Image above: Mark Bennett
Whatever the technology you adopt, don’t skimp on proper training—including stick-and-rudder skills.
The rotorcraft industry is at an inflection point. Many in our ranks dread an inevitable swarm of remotely piloted aircraft poised to pry our hands from the hard-fought controls of our beloved helicopters. In contrast, skeptics argue that advanced air mobility (AAM) deployment will be delayed a decade or more by airframe certification and public acceptance hurdles.
While some fixate on the future of AAM, I choose to focus instead on promoting the adoption of existing technologies to make our flying experience vastly safer, more efficient, and more enjoyable.
The Case for Tech
Regardless of where we all stand on the AAM debate, one thing we can all acknowledge is that technology reigns supreme in all aspects of our present-day life. Airline passengers demand safe, smooth, and reliable all-weather transport that relies heavily on the latest precision-navigation, stabilization, flight management, obstacle-avoidance, weather, and situational-awareness systems. Those same passengers enjoy similar capabilities in automobiles equipped with standard high-tech features. So, it stands to reason that VTOL operators who can reliably deliver capabilities comparable to our air carrier counterparts will grow market share in the coming years. Those who reject technology enhancements will serve fewer passengers and customers who prefer the lowest price at the expense of all else.
Selecting the Right Tech
Few among us possess the resources to go all in and acquire new aircraft equipped with the most advanced bells and whistles. Owners and operators must carefully assess a modest suite of options to provide an optimal return on investment tailored to their operations. Performance criteria based on a host of factors, including safety, comfort, and efficiency, must be considered. The wish list can vary widely, but a few options are widely accepted by many who’ve safely emerged from the Stone Age.
For instance, every pilot should now embrace the use of an electronic flight bag that can access critical flight data through reputable mobile applications and chart providers. Strong consideration should also be given to systems that can dramatically reduce pilot workload and keep the aircraft flying upright during unanticipated circumstances. Investment in every available enhanced flight instrument or the latest navigation, stabilization, autopilot, and flight management systems may be cost prohibitive. Still, each system alone can boast a record of preventing several spatial disorientation, loss of control, or CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) accidents.
Training to Proficiency
Potential buyers should wait to acquire new systems until they’re prepared to commit to an entire life cycle of logistics support. One often-overlooked area is training. Expecting employees to figure it out on the job is rarely an acceptable option. Installing a fancy new gadget does little to enhance safety if pilots and wrench turners spend the bulk of their time figuring out how to test, maintain, or use it. No matter how cutting edge, poorly maintained systems will eventually fail, and flight crews will soon refuse to use or trust them. Familiarity isn’t enough. Training to proficiency ensures that you can access the full range of a system’s features and benefits.
An essential part of a training program should include monitoring and intervention procedures for when the system fails to work as advertised. Helicopter automation and stabilization systems are powerful tools to help reduce pilot workload and can save lives. Still, the erosion of essential stick-and-rudder skills is arguably a more hazardous condition.
My former colleague, Matt Callan, underscores this point in his spring 2019 ROTOR magazine article “Is Technology Killing Us?” This month’s Spotlight on Safety message similarly emphasizes the importance of adopting technology while remaining prepared to intervene when necessary.
In summary, remotely piloted aircraft are coming. We can view this as a threat or an opportunity. Will some dull, dirty, or dangerous flight operations move from the traditionally piloted to the remotely piloted category? Probably. Is that a good thing? That depends on your perspective. Either way, owners and operators who embrace proven technologies that elevate safety and operational performance will very likely be at the front of the pack.