May 2, 2013
Unless you’re in the aviation business, you’re probably unfamiliar with the acronym FOQA. In fact, many pilots couldn’t tell you what it means.
Pronounced foe-kwah, it stands for Flight Operational Quality Assurance. It’s an automatic recording and reporting system installed in some commercial aircraft. I don’t know all the details of how it works or what it tracks, but it continuously records a wide range of data about aircraft systems and flight performance. The goal is to improve flight efficiency and safety.
But FOQA can also be a snitch. If, for example, we overspeed the flaps (i.e., either put flaps down while going too fast or retract them too slowly while accelerating), FOQA will record the event, and it will get flagged once the data is downloaded. This shouldn’t be an issue, because the pilots are supposed to make a logbook entry for the overspeed event. But if they missed it, or elected to ignore it because it was only “a little fast,” they can probably expect a phone call from the chief pilot. A much more serious example would be if the pilots took off without selecting takeoff flaps (a very rare event, but it’s happened). This is definitely going to trigger some action.
Does this make pilots a little more attentive on a FOQA-equipped plane? You might think so, but the truth is that we don’t even pay attention to it. If you asked me halfway through a flight if the plane I was on had FOQA, I would have to check. The reason is simple: we don’t push the edge of the envelope, so we don’t worry about the snitch. It’s kind of like the security cameras in a bank: Honest people don’t worry about them.
August 10, 2012
The autopilot has to be one of the greatest inventions to come down the pike for pilots. The first plane I owned (actually I owned half of it), was a 1969 Cherokee 180D, N7728N, and it had a very rudimentary autopilot. It could hold a heading that I set with a moveable “bug” on the directional gyro. It wouldn’t hold altitude, and it sure wouldn’t fly an instrument landing. But just the ability to hold heading was a great thing to have, especially when flying alone in the clouds. It allowed me to consult my maps without worrying about drifting off heading or entering a gradual spiral.
The autopilots in modern jet aircraft can fly the plane from shortly after takeoff all the way to landing. But contrary to the image that many people have, it’s not just a matter of pressing a button, then forgetting about it (despite the old pilot’s joke when engaging the autopilot, “Let George fly it.”) In truth, the pilot tells the autopilot what to do throughout the flight by setting inputs for both the lateral and vertical modes.
The minimum altitude at which the autopilot may be engaged varies among airlines. My company’s minimum is 200 feet, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pilot engage it that low. Occasionally I’ll see someone engage it by 1,000 feet, but most pilots hand-fly the plane until much higher, often above 18,000 feet.
Once engaged in LNAV (lateral navigation), the autopilot will follow the entire flight plan that’s been loaded into the plane’s computer. The third dimension, altitude (vertical navigation, or VNAV), will also be flown according to the flight plan, but no altitude change occurs until the pilot sets the desired altitude on the mode control panel (the “dashboard”).
The autopilot does an excellent job of delivering a very smooth flight, and its use frees up the pilots to manage and monitor the flight. For the majority of the flight, the pilots’ involvement in flying the plane is initiating altitude changes, occasionally deviating from the planned flight path (e.g. due to weather) by flying in heading mode (as opposed to LNAV mode), and making changes to the stored flight plan in response to clearances from ATC (e.g. “You are cleared direct to Albany” or “After Brickyard, proceed direct Wilkes-Barre VOR”).
Most pilots will turn off the autopilot and hand fly the approach and landing. I’ve occasionally clicked it off as high as 20,000 feet, but usually I’m somewhere below 5,000 feet. Many modern planes have autoland capability, the ability to fly an ILS right down to landing. Using this feature is not just a matter of watching it happen. The pilots must configure the plane with flaps and landing gear, as well as ensuring that it slows to the proper speeds.
You might think we’d use this capability a lot, but most pilots like landing the plane themselves, and I’ve only used autoland one time in a real-world situation of very low visibility (fog at LAX; we could barely see the taxiway lights after landing as we made our crawl to the gate). Sometimes our flight plan will contain a remark from the dispatcher asking us to perform an autoland in order to keep the plane certified for this capability, and in this case we will grudgingly comply if the winds and runway in use allow it. We always remain ready to take over in case it doesn’t perform satisfactorily.
Lately, there’s been some concern that reliance on automation is eroding the basic skills of pilots. There is some truth there. My first airline job was flying the Jetstream 32, a 19-seat turboprop. I remember being amazed that it had no autopilot whatsoever, not even something as simple as a bug tracker like the one I had in my Cherokee 180. I hand flew that plane for five years, and I can honestly say that my flying skills and instrument scan probably peaked during that time. Hand flying five to eight legs a day, down low in the weather in the northeast corridor, will hone one’s flying skills.
Contrast this with my situation a couple of years ago, when I was on a steady diet of international flights. I would fly four trips a month, for a total of eight ocean crossings. With a three-man crew, I would be lucky to be the flying pilot on three of those flights, and often I would only get two takeoffs and landings in a month. In my turboprop days, I would sometimes get twice that number in a single day.
But the thing is, if you reach a certain experience level you’re not going to forget the basics, just like riding a bike. The problem today is that pilots new to the industry are starting right out in very sophisticated jets with glass cockpits, and, of course, a fully capable autopilot. The training focuses on using the automation, and less emphasis is placed on hand flying and the use of raw data. For a generation raised on computers and video games, mastery of this equipment comes quickly. But I sometimes wonder if the stick and rudder skills are there.
December 10, 2010
On a recent flight I was looking at my TCAS display and wondering how we ever did without this wonderful bit of equipment. TCAS stands for Traffic Collision Avoidance System, and I saw my first one in the early 90s. Prior to TCAS we had a three-prong approach to traffic avoidance: Air Traffic Control, “see and avoid,” and the Big Sky theory.
“See and Avoid” has always been the time-honored technique when flying under visual conditions. “Keep your head on a swivel” is the phrase I used to hear from my primary flight instructor. “It’s the one you don’t see that’ll kill you.” In the airline world we don’t worry too much about see and avoid when we’re cruising, because we’re in Positive Control Airspace and everyone up there (above 18,000 feet in the U.S.) is on an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) flight plan and has an altitude reporting transponder. But when we’re down low in the approach and landing phase of the flight, we’re keeping a sharp lookout.
The last line of defense against mid-airs has always been the Big Sky theory. With so much airspace and so few planes, the chances of two of them colliding is a statistical improbability. But it happened in 1956, when a United flight and a TWA flight collided over the Grand Canyon and, of course, we’ve got a lot more planes in the skies these days.
It’s hard to believe, but when TCAS was first introduced there was resistance among pilots. I think they saw it as a first step to having control taken from the cockpit. But that’s the not the case at all. It’s like having someone with eagle eyes in the cockpit keeping a constant lookout…and it works even in the clouds! Pilots quickly got so used to having TCAS, and so appreciated what it does for safety, that they became reluctant to fly if the TCAS unit wasn’t working.
There are several different kinds of TCAS displays. They all show traffic within 40 miles of our plane and within 2,700 feet of our altitude (those limits can be increased to 8,700 feet if we want).
Here’s a picture from a recent flight, showing two planes. The nearer one is 1,500 feet above us and climbing (indicated by the up arrow) and the farther one (almost off the display, which is set at 20 miles for this shot) is 1,600 feet below us.
The same two planes are visible in a view from the cockpit in the next picture only because they have contrails. (A third contrail can be seen, but that plane is not shown on the screen, either because it’s more than 20 miles away or more than 2,700 feet below us.) Neither of these planes represents a threat at this point, but it’s nice to know that TCAS keeps us aware of nearby traffic.
It would be hard to think of any other single bit of aviation technology that has increased safety so dramatically.