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Risk-Taking and Technology

A question that’s been getting asked with increasing frequency over the last decade is the following: Is pilot risk-taking behaviour going up as a result of advances in cockpit technology? In the “old days,” prior to a planned flight, a pilot might have studied the weather and decided, based on the negativity of the information, to stay on the ground. Now, a pilot might only cast a mild glance at the weather, figuring that his in-cockpit weather data, once airborne, will allow him to sort himself out if he encounters foul weather along his route.

Cockpit technology has widened the scope for flight planning: In-cockpit weather technology can keep a pilot clear of storms, his traffic technology can keep him safe from a mid-air, and a moving map can maintain his situational awareness. His aircraft’s heated prop and wing boots can keep him safe in ice, and his engine’s turbocharger can get him above dangerously bad weather. His fuel totalizer should ensure that he doesn’t run out of fuel, and his terrain technology will keep him from flying into the side of a mountain. And, should any of the above leave a pilot lacking for further options, he can pull his ballistic parachute to save himself from a really bad day.

Accident investigators might have the following to say about the fortunate lives that have been saved by pilots resorting, as a final desperate measure, to their aircraft’s ballistic parachute: they probably shouldn’t have been in the situation that required its use in the first place. Does an over-reliance on technology infuse pilots with a denial of risk? It’s not uncommon for pilots to have uneventful outcomes after flying through an experience that might otherwise have been deemed “hazardous.” However, a positive outcome in a dodgy situation might reduce the pilot’s perceived risk towards it, even though the “riskiness” of the event hasn’t changed at all. The dosage of over-confidence it injects into the pilot may merely delay the unfavourable consequences of his behaviour were he to encounter the same circumstances in the future.

Implicit within any situation that involves an element of risk are the notions of uncertainty, unpredictability, insecurity, and reliance on chance for a positive outcome. The advances in cockpit technology over the last decade are all designed to mitigate these notions, thereby enhancing certainty, predictability, security, and decreasing the randomness of chance. However, regardless of the fullness of the technology, every pilot should know the limitations of their abilities, and fly according to that personal baseline, and not to the baseline of an aircraft festooned with technology that can lure them where they wouldn’t go if the gadgetry weren’t there on their instrument panel. To do otherwise is to put the aircraft in charge of the pilot, instead of the pilot in charge of the aircraft.

Our senses can take in limitless information. Our brains, however, cannot process all that information; so, the brain scans for information until something catches its attention. Sometimes, that attention can draw upon so much of our focus that it eliminates all possibility of perceiving something else. In an aircraft equipped with large glass panels alive with reams of active data, with in- cockpit weather, collision and terrain avoidance – and now with tablet-style electronic devices full of flight and aircraft-related information, strapped on your control yoke or knee – are you really seeing more, or are you actually risking seeing less? It’s a question that some within the industry see the worth in asking.

New technology is lighting up the control panels of aircraft. And there’s not a shred of doubt that it’s really cool, and vastly useful, stuff. Greater safety may be found in that technology, particularly if the technology is used to support airmanship skills that are already of a higher order. But for the lesser-experienced pilot, new cockpit tools aren’t meant to make up for inexperience.

A good airman, no matter how inexperienced they might be, “knows what they don’t know.” Regardless of what the aircraft can do for them, they’ll stay within the limitations of their abilities and not push themselves into a realm wherein their aircraft’s technology exceeds their ability to use it safely. They manage and limit their risks: that’s what good airmen do.

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