How to fly a really complex aircraft

It’s 1935. The US Army Air Corp is testing out the Model 299 prototype of a long-range Boeing bomber. Manned by an experienced crew, the four-engine plane thunders into the sky above Wright Field, Ohio. But as it climbs, instead of levelling off, the plane’s nose keeps pointing up, and up, and up – and there’s nothing the pilot can do to get it down. Suddenly, at roughly 100 metres of altitude, all four engines stall. The plane pitches forward and seconds later slams into the ground, bursting into flames.

The problem? Pilot error. At that time, the Model 299 prototype was a marvel of complexity, offering the crew a series of controls and features never before seen on an aircraft. When, from stress and hurry, the pilot forgot to release a new lock on the rudder, the result was fatal – the crash killed him and another of the five-man crew. As one newspaper claimed at the time, this complex Boeing aircraft was “too much plane for a man to fly”.

But it wasn’t. The plane would soon be adopted as the B-17 Flying Fortress and used extensively in World War II. To make the complex aircraft manageable for thousands of crew members on thousands of planes flying billions and billions of miles, the Army Air Corp came up with a simple solution: the checklist.

The aviation checklist is still a fundamental part of airline safety today. According to Marek Tybl, a pilot and trainer for easyJet based at Milan’s Malpensa Airport, Airbus a320s have eight checklists for “normal” moments: preparing the cockpit, before and after starting the engines, when taxiing, before take-off, while approaching, landing, and parking. One experienced pilot can complete the necessary tasks by memory, but both on-duty pilots work together to check and tick each item off as done.

In other words, being a good pilot is not about flying by the seat of your pants. “You’re given a box,” says Marek, “and being a good pilot means staying in that box.” The goal is to be error-proof, “and checklists simplify every process”.

As Marek tells it, checklists were widely adopted in commercial aviation as a part of hardening regulations as airline companies grew to massive proportions.

“In a small company operating two or even 10 planes, everybody knows everybody, and you know your colleagues’ strengths and weaknesses. But if you look at easyJet, Ryanair, or Delta, there are thousands of pilots. Most have never seen each other before and will never see each other again, but they’re all expected to fly exactly the same. For that you need strict Standard Operating Procedures.”

Accompanying the growth in industry size, came an increase – much like the switch to the B-17 in the 1930s – in airplane complexity. Today, onboard computer systems can operate the plane for the duration of the flight, from take-off to landing; one day soon, they may reduce on-duty pilots on long-haul flights to one – or none. These systems have made planes and flying much safer and more reliable than in the past. But they’ve also become so complex that it’s harder to predict exactly what might go wrong.

That’s why, according to Marek, in his 23 years as a pilot he’s seen a fundamental shift in the training philosophy. “We used to focus on how to manage a specific emergency, like flying a plane with one less engine or navigating in challenging weather conditions”. While piloting still requires technical mastery of automation systems, there’s a strong new focus on developing and testing the critical competencies it takes to best handle any emergency.

“Leadership, communication, and teamwork are three things we really focus on. And you need good situational awareness, so you can imagine potential risks and errors from any course of action. This helps you define as a team which course of action is the safest and the best.” It’s a structured approach to problem solving that still depends on a simple tool – the non-normal checklist.

As the name suggests, these checklists, produced in conjunction with manufacturers, operators, and industry regulators, help pilots assess atypical situations and respond efficiently. They help reduce human error, while empowering the very human critical competencies Marek helps train.

Aviation today is “very, very safe”, assures Marek. When he flies to Lisbon or London, Reykjavik or Prague, in his native Czech Republic, the only time he feels a bit nervous is “on the drive home from the airport”.

Nearly 90 years after that tragedy on an Ohio airstrip, Marek and anybody who flies owe their sense of safety to the simple checklist.

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