, fleet-wise.  Perhaps one
difference is that on the other airplanes, pilots are more in the loop,
on their toes--whereas with the A320/330/340, one is in that blasted 
*cocoon*, and taught to BELIEVE! 

Then again, there is evidence that from a cockpit-workload perspective,
older, conventional cockpits, with simpler flight controls, may be safer
and have lower workload in emergency situations.  See Wiener et. al., 
"The Impact of Cockpit Automation on Crew Coordination and Communication," 
released November 1991 as NASA CR 177587.

As an old pilot once told me: "NO airplane is safe."  All things con-
sidered, I'd rather have a pilot with a healthy grain of skepticism for 
the gee-whiz features, and make this a general requirement for the breed.
Perhaps if more pilots were skeptical, manufacturers would be less likely
to be "innovative" for poorly based functional or practical reasons.  It's
telling that Airbus has extended the old maxim "trust your instruments" to 
"believe in your airplane."  Blind faith has no place in an effective
safety culture.

Robert Dorsett
Internet: rdd@rascal.ics.utexas.edu
UUCP: ...cs.utexas.edu!rascal.ics.utexas.edu!rdd