Most people’s favorite It’s a Wonderful Life moment is George Bailey being rescued by his neighbors and friends. I disagree. The pivotal scene is where there is a rush on the banks. Here George becomes more than a friend; he becomes the leader the citizens of Bedford Falls need. “Think! Don’t you see what’s happening here?” Against the background of the 1929 Stock Market Crash, George desperately tries to subdue his friends’ panic; that if they surrender to their fears, motivated by passion, the movie’s antagonist, Mister Potter, will exploit the citizens’ hysteria and put them in poverty. By allowing emotions to feed despair, Bedford Falls would become Pottersville.
Redolent of Oscar Wilde’s quote, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life,” the aviation industry has, for many years, been motivated by passion – not common sense – to bring about change and safety. We barely acclimate ourselves to the ‘new ways’ before we are loaded onboard for another rollercoaster ride back into the future.
Like a single or pilotless cockpit, for instance. In 1957, the Boeing B707 first flew; it became an original transatlantic jetliner requiring a four-pilot flight crew. In 1981 (Twenty-four years later) the commercial industry was introduced to the Boeing B767, an airliner that in 1985 became the next generation transatlantic jetliner, cutting its flight crew complement in half to two pilots. Since 1981, for thirty-seven years and millions of flown miles, the aviation community has perfected the two-pilot cockpit and the digital technology. In terms of high-tech, we are where we should be … perhaps. But, is the commercial aviation industry ready to turn the corner; convey this much responsibility to computers? The scientific know-how is inevitable. We have not, however, learned to tame the automation; it still confounds us, leaving us astonished as a result of our arrogance.
So, why do we put our caution aside? Simply, a threat is made to our way of life. If we can’t find pilots, our ability to go on that vacation, business trip or delivery of an overnight package is threatened. With the decreasing pilot population smaller connection routes will be discontinued, regional operator contracts won’t be renewed, smaller airlines will go under and you, the travelling public, will have to travel hundreds of miles to catch a flight. Available seating will be non-existent. Pilots will exceed their rest periods, leading to labor problems and government violations. Pilots will be hired without the qualifying flight hours, requiring Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) policy changes. Recommendations related to National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigations and special interest groups will be shelved. Passions will overcome common sense for, well … the sake of the flying public.
With a pending pilot shortage and technology that suggests superiority in the air, we will again be driving an emotional rollercoaster – to fast track pilotless airliners. Slowly the First Officer (second pilot) will be replaced; he or she labeled ‘redundant’, unnecessary for safety of flight. Drones, Space X launch vehicles and satellites prove our ability; eventually, technology will dictate that we don’t even need onboard pilots. Computers will evolve to the point they can handle everything. At first, a human ‘pilot’ will ‘fly’ the airliner virtually, from the safety of a room at the airline’s headquarters. In short order, that need will cease to be.
“Think! Don’t you see what’s happening here?”
Climate Change, aka Global Warming, infamous perpetrator of alleged consequences, e.g. greenhouse gases and ocean acidification, is a hot topic. Without convincing data to support pro or con on the subject, nations have been blindly moved to take sides, motivated by their citizens’ passions. Rash decisions will be made; studies begun with questionable findings. As an industry, the aviation community asks the question: What can we do to Save the World? The answer: Bio-fuels. In record time, the industry is developing and testing bio-fuels in real situations. Eventually, airliners will be flying revenue flights, crossing the United States and the Oceans, hours away from the nearest field.
However, are we properly vetting these fuels? Are we putting the engines through the full collection of environmental conditions? How about the fuel systems? Do we know for sure that fuel components will survive exposure to these bio-fuels under all operating pressures? Will the new bio-fuel blends reduce any component’s useful life and what happens if they do? Will components have to be re-engineered or re-approved? What effect will be seen on an operator’s engine maintenance program? What new fuel microbes will be introduced and will they affect safe operation?
“Think! Don’t you see what’s happening here?”
A recent misconception is that as the accident rate goes down, aviation safety is achieved. This drop in fatalities represents a ball-spiking moment for the NTSB and the FAA, but more so for many prominent politicians who work on various transportation or aviation sub-committees responsible for funding the FAA and NTSB. In this instance, the bully pulpit, normally reserved for a President, is employed liberally in an effort to take credit for what many hard-working aviators’ lives and deaths made possible. The reality: aviation safety is only made possible through the conscious efforts of safety-minded aviators; it is a privilege, bought at great cost.
Politicians and bureaucrats would have us believe that safety is their gift to the traveling public, that without their guidance and leadership we would be in fear of flying. In discounting that fear, the politicians perform the greatest disservice to the public, by deluding us into a comfort zone they cannot support. Their actions, motivated by passion, are self-praise and job security, not aviation safety.
To bolster this myth, this fairytale of aviation safety, the FAA and the NTSB are throttled back. After all, why support agencies that have performed their jobs so well, their methods, analysis and purposes are almost obsolete? Instead, politicians determine there must be a cheaper, less invasive way to conduct oversight and perform surveillance, two methods employed to get the skies safe to begin with. One way is to re-organize.
So, the FAA rebrands. Is the strategy to employ people familiar with aviation to conduct the oversight and surveillance? Has the FAA-to-Industry relationship changed; is the FAA becoming a partner with the Industry and less the administrator of the Industry? Is safety to be delegated to blind trust? Are FAA inspectors checking off question responses as opposed to visually checking on the goings on? What if the FAA inspectors are being taught to drive a laptop instead of driving a government car? Is the FAA foregoing the five Whys of Root Cause Analysis for the two Whys of Safety Assurance?
If the answer to any of these questions is ‘Yes’, then the aviation industry is looking at a return Swing of the Pendulum. The Myth of the No-Accident Safety Record becomes painfully clear: There is no such thing as a No-Accident Safety Record. There are all types of responses to this revelation; the passionate Media will call it “A Tragedy!” Politicians and Bureaucrats will say, “It’s not our fault; we’ve been betrayed.” And the cynical will only refer it as, “The Smoking Hole.”
And a voice, strangely reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart, will whisper in the wind, “Think! Don’t you see what’s happening here?”