Monday, May 12, 2014

Autopilot Fear

My wife was a little anxious the other day when we flew N6641M down to San Diego to visit Mom.

The Tuesday before when I took a short flight down to Santa Ana's John Wayne airport for a business meeting the autopilot decided to go wacky while on final approach on the 19R instrument landing system procedure, initiating an un-commanded roll to the left when I hit the "approach" button.

The system had done this once before - almost exactly one year ago. Some capacitors in the 35 year old servo that controls the left aileron decided to check out. The system was repaired by one of the only facilities authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to do such work and it performed flawlessly ... until Tuesday.

And of course coming up this week is a scheduled long flight to Arcata for Daughter's college graduation ceremony (yeah!).

I love auto-pilot. Computers can fly better than humans most of the time. And letting the machine do what it was designed to do frees up a whole lot of gray matter in the head to focus on flight parameters, dynamics and characteristics, or just goofing off and looking out the windows or playing with different toys in the cockpit.

In other words, when using autopilot brain bandwidth is freed up for all of the rapid fire decisions that have to be made on a continual basis, particularly when in the clouds where there is no ground reference.

So with the auto-pilot, flying the plane is just plain easier (sorry - couldn't resist the pun).

Easier in a lot of cases also means safer - and I do think that flying with the autopilot, especially when in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (i.e. in the clouds and you can't see anything) is safer.

Note that I put an "r" at the end of "safe."

My wife, when I told her that we would not have the convenience of the autopilot, forgot about the "r" and her mind, illogically she'll admit, translated that reality to "not safe."

In particular she knows that flying into Arcata, more often than not, involves flying into IMC. Arcata airport has the distinction of having the most overcast days of any airport in the nation. I think I read somewhere that the airport averages some 285 days or more of overcast conditions.

41M - don't need no stinking autopilot!

Anyhow, San Diego was sort of test flight to see if I wanted to endure a 3 hour flight to Arcata piloted all by hand. San Diego is less than an hour flight.

So flying down to San Diego, even though it was on a day of visual flight conditions, caused my wife some anxiety.

It's a matter of the known and the unknown. My wife knows that the airplane can fly, and be hand flown quite safely. In fact she rationally knows that the autopilot is disconnected at various points in the flight regardless of its presence, such as on final approach, or on take off, and that the plane flies just fine with me doing all of the work.

Even in the clouds, sometimes there is no autopilot and its just me, my brain and my decision making inputs.

But it was the fear of the unknown. It's been a few years since she had been in an airplane without a functioning autopilot. She let that fear take over her imagination which raised her anxiety level.

We see that in workers' compensation - processes dictated by either law or an interpretation of the law become, essentially, automated in the name of operational efficiency. But this automation lull us into a sense of safety and we ignore our prior experiences that allowed us to achieve proficiency without the crutch of an autopilot.

Workers' compensation has gone to a place where so much is taken away from human decision making that we have a difficult time "going back" and relying on the skills and knowledge that allowed us to successfully navigate to our destination - reasonable claim closure.

Think about all of the processes that are now outsourced to other companies, people or computer programs; that are mandated by either law, or corporate dictum.

Medical bill payment, request for medical treatment, medical procedures, legal bills, document copies, interpreter services, etc. - all of these, and more, are no longer the purview of some professional with years of experience making an informed decision at a human level.

Each of these processes are now the subject of either some guidelines that are deemed impervious to challenge, or some computer system that has no ability to be overridden, or some management rules that were made to control the outlying 15 percenters.

People involved in the processing of work comp claims, be they adjusters, doctors, attorneys, voc rehab providers, etc., are allowed very little professional judgment any longer.

Sure, there is some skill and intelligence necessary to do the work, but the focus seems to have changed from working towards claim resolution to working to make sure that some rule or process hasn't been forgotten or misapplied.

I've written before that the art of talking reasonably with each other towards the goal of case closure no longer seems applicable.

This is not unlike my wife and her misguided assumption that lack of an autopilot means that safety is compromised.

It's not - it simply means that the pilot just has to exercise more skill, knowledge and intelligence.

Frankly I'm glad that the autopilot went out. I CAN fly that plane! And I can fly it very well in turbulence, in the clouds, when I take off and on approach to landing - all without an autopilot.

Yes, I will be flying 41M to Arcata all by hand. Maybe it's more work, but I've done it before, and it's perfectly safe, and in fact may be more so as my alertness will be enhanced since I won't be lulled into complacency by a computer.

We need those reminders every once in a while. So go out and fly that claim without an autopilot on occasion. You won't crash and you might find that it's likely just as efficient, if not more, and just as safe. It's okay to use your own brain to deal with claims.

1 comment:

  1. David - - I grew up in Arcata and remember hiking up above Humboldt State on "Fickle Hill". North and a little west of the campus is or was a ravine with a stream running at the bottom. Some time around 1900 or so 15 or 20 large redwood trees were "felled" into the ravine and left there.

    I recall walking on what looked like solid ground, but in reality was 15 feet or so above the creek. I was walking on one of the fallen trees and had to be careful not to slip and fall, once I realized it.

    Beautiful country, but you need to be careful!

    The airport is the foggiest in the U.S. and second in the world only to Heathrow in England. One year Arcata was overcast for something like 230 days!

    The hottest day on record through 1961 was one December 21st, it was 84 degrees!

    Good Luck,