Ignorance, Incompetence, and Arrogance

Three Good Men

Two good men died last month. From opposite sides of the office, they left us with the same message: it is important to actually know what you are doing. There is another good man who died in 1988.

Robert Ebeling was an engineer at Morton Thiokol, the company that made the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle. On his way to watch the shuttle launch, he told his daughter, “The Challenger is going to blow up. Everyone’s going to die.”

It was January 28, 1986. I was flying a B-767 (ship number 612, registration C-GAVF) between Toronto and Vancouver. The Captain was S.R. (Rod) MacDonald. I was the First Officer. It was my leg. We heard about the Challenger disaster when we were over Winnipeg, listening to the news on one of the ADF radios. I can still remember how stunned we felt, how sad for our fellow aviators.

Andy Grove was the tough and brilliant manager who founded Intel in 1968 with Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce. In a 2010 article he wrote for Bloomberg Businessweek, he said, “But what kind of a society are we going to have if it consists of highly paid people doing high-value-added work—and masses of unemployed?”

He wrote when we were still reeling from the Great Recession. Even now, six years later, the people in the trenches have not recovered. The “recovery” part of the economy has gone mostly to the top 1%.

But income distribution is only part of the story. In the same article, Andy Grove also said this about exporting jobs to fatten the bottom line: “Not only did we lose an untold number of jobs, we broke the chain of experience that is so important in technological evolution.”

Richard Feynman died at 69, in 1988. He was a Nobel physicist, but he was also one of the great teachers of the last century. A member of the Rogers Commission which investigated the Challenger disaster, he famously squeezed a rubber O-ring in a C-clamp and put it into a glass of ice water. When he removed it and undid the clamp, the O-ring did not spring back – it kept its distorted, squeezed shape.

The shuttle solid rocket boosters were built in sections. The joints were sealed with large O-rings. The shuttle had never been launched at such a low temperature. That’s what Bob Ebeling was thinking about when he talked to his daughter that day. He had spent the previous (week) trying to convince managers at both Morton Thiokol and NASA to postpone the flight.

The other shuttle disaster was Columbia, on February 1, 2003. It disintegrated on re-entry because a few thermal tiles were missing. They had been knocked off during launch. Pilots do a walkaround before every flight. These pilots were not allowed to do a space-walk to inspect the vehicle before re-entry. From safe seats in Houston, managers took control. Seven astronauts paid with their lives. For the curious: William Langewiesche published his Columbia’s Last Flight in the November, 2003 Atlantic Magazine. (William is the son of Wolfgang Langewiesche, who wrote the wonderful how-to-fly book Stick and Rudder in 1944). It is a good read and worth the time.

Andy Grove said, “we broke the chain of experience.” But it is worse than that. We are losing knowledge. In this day of the internet, where we can theoretically teach ourselves anything we want to learn, knowledge is actually disappearing.

As a pilot I study accidents, trying to learn and survive. Recently there has been another tragedy. The Board has not completed its study, but from what I (and many other pilots) know already, the cause(s) were well known to the trade. For me, that is the tragedy of the tragedy. It happened because trade knowledge was not being passed on.

It gets worse yet. In aviation, we are well into to age of robots. Fly-by-wire was introduced into commercial aviation in the Airbus A320 in 1988. Knowledge and skill have been coded with varying degrees of success. The hard-earned legacy of many crashes and many pilots’ lives lies hidden on a chip. Today’s pilots (still critical to survival) may or may not understand the code or (increasingly) their job.

Why?

Andy Grove, in the article mentioned above, put it succinctly and with more than his usual tact: Our fundamental economic beliefs, which we have elevated from a conviction based on observation to an unquestioned truism, is that the free market is the best of all economic systems—the freer the better. Our generation has seen the decisive victory of free-market principles over planned economies. So we stick with this belief, largely oblivious to emerging evidence that while free markets beat planned economies, there may be room for a modification that is even better.

Ideology blinds us, making learning – true learning – more vital than ever.

A very old friend – we have known each other since kindergarten – recently took up the subject of learning. He is retiring gradually from the practice of medicine, and he is re-examining the mathematics and science he learned forty-five years ago. Recently he showed me his derivation of the number e. It would be an exaggeration to say that I now understand e, but he has taken me parsecs closer. He himself, through his efforts, now owns the number e in his heart and soul.

This kind of learning is possible in our age, but even with the ubiquitous internet we have not yet figured out how (Although Sugata Mitra is getting warm).

So there is hope. But so far I see more loss than gain. Knowledge is leaking away.

The Cycle We Have to Break

There is a tragedy. We don’t want to assign blame or upset the apple-cart, so we don’t learn from our mistakes. Managers, once again, become arrogant and complacent. Engineers have to feed their families. They keep their mouths shut. When teachers are leaned on, they are already paid so little they are more likely to leave the profession entirely. But not all of them. Some stand up and say what needs to be said. Thank you, Andy Grove. Thank you, Bob Ebeling, And thank you, Richard Feynman.

Learn or Die

The Race for Survival

It is time to stop fussing over religion, money, and politics, and to ponder instead what we must do to survive. I am not speaking of selfish, individual survival in the mean marketplace of today. I am speaking of the survival of the human race.

I have long felt that our fate comes down to a race between space travel and managing our planet as a closed system. Which will we learn first? Will we learn in time to survive?

We have become cynical about space travel since the triumphs of the 1960’s. Why should we spend money on frills when we have more pressing needs here at home?

Why indeed. What are these pressing needs? Are they more important than survival?

Ebola

It is encouraging that the USA is mobilizing doctors, nurses, and soldiers to help with the Ebola threat. It is good that we recognize that this threat knows no borders. What is less good is that we are not prepared with medication to fight the disease. The marketplace had decided that a few thousand deaths would not constitute a clientèle worthy of research. Belatedly we must mobilize our resources and make medicine.

Climate Change

Think about the contrast: Ebola strikes fear into our hearts; Climate Change is our recent euphemism for Global Warming, in itself an understatement. But Ebola is the rehearsal, the sign, the foreboding. It is undeniably here – now – in spite of the stigma and denial that encourage its spread. Is it not also a metaphor for the larger puzzle that faces us? Do we have to individually travel to the Arctic to see ice melting? Or head south to Miami as witness to the spring and fall tides backing up through the storm sewers and flooding the streets? Or perhaps this year some will instead head south to Arizona. They will see flood damage in the desert.

Odile, Polo, and now Simon, the 13th Eastern Pacific hurricane of the 2014 season, mark the profound change in the weather. Or the Jetstream sitting in Northern Canada for the last two weeks of September, cuddling an unseasonable bubble of warm air half a continent wide. In my forty-five years of flying and weather-watching I have never seen anything like it.

Change and Learning

As a label Climate Change has something right. The world is indeed changing. And as any teacher must, our world is challenging our assumptions. It is saying, I am not static, I am alive. And indeed, what is life but change?

Is our universe alive? The more we learn, the more evidence we find that everything we see is in flux, in living change; and every discovery further displaces mankind from its center. The universe is not about us.

But we can learn. The human race has the ability to learn, communicate, and record. Galileo could read Aristotle as well as observe the planets. Newton, born the year Galileo died, could continue his work forward into the Calculus, the Laws of Motion, and the foundational equation of gravity. Cannot this gift of learning lead us toward our own survival?

All Hands

The problem we face is not insurmountable. It would be embarrassing if we did not prevail. But neither is it a sure thing. It is a call for all hands on deck. And all hands does not mean the privileged, the connected, the fortunate. It means use the gifts of every soul aboard.

It does not mean indoctrinate our children with our certainties. It means lead our children out of ignorance into the fullness of their gifts, wherever it may take them.

Education takes more than a curriculum and a system. In the end it is a communication between human beings. It is a two-way conversation where the goal is to move the student beyond the teacher, into an understanding where only he can go.

So let us use our fear constructively. Let us not sit, afraid, trying to hang on to the present. The world has already moved beyond our understanding. But our gifts have not expired. Let us use them, such as they are, to encourage the gifts of others. And if every soul is engaged we will will survive.

Who Wins the Race?

It doesn’t matter. Managing the planet and space travel are essentially the same problem: reversing the great frontier mentality and approaching our environment as a closed system. We can cut down the forests we grow. We can eat the food we produce. And we can breathe the air we replenish.

Teaching, Learning, and Navigation

Motion

It’s not getting there, it’s the journey. The saying is so hackneyed we tune it out. It’s so 60’s, so hippy. But think of how we perceive motion.

I am looking out a motel window. It is raining. If I hold my head still the frame doesn’t change but I am aware that the leaves in the trees across the street are moving and that rings are coming and going on the puddles as the raindrops hit. My brain does the differentiation, the time-lapse photography, the video recording. I’m not aware of all that. I am only aware of movement, of change, in the leaves and the puddles. They are alive.

Learning

I recently watched a video of an interview with Elon Musk, the man behind PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX. He was asked how he learned rocket science. He thought for a second or two, and answered with a complete absence of irony. He said he read a lot of books on the subject. He said he sought out and hired many people who had experience in the field. He said together they worked on and solved many problems.

Then he paused, and said, You know, that’s how I hire people.

How so? asked the interviewer.

Elon Musk said he would ask the candidate to describe some difficult problem he or she had solved. He said someone who had worked the problem through could discuss it to any depth; those who were on the periphery or along for the ride could not.

Check out this wonderful short video from Sal Khan: You Can Learn Anything. Knowing something is not a state. It is a history of struggle and failure. It is experience in the most alive sense of the word.

I recently met a young man new to teaching. His field is transportation, and has years of experience, much of it driving big rigs. I asked him how he was enjoying teaching. I love it, he said. But sometimes I go home frustrated. How so? I asked. Well, he said hesitantly, some of the teachers, they’re good people, but they went from grade school to high school to teachers college and then right into the classroom. They’ve never been anywhere but a classroom.

We were both silent for a while. I thought about how that applies to my trade, flying airplanes. About the pilot shortage that is upon us. About how a lot can be learned in the classroom and on the internet (look at the Khan Academy!) and in simulators and even in airplanes. But something is missing: the struggle and failure of flying a real airplane in real weather and wind.

How can I even speak of failure in the same breath as flying?

Because I had the luxury of learning by doing and stumbling and failing under the guidance of vastly more experienced captains who had flown Sabres or Starfighters or Clunks. I was an apprentice. I learned from masters of the trade. Their lessons stayed with me because we solved problems together. I learned judgment. I learned to respect the airplane’s limits and my own. I learned that sometimes you just don’t go.

I also thought of how the world changes. I thought of how I flew the fly-by-wire Airbus for nine years and even instructed on it. It was a state-of-the-art machine. And yet we never did a GPS approach. They weren’t ready yet in 2004. Now I have been retired for a decade and I am seventy years old, I am flying mostly GPS approaches. These approaches did not exist when I was flying the line.

Navigation

When I was a First Officer on the DC-8 in 1979, INS had just replaced the Navigators. INS (and later, IRS) imitates the human body, specifically the semi-circular canals in our ears. They are miniature accelerometers (one in each of three axes) and among other things they help us to walk upright. INS uses the Calculus and integrates acceleration: what is the sum of all these accelerations over time? GPS does the opposite: with its ability to rapidly calculate positions to within a few meters, it goes  the other way with Calculus: differentiation. It asks, if I look at how my position has changed over time, what does that say about my velocity? About my acceleration?

In essence, navigation is describing dS/dt.

What does all that have to do with learning?

Well, learning is change of ideas. Remember the video, You Can Learn Anything? “Because the most beautiful, complex concepts in the whole universe are built on basic ideas that anyone can learn; anyone, anywhere, can understand.”

Learning is change. Change of mindset, change of assumptions, changes in your idea of yourself. It is a journey of struggle. It is navigation. It is hard work.

But the destination is not static. It is a moving, living thing: the apprehension of a beautiful concept. It becomes a beautiful tool you can now use to bring your talents to bear on the problems facing humanity. It is joy.

Teaching

What does all that say about teaching?

How shall we teach? How shall we pass on what we know?

How shall we learn as a people, a civilization, a species? Will each generation have to learn anew how to rub two dry sticks together? Or will Galileo read Aristotle, and Newton read Galileo, and Einstein adapt Newton to the scale of the galaxy?

That is not for me to say. But having in small measure experienced the joy of understanding and the joy of helping others understand, and having experienced the joy of change in myself over years and decades, I will not willingly let it go.

How Does an Airplane Fly?

Lift

An airplane stays up in the air because the wing pushes air down. It moves forward because the propellor or the jet engine pushes air back. We know when we drop something it falls to earth. We know that it is harder to ride a bike against the wind. So the wing and the propellor are acting against those natural forces. How does it all work?

Isaac Newton lived in the 18th Century. One day he was sitting under a tree, thinking about things. An apple fell from the tree and bonked him on the head. Rather than just curse, he thought harder. Something got that apple moving fast enough to make him want to say a bad word.

Newton wasn’t starting from scratch. He was born in 1642, the same year Galileo died. Galileo, in his observations of the heavens, had come up with the idea that a moving body tends to keep moving – that it takes a force to stop it or make it change direction. He called this property inertia.

Inertia was a radical idea. Nineteen centuries before, Aristotle had described how a force was required to make an object move. If the force was removed the object would stop. Galileo’s observations of the planets disagreed with Aristotle. Trying to make sense of what he saw, Galileo did experiments, dropping things from the Tower of Pisa and sliding blocks down inclined planes. He observed that if he made the inclined plane slippery, the blocks would slide further before stopping. Then he used the technique Einstein called a thought experiment, and what Aristotle called a reductio ad absurdum. If there is friction between the block and the inclined plane, and if that friction can be made less (by oiling the plane, for example), what would happen if the friction could be eliminated entirely? If it were zero?

Equilibrium

Here’s the part that’s counter-intuitive: a flying airplane is in a state of equilibrium. Cruising along, climbing or descending – all the forces acting on the airplane are in balance. The wings are pushing air down, creating lift; this exactly counterbalances the weight of the airplane, the pull of gravity which attracts the mass of the airplane to the much larger mass of the earth. Similarly the propellor (or fanjet) is pushing air back, exactly countering the drag caused by pushing the airplane through the air at speed.

Don’t be concerned if this doesn’t make sense to you. Making sense of it takes time, as is evidenced by history. Aristotle made a good start, back in 330 BC or so. He knew that you had to push on a mass to make it move. He also deduced that the force required was proportional to the movement. But he didn’t make that next deductive leap to inertia – that took Galileo observing the motions of the planets through his telescope. The leap is a big one, because we have to think for awhile to come up with an example from our everyday lives. But they are there nonetheless: how about a curling stone, gliding with very little friction on an alley of ice? (The weight of the stone momentarily melts the ice; the stone is gliding on a temporary film of water). That stone keeps moving for a long time. With it in mind we can almost imagine Galileo’s inertia and what Newton made of it – his first law of motion.

A body in uniform motion tends to remain in motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an external force.

Again, though, it takes a curious mind, building on the achievements of others, to take that extra step: Newton asked himself, in effect, what would happen to the curling stone if the resistance of the water/ice were not just small, but zero? The curling stone would just keep moving until it hit something!

Turning

A turning aircraft is not in equilibrium. Its flight path is not a straight line, but a curve. Looking at Newton’s first law, we see that there must be another force involved, being applied so as to curve the flight path. In a car, we get that force by turning the steering wheel. If we turn hard enough we are pushed toward the door or the person next to us. We can feel it in the seat of our pants or our shoulder. There is a pull against the seat belt/shoulder harness. The lateral force is generated by the tires on the asphalt. On a bicycle or motorcycle we countersteer to make the bike lean into the corner. This is more closely analogous to an airplane. But still, an airplane has no asphalt to push against. Whence cometh this force?

The largest force generated by an aircraft is the lift from the wing. Remember: in equilibrium (steady flight) lift has to be equal to the aircraft’s weight. So the pilot uses lift. He tilts the lift vector by banking the airplane like a bicycle or motorcycle. The horizontal component of lift is the force that curves the flight path.

IMG_0111

The airplane is blue. The white arrow is the wing’s lift. The orange arrows are the lift divided into components so you can see how it all works. The vertical orange arrow holds the airplane up. The shorter horizontal arrow is the force causing the airplane to turn. The curving yellow arrow is the airplane’s flight path.

Galileo observed the curved path of the planets and began to understand that there was a force causing the curve. Newton, still sore at the apple, saw that the force accelerating it into his head was the same force that curved the path of the planets. He proposed that masses (apple, planet earth, sun) attracted each other, and further, that the attraction was proportional to the product of the masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them (F = mM/d2). It turns out Newton was right, but it was another century before Cavendish measured the force of gravity experimentally.

Lift, Again

We said that lift is produced when the wing pushes air down. Imagine that in an unthinking moment you jump from the stern of your rowboat (which you have just managed to land stern-to) to the dock. You instantly think better of it (although you are grateful you pushed off hard enough not to get wet) and look behind you. The boat is twelve feet away and still moving. That’s action and reaction, Newton’s third law of motion.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Wings and propellors depend on this law. They push air down or back, and the reaction of the aircraft is to move up or forward.

How do wings push air down?

If you stick your hand out the car window at speed, you’ll feel the force of the air against it. If you hold your hand flat, palm forward, your hand and arm will be pushed back. That’s drag. Holding your hand palm down will produce less drag. You have made your hand into a more streamlined shape relative to the wind. Now try tilting your hand a little, holding the thumb side (leading edge) higher. You’ll feel a force lifting your hand and arm up. That’s lift. You could stick a one-by-six board out there and tilt it in the same way. If it wasn’t ripped out of your hands, it would pull itself and your arms up to the top of the window.

The Bernoulli Digression

Stick your hand out of the window again, palm down and thumb into the wind. Now cup your hand slightly, moving your thumb down. (Your thumb is still pointing straight out, like your fingers, but your thumb, including the fleshy part in your palm where the first thumb bone is, has moved lower.) Now you will feel some lift, even without tilting your hand. By cupping your hand, you have made an airfoil shape. If you look at your hand you can see how an airfoil works. The oncoming air divides, somewhere on your thumb. It comes together again on the outside of your little finger. You can see that the air flowing over your hand follows a curve, and the air flowing under follows almost a straight line. The air flowing over your hand has further to go.

You can think of the air as ‘stretching out’ as it goes over the top of your hand. Many textbooks have pictures of this. The idea is that if two air particles start out together but divide at the wing leading edge, they stay above each other as they go their separate ways. Then they rejoin, arriving at the trailing edge of the wing at the same time. It is instinctive to imagine particles going over the top ‘stretching out’. But if we move on to the the venturi (how a carburettor works – remember those?) the phenomenon is harder to imagine: air streaming through a tube which is constricted in the middle. The pressure in the constricted part is lower than the pressure at either end, just as the pressure on the top of the wing is lower.

Daniel Bernoulli (two generations after Newton) figured it out. He was a mathematician and described this process with equations. The equations invoked the Law of Conservation of Energy.

But we digress. It is not necessary to understand fluid mechanics to understand how an airplane flies. The Bernoulli Principle does help us make a flat board into an efficient wing. But remember that most aerobatic aircraft have symmetrical airfoils so they can fly just as well upside down. With these Bernoulli plays an even smaller part.

Basically, the wing pushes air down. That’s really all you need to know.

Control

Where are we? We know the basics of why an airplane stays in the air and what makes it go. We have looked briefly at what makes it turn – we said that the pilot uses lift. But what else does the pilot do? How can he make the airplane climb and descend? Takeoff and land? Speed up and slow down?

Let’s start with what makes it go straight: tail feathers. Like a bird or a dart, an airplane has weight up front and fins at the back. In the air (but not in outer space) all of these things move beak first. The heavy end of the dart with its sharp point will hit the target first (unless you’re really new to the game). For slo-mo, think of a badminton bird falling with its nose toward the ground. The bottom line is that the nose points forward along the flight path (or nearly so). This is an inherent stability that kicks in before the pilot does anything.

Now imagine a small airplane. The engine, pilot and passengers are in the middle, near the front. This is where the weight is concentrated: the center of gravity. On each side the wings stick out; behind is the light aft end of the fuselage which holds the tail feathers: usually a vertical fin pointing up and a horizontal stabilizer sticking out each side. On the trailing edge of each of these surfaces are control surfaces – think of them as small wings hinged to the larger surfaces. The pilot moves these control surfaces using the stick and rudder.

In doing so he changes where the airplane points relative to the flight path. Remember “or nearly so” from two paragraphs ago? It is the pilot who chooses to point the airplane somewhere slightly different from forward along the flight path.

With the rudder pedals the pilot yaws the nose left or right. By pulling or pushing on the stick (or wheel or yoke) he pitches the nose up or down. And by moving the stick sideways (or turning the wheel or yoke) he moves the ailerons (on the trailing edge of the wing tips) and rolls the airplane left or right, banking like a motorcycle.

There is a fourth basic control: the throttle or thrust lever. With this the pilot controls how much air the propellor or fanjet pushes back. You can think of this as how much energy is being added to the system. That is the basics of it. Yes, when you push the throttle forward you are producing more thrust, so the airplane will climb or go faster until the increasing drag equals the thrust. If you pull the throttle back there will be less thrust and the airplane will slow down or descend, or both. But in each case you are adding more or less energy to the system.

Gliders

Wait, you say. How can a glider fly without an engine? Where does the energy come from?

The short answer is: from the winch, the tow plane, or the rising air in thermals. But if we want to think this through, we might also want to ask, where does the energy go?

Like most objects, an airplane can have kinetic energy, the energy arising from movement. Also like other objects it can have potential energy, which depends on its position in space. To simplify and make it more intuitive, we can limit the argument to its position relative to the earth. Is it on the ground or in the air? Like a ball or a case of beer, it takes energy to lift an airplane, to separate it from the surface of the earth. That energy is still there, as it is in a roller coaster rolling slowly over the top of the high point of the track.

Drop the ball and it will bounce. Drop the beer and you might have to go buy some more. But the roller coaster rolls over the top and down, accelerating as it descends, trading potential energy for kinetic energy. So it is with a glider or an airplane. Altitude above ground is potential energy. If the pilot uses the controls to select a descending flight path, that energy can be used as both lift and thrust – just enough thrust to keep the airplane at a good flying speed. That’s a glide, and both airplanes and gliders can do it.

Some of you bright stars might say, waitwhat about the Law of Conservation of Energy? If the airplane glides down and lands and rolls to a stop, it has no more energy. Where did it go?

The answer is: into thin air. Remember drag? Riding a bicycle into the wind? There is a lot of air out there so you don’t notice it, but when you ride or run or even walk through the air you are expending energy to overcome the resistance of the wind and in doing so you are heating up the air! Friction, drag: they generate heat. Think of rubbing two dry sticks together.

Navigation

Imagine you are lazily watching a twig drifting down a placid stream. It is a peaceful scene. You are relaxed and your perception does its work. You sense the twig’s slow movement from right to left.

Now imagine taking a movie (OK, a video) of the same scene. You take your camera home and open up the video in your editor. You look at it frame by frame. All the frames look exactly the same, except . . . yes! If you look closely the twig changes position. Not much from one frame to the next, but after say, a minute, it has moved almost across the frame. The twig is moving! It is changing position. It is drifting lazily downstream, moving with the water. It is moving slowly, at least relative to us on shore. We say it has a speed. But we also know it is moving downstream, from our right to our left. So it has not only a speed but also a direction, right to left . That combination of speed and direction is called velocity. Mathematically it is known as a vector.

Why are we talking about twigs?

Well, our airplane is a twig. It moves through the air that drifts over the surface of the earth. It was the same in the days of the square-rigged ships. Out of sight of land for months at a time, they moved by grace of the wind through currents and tides that had their own movement. To figure out where they were sailors used a sextant to find the elevation of the sun, moon and stars. They also used Dead Reckoning to calculate a new position from a known position (fix). We could do that with our twig if we knew the speed of the current in the stream. If the current flowed at one mph, for example, we could figure that if the twig is here now, then in an hour from now (barring mishaps) it will be a mile downstream.

Newton, Again

Isaac Newton developed the mathematics we still use for navigation today. (Leibniz did the same thing independently). It is called the calculus and is every math student’s nightmare. I made it through second-year calculus with a D average. Nevertheless the elementary calculus that relates to airplanes (and ships and space-ships) has remained with me and been of enormous usefulness.

Basically Newton found a way to precisely quantify motion, even though speeds and directions might change. If he knew where the stream flowed, and at what speeds and directions through the rapids, over the falls, and eddying through the pond below the falls, he could calculate precisely where the twig would be at any moment. He did this by a process analogous to our video of the twig: if you shot the video in slow motion (many frames per second) you could analyze the motion of the twig with great accuracy. In effect, what Newton and Leibniz did was the ultimate slow motion: an infinite number of frames per second.

GPS and INS and IRS

At the end of the last century, GPS suddenly became a reality. A tiny receiver can listen to signals from satellites circling the globe and calculate a position on (or above) the surface of the earth to within a few meters. Here is a photo of the GPS Receiver I use with my iPad in the Bonanza:

IMG_0109

You can see how small it is – that’s my pen next to it.

The GPS stores these positions (this is like the frames of our twig video) and then uses the calculus to find speed and direction. The process is called differentiation and is what our perception does as we lie on the bank of the stream watching the twig. It is how we perceive motion.

When I retired from airline flying (2004) only a few of the airplanes had GPS, and we flew no GPS approaches to find airports on cloudy days. Instead we used ADF and VOR and ILS, which send signals from ground-based stations.

Here is what my GPS was seeing while I stood on my back porch:

IMG_0110

I was standing still, so my speed was zero and I had no heading. (Actually I was looking south, but the GPS can’t tell that until I start to move.)

Today in the Bonanza I use almost nothing but GPS. Using it I can fly an approach in cloud down to 300 feet above the runway.

When I was still flying airliners we used INS (and later the more accurate IRS) for our enroute navigation. These use Newton’s calculus going backwards: they sense accelerations in three dimensions and calculate speed and position from there. Imagine riding a roller coaster with your eyes closed. (Those with delicate constitutions are excused). First you feel heavy, then you feel light. You know you are speeding up and slowing down. (It helps if you don’t move your head.)

Your perception is recording those accelerations and correctly deducing that your speed is changing. This is the reverse of differentiation: it is called integration. Newton’s mathematics lets us go back and forth from position to velocity to acceleration.

GPS Differentiation –>

Position

Velocity

Acceleration

Frames of Twig Video

Roller Coaster

<– Integration INS, IRS

 Summing Up

An airplane flies because it has a wing that pushes air down and a propellor that pushes air back. The pilot has controls that can change how the airplane points relative to the flight path. That in turn influences the flight path itself – for example, the pilot makes the airplane turn by rolling into a bank, aiming the lift of the wings so that some of it is pulling toward the inside of the turn, curving the flight path. He can also add more energy to the system by pushing the throttle forward. Or he can throttle back and glide.

To navigate the pilot can look out the window for landmarks and use the compass and clock. Or she can use GPS. The best answer is to do both, because batteries can go dead.

The Future

If it makes you feel good to think about this stuff, I have great news: there’s lots more! In fact it seems that the more interested you get, the more there is to discover. And if aviation turns out to be your thing, have no doubt that you will be needed. Because if flying through the air uses too much fuel some day, we will still need to get into orbit and fly around from there.

Flying in space will take even more mathematics (orbital mechanics, for a start). And here’s another problem: Newton’s laws (and his calculus) are deterministic. That means you can go back and forth, as we did in the table above. And if you take his equations to their logical conclusion, you can go back and forth in time, and everything that was and will be has already been determined.

But we no know that’s no so, or not quite. If things get very small, so small they can’t be divided – for example, a photon of light – they behave differently from the objects we know. Then we use another math: quantum theory. (Stand by, because you young people will see quantum computers in your lifetimes). If things get very big, like galaxies, or if we try to accelerate a space-ship to the speed of light, then we have to use Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

And don’t let anyone tell you pilots won’t be needed. Remember Chewbacca, the Wookie pilot from Star Wars? He took the Millennium Falcon to warp speed by hand. Computers are going to be a big help, but in a way they give us more to learn. So if you love to fly you’ll have to learn flying and math and computers and navigation in space and . . .

But that’s just more fun!

Mission Statement

Today we take an airline’s schedule for granted. We are surprised when a large snowstorm forces flight cancellations or when a line of thunderstorms causes delays. We regard the pilot’s job as routine, and that is the case much of the time.

It was not always so. In the early days airplanes could not vault over the Rockies as if the snow and granite weren’t there. They could not shrug ice off their heated wings. They could not follow programmed profiles in four dimensions. Pilots had to fly these airplanes.

Seventy-five years ago Canada’s national airline flew its first “transcontinental” mission: Montreal to Vancouver via Ottawa, North Bay, Kapuskasing, Winnipeg, Regina, and Lethbridge. The aircraft was a Lockheed 10A. I don’t have a 10A or the resources to fly it, but I do have a Beech Bonanza, a single-engine aircraft of similar performance. Her name is Arcadia, after the fictional airline in my novel. Together we are going to fly that route this year. Our mission is to do again what the pioneers did: fly through Canadian weather at low altitude, evaluating the real risk and flying when we can, flying by hand.

Why?

To remember and celebrate that achievement of 1939, yes. To observe and celebrate how far airline flying has come since then – yes, that too. But there is more. Between then and now is a story, a story that includes rough weather and anxious moments. These advances and adventures are not always smooth sailing. There is risk, danger, and hard work. That is where the real story lies.

Although much remains in official records and memoirs, in news stories and film, much of the history of Canada’s airlines has been lost. Many of the early pioneers have passed on, taking their stories with them. We could use their perspective now, as we face the coming shortage of fuel and pilots. Once again, there is rough weather ahead.

Flying is like living. Planning and good judgement are essential for survival. But once you’re off the ground or out of the childhood home, it is no longer a rehearsal. The red light is on. You’re live to air. Flying has been my trade now for forty-five years, and that live to air quality is still what gets my juices going.

Since young hotshot are not words which apply to me (I turn seventy this year), I have to make sure I am well prepared for this mission. I will be flying IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) and sometimes in IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions) without an autopilot (the Bonanza does not have one) and without a co-pilot. That can get pretty busy. But I do have WAAS GPS, an electronic PFD, and an iPad. The GPS lets us navigate anywhere and do an IFR approach at most airports. On the electronic PFD (Aspen 1000 Pro) I can set cleared altitudes and approach minima, just like I used to do on the Airbus. On the iPad I have the app ForeFlight, which acts as my electronic flight bag (charts and approach plates for all of North America) my moving-map display, and my weather briefing service, among other things. It is hooked up to a GPS and to a satellite weather link.

For the last three years I have been training for this mission. Written exams. Instrument rating renewal. Re-introduction to flying light aircraft. Aerobatic instruction. Working steadily toward regaining my Class II Instructor rating after forty-some years. And practical experience, of course. I have flown the Bonanza between Montreal and California. By this summer, God willing, it will have been two round trips.

Flying experience is measured in hours and in recent hours. These are handy because they are statistical, but they are not the whole story. Experience does not necessarily lead to competence. More important are real learning and practice. You can’t perform a maneuver you don’t know about, and you can’t do it well until you have practiced it.

I know this from my own experience. I retired from airline flying at age sixty and didn’t “touch a pole” for six and a half years. When I decided to come back to flying my performance was far from an acceptable standard, even with my 18,000 hours. With a valid instrument rating and my ATR, I was “qualified” to teach instrument and multi-engine flying, but lacked the recency, confidence, and knowledge to do it well. I had to go back to school.

Old dogs are reluctant to see the need for new tricks. Breaking through my crusty assumptions to teach me is not a job for the faint of heart. I have been fortunate to find teachers who will challenge me and move me along, almost against my will.

This burst of learning is a fragile thing. Old age is gaining on me. I know how the race ends. But Arcadia and I plan to fly the mission this summer of 2014, re-enacting the flight of 1939. Much of the detail of that flight has been lost, but we will re-create it by living it. It will be its own story, but it will have much in common with the lost story of 1939 – enough, I hope, to bring that story to life and bestow honour where honour is due.

The Lost Apprentice

Despite our words of concern for education and training, our workforce is racing toward the cliff of incompetence. Even though innovation and specialization have brought us marvelous new tools, basic skills are vanishing, collateral damage from a squeeze on labour. How? In a word, the apprentice has gone missing.

One company (BMW in South Carolina), experiencing first-hand the dearth of skilled labour, has set up an apprenticeship system. But there is resistance. After all, from skilled labour flows empowered labour and unions. From there a slippery slope leads to socialism and communism. Or so goes political thought.

Yes, we are on a slope, but the destination is not an ‘ism’. It is incompetence.

My trade is flying airplanes, so I’ll stick to what I know. But look around in your own trade or profession and you may see examples of what I’m talking about. Are you passing on your knowledge? Are there barriers to doing so? Will the young people taking up your mantle be able to learn from your mistakes and those of your teachers? Or will they repeat those mistakes? Will they master the new tools that arrive, it seems, every day? Or will they hide behind them, shirking responsibility simply because they are afraid, deep in their gut, that they can’t do the job?

I was lucky. I joined the airline in the right seat of the DC-9 and learned fast. I flew with captains who took their teaching responsibilities seriously. I particularly remember Ike Jones, a great, generous, good-natured Newfoundlander. He was Master to my Apprentice. He taught me and I have never forgotten.

Learn By Doing

Lee Kang Kuk (the Asiana 214 Trainee Captain) was not so lucky. He was an “experienced” pilot, a captain on Airbus aircraft transitioning to the B-777. I put experienced in quotes because although he had thousands of hours of flying, he found the prospect of doing a visual approach “very stressful.” To me this seemed nonsensical until I began to think about it. I thought about the Asiana First Officer who told the investigation he had been flying the A320 for three years and had never landed the airplane manually.

I thought of myself. After retirement from the airline I didn’t fly for 6½ years. I had to get training, pass exams and tests, and retrain myself. This year I have been working with Andrew Boyd, a Class I instructor, trying to get my skills up to where I can get my Class II instructor rating back. It has been a lot of joyful work. But I see even more than I did six months ago that we all learn by doing. Practice, practice, practice. Lee’s airline recommends that its pilots fly their planes manually as little as possible.

Lee didn’t have a chance. He said, “(it is) very difficult to perform a visual approach with a heavy airplane.” Horsefeathers. It is actually harder with a very light airplane. What is difficult (if not impossible) is to fly any maneuver without practice.

History Repeats Itself

Fifty years ago last month an Air Canada DC-8 crashed at Ste.Thérèse, Québec. Last month a Boeing 737 crashed at Kazan, Russia. The DC-8 hit the ground at 55° nose down. The B-737 hit the ground at 75° nose down.

It is unlikely that the young pilots in Russia knew of the DC-8 accident. After all, it happened before they were born. What possible relevance could it have for them?

Well, we know from the evidence so far that they were not prepared for the missed approach they tried to execute. They did make the decision to go around. They did select TOGA (Takeoff/Go Around) mode. The engines did spool up to takeoff thrust. They did retract flap from 30° to 15°.

Then comes the part that is difficult to explain. They disengaged the autopilot but did not fly the airplane.

On its own the B-737, trimmed for approach, will pitch nose-up with both takeoff power and flap retraction. The accident aircraft did just that, achieving 25° nose-up, about 10° higher than the target for this maneuver. Like the DC-8 fifty years before, it was accelerating, at least until it passed the 15° target attitude.

Instrument pilots know that acceleration can produce the sensation of pitching nose-up. That might explain the Ste. Thérèse accident. It surely played an important part at Kazan.

It would have helped if the Russian pilots had been trained to expect the missed approach. Pilots call it being spring-loaded for the Go-Around. It would have helped if they knew of and expected the illusions they were about to experience from the acceleration. But most important by far are the basics, and the foundation of any emergency, indeed of any maneuver, is fly the airplane. Somehow they omitted this crucial step.

How Did We Get Here?

It would be convenient if we could put the finger on one factor, one guilty party. But there are many: deregulation; lazy captains; automation; feeder airlines, merger, and bankruptcy as tools to reduce costs; regulatory impotence. Mark H. Goodrich explores all of these in depth on his website. His unique experience (engineer, pilot, teacher, lawyer, more airplane type ratings than anyone) give him an invaluable perspective. I will summarize from my own experience.

Lazy Captains

In my younger days there were captains who grumbled it was not their duty to teach flying. Their interpretation of the adage Learn, Earn, and Return stopped with the money.

Automation

I confess I am a technophile. I love new tools. Flying my Bonanza with its Aspen Primary Flight Display fed by the Garmin GTN650 is a delight. But there are changes. My instrument scan still covers the basic ‘T’, but there are new items in it, and the order is different. From the airplane symbol (attitude) my eye moves an inch to the right to see if there is any pink fuzz on the altitude tape (trend) and an inch and a half down to the aqua diamond (aircraft track). If there is no fuzz and the diamond is on the arrow (desired track), no further action is necessary for the moment. I can look further out, and think for a second or two about other issues.

And here, in front of the MacBook Pro, I can think about the wider implications. How I enjoyed teaching technology on the A320, and how much flying skill I lost in my nine years on the airplane. Yes, I would make sure each of us did an “everything off” visual approach at least once per cycle (trip, 2-4 day sequence of flights). But in the Airbus such an approach is a bit of a parlor trick, chiefly because there is no trim feel.

In the Bonanza I have the best of both worlds. There is no autopilot. You fly it every second you’re airborne, and then some. And the tools I have at hand are better than I had on the Airbus. ForeFlight in my iPad, fed by a tiny GPS and a satellite weather receiver. New capability arrives every few months with a software change. Flying in IMC I no longer have to request permission to leave the ATC frequency, call the FSS, and copy weather with one hand while flying with the other. Instead, my right forefinger taps the iPad over the airport of interest, and the last METAR appears. Another tap brings the forecast or the winds aloft or the airport information. One more tap and the approach I have chosen is drawn over the map in scale. Using two fingers I zoom and pan as I brief for the approach. I am still flying with my left hand.

I love it all. But is it easier than the old way?

Yes and no. In the old days you started with heading and guessed at the track made good. You integrated (looked at change over time) the localizer or VOR needle to see how good your guess was. Now you just glance at the little diamond. That’s a huge improvement. But you have to learn the system, to understand what is going on. The diamond is of no use whatever if you don’t know what it is. And once you do you have to retrain your eye so it knows where to look. So I am solidly with Mark Goodrich when he says that automation requires more pilot training, not less.

Airline Management Strategies

Since deregulation (1978) airline management has focused on reducing costs. Robert Crandall (American Airlines) spoke out against deregulation, but once it was law he led the way, inventing one strategy after another for his airline’s survival. The first of these was hub and spoke. As I young man I flew the DC-9 across Canada on many long, thin, multiple-stop routes. By the time I was captain on the same airplane (1987) hub and spoke had arrived and there were feeder airlines flying turboprops, bringing passengers from the smaller cities into the hubs where the jets flew. This not only made economic sense – it also provided the opportunity to set up a two-tier pay scale and reduce the power of the pilot unions. But there was a casualty: apprenticeship. Young pilots starting out at the feeder had no contact with the old guys (still mostly men, even then) nearing the end of their career. Instead, they flew with captains near their own age whose only concern was getting a job with the main line. Seniority and career trumped teaching and learning. The wisdom of the old farts retired with them.

Then, as Robert Crandall so accurately predicted (in the Senate hearings on Deregulation), the airlines started losing money. There was a frenzy of merger and acquisition, and then bankruptcy. Collateral damage to pilots came in training, salary, and pension.

When I joined the airline training on a new type included two hours at the controls of a real airplane, doing takeoffs and landings. Now a pilot’s first landing on a new type is on a line flight with passengers. That can be interesting. I know because I spent my last eight years as a Line Indoctrination Training Captain. For more about reliance on simulators and airline training in general, see Mark Goodrich’s Simulating Reality and The Training Paradox.

Regulatory Impotence

The FAA recently changed the regulations to require that First Officers on transport aircraft have 1500 hours total time and an Airline Transport Rating. This was largely a response to the Colgan Air crash at Buffalo, NY in February, 2009. There are not enough pilots with these qualifications, and airlines are beginning to cancel flights in the smaller markets such as Grand Forks, ND.

The FAA now requires some Asian airlines to fly GPS approaches instead of visual approaches if the ILS is unserviceable. Note that aircraft “land themselves” only if an ILS is available on the landing runway. Note also that GPS approaches with vertical guidance, although they allow an autopilot to fly the airplane down a glideslope, themselves require training.

So which is better? Apprenticeship, or regulations which say only masters can fly? Training pilots in the fundamentals so they have the confidence they can fly, or regulating the level of automation they must use?

Conclusion

We have come full circle. Laziness interacts with automation, cost cutting with simulator training, loss of apprenticeship with pilot confidence and competence. The emperor has no clothes. But again, why?

The answer, I’m afraid, is simple. We can’t see that the emperor has no clothes because we don’t want to look. Deregulation opened airline financial decisions to the market, which means you and I, the bargain-seeking traveler, push prices down to where flight operations can no longer be safely undertaken. It has taken a generation, but that is where we have arrived.

A Canadian Multi-Crew Licence?

Canada’s Flight Training Reputation

Trying to keep Canadian flight training competitive is a laudable goal. We have a well-deserved reputation for competence, earned the hard way by flying in our terrible weather around our huge unpopulated country with plenty of pressure to get there (sooner or later) because it’s often the only way to get there.

Much training business has come to our shores because of this reputation. The way to keep it coming is to maintain and bolster our good reputation in these trying times.

Loss of Control Accidents

In the last decade the character of airline tragedies has changed completely. Modern aircraft are so reliable that engine and system failures are rare. Aircraft and crew are designed and trained to deal with these failures if they occur. What we are seeing instead are crew failures.

These have come to be called loss of control accidents. The well-known examples are AF447, Colgan Air at Buffalo, and now Asiana 214 at San Francisco. There are many more, including, most recently, Southwest at LaGuardia. These accidents were all caused by crew action (or inaction).

(That includes, by the way, AF447 and Colgan, in which icing played a peripheral role. Flying into known icing is something for which the crew is responsible.)

These accidents all have something in common: pilot incompetence.

I know that sounds harsh, but it must be said. It is an accurate statement. The pilots in these cases may have known their airplane fairly well. They may have memorized their company’s operating manual and their Standard Operating Procedures. But in all cases they did not understand some of the basics of flying an airplane. Colgan and AF447 fell into the ground or sea with the wing stalled, not flying, because the pilots pulled back on the control column and held the back pressure despite warnings and stick shakers. The Asiana crew pulled back to stretch their glide, even though they were far gone on the back side of the drag curve, within a few knots of the stall.

What is missing in these cases is basic flying training. The causes are legion and still being debated, but the fix is simple. In order to get a license, especially a license to fly a large airplane with many paying passengers aboard, a pilot must demonstrate the ability to take off, fly, and land an airplane while keeping it within its safe envelope. He must, in other words, demonstrate competence.

Commercial Reasoning

Canada’s proposed Multi-Crew Licence has this as its rationale: Canadian flight training operators providing commercial training to foreign candidates are unable to compete with foreign operators and risk losing a segment of their industry (my emphasis).

Under various names, the Multi-Crew Licence has had a role in most loss of control accidents.

On the face of it this license seems reasonable. There is always a Captain who has a real license to supervise the others with lesser licenses. But on closer inspection what we are really saying is that a pilot who cannot legally take a friend for a ride can occupy a cockpit seat while the captain is back in First Class (AF447, and the Korean Air flight shot down over the Kamchatka Peninsula). We speak of Crew Concept and Crew Resource Management, but if the only pilot who understands the basics is not on the flight deck, these concepts are moot.

Commercial pressures have brought us, step by innocent-seeming step, to where we are today. Each step seems reasonable, at least at the time. We now routinely fly two-engine airplanes on twelve hour overwater legs. Back in the 1970’s that was unthinkable and illegal. In those days airplanes didn’t land themselves. Now they can, under the right conditions, and some operations manuals even specify autolands as the normal procedure. Pilots who comply are soon incompetent, unable to land the airplane by hand. But in San Francisco last month the glidepath transmitters were shut down on both runway 28’s. Indeed, they had been off since June 1. Manual landings were the only way at KSFO.

The Multi-Crew Licence seems like a logical next step in response to today’s commercial pressures. In reality, it is the next step toward complete incompetence on all flight decks.

Public Assumptions

Airlines have done an excellent job marketing a service that whisks you to another continent at half the speed the sun moves. Even with today’s oil prices, ticket prices are (in today’s dollars) a fraction of what they were in the 1960’s. This is the new normal. Flights are uneventful. Pilots are bus drivers. Airplanes land themselves, don’t they?

An airplane crashes at San Francisco. There must have been something wrong with the engines. Or perhaps the autothrust? A nosegear collapses on landing at LaGuardia? Obviously a mechanical malfunction.

Marketing has succeeded in making aviation seem safe. But even though airplanes have changed since the 1930’s, flying is still a dangerous adventure. The safe arrival of even today’s incredible airplanes still depends on the good judgment of pilots.

We don’t want to think about that, because pilots are people and can make mistakes. But we’ll have to start thinking about it, and acknowledging it, or the crashes will continue.

Feeders, Discount Airlines, and the Elimination of Apprenticeship

Flying is an apprenticeship trade. Like any job worth doing, it takes dedication and a lifetime of learning. I have 45 years and 19,000 hours of experience and I am just beginning to understand how little I know. But I have survived so far and I am very serious about continuing to survive. Dying by your own hand at the controls of an airplane is an absolute no-no for a pilot.

I was lucky. I have had (and still have) many fine teachers. When I was a young airline pilot most captains still took their teaching responsibilities seriously. Today’s young pilot is not assured of the same. Pressure on unions and pilot salaries is being applied by business methods: spawning and dividing feeders and discount airlines foremost among them. The goal is to lower costs, but the (perhaps unintentional) byproduct is the interruption of the contact between old and young pilots and the teaching and learning that allows. (I believe that lowering wages also directly reduces respect for the job and the job satisfaction of the worker, but that is an argument for another time.) The FAA’s response to the Colgan Air crash was to raise the experience requirement for First Officers to 1500 hours, even though it was the captain who was flying and who stalled the airplane and even though the airline had given insufficient training to both pilots on icing and how their aircraft handles ice. I have always understood that pilots are paid to be responsible. I am bemused by today’s response to accidents, where band-aids are liberally applied to wounds which obviously require surgery.

Conclusion

Introducing a Multi-Crew Licence in Canada would be just another band-aid papering over the serious issues facing aviation today. Don’t do it!