The model A versus the model S

Modern aircraft are rather simpler to operate than in days gone by. Flat-panel displays and GPS navigation have largely replaced the many dozens of “steam-gauges” that the pilot has to watch. But we’re still a long way away from a truly easy-to-fly airplane. And there are a few good reasons for that:

  • If something goes wrong, you can’t just pull over.
  • For historical reasons, modern displays often mimic older ones.
  • For regulatory reasons, certain instruments and controls are required.
  • Navigating in three dimensions isn’t a natural human function (we’re used to two).
  • We don’t really trust autopilots yet.

None of these are great reasons (just good ones), and I believe that aircraft controls will become much simpler in the future. By way of analogy, let’s look at the start-up sequences for a Ford Model A versus a Tesla Model S. First the Ford:

  • Check the tires (flats were not at all uncommon)
  • Check the radiator level
  • Check the fuel level
  • Get in the car and sit down
  • Turn on the cut-off switch
  • Set the gas mixture to between 3/4 and 1
  • Make sure the parking brake is pulled on (toward you)
  • Turn on the gas
  • Set the spark advance lever to “full retard”
  • Pull the throttle lever to about 1/3 down
  • Turn the carb adjusting knob all the way to the right
  • Turn the carb adjusting knob back one full turn to the left
  • Put the gear shift in to neutral
  • Turn the key
  • Pull back on the choke
  • Press the floor starter button
  • After it turns over once, release the choke
  • After the engine turns over, set the spark advance to about 1/2
  • Close the carb adjusting rod to about 1/4 turn open
  • Set the mixture to between 1/2 and 1/4

Now for starting up your Tesla Model S:

  • Get in the car and sit down

Both procedures get you to the same place in your respective vehicles: engine on and ready to go. Modern aircraft are a little bit better than their 1920’s counterparts, but really not by much. And while we don’t have to worry about the engine startup sequence so much, we do have a lot of new things to do before taking off: setting transponders, navigation systems, electronic flight plans, etc.

So we are not up to the Tesla Model S in terms of usability. In my opinion (having worked on quite a lot of different aircraft, and flown a few of them) it doesn’t need to be this way. Sure, airplanes are inherently more complex than cars: a car has two degrees of freedom (forward-backward, left-right) while an airplane has up to six (up-down, forward-backward, left-right, pitch, yaw, roll). But that still doesn’t account for a lot of the overhead that is absolutely screaming for automation.

I think that in the future (and I mean that in a vague and nebulous sense), planes will do most of the thinking for us as far as navigation, take-off, and landing. The flat-panel displays should be alerting us to potential issues, only, rather than faithfully recreating the steam gauges of the past.

End of rant.