Steve Jobs and Aviation Safety – Reading Between the Lines

What in the world would the person who built the Apple empire have in common with aviation safety?

Perhaps a tough stretch… but maybe an easy and interesting connection.

I’m not sure if Steve Jobs ever had a particular interest in aviation but while reading his biography, I came across a couple of his quotes that really stood out to me.  My mind jumped right to flying after reading them.

After being fired by the company he started, Steve Jobs was rehired as CEO to revive the company again.  Regarding that opportunity in life, he made the following statement-

“The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner” – Steve Jobs

In aviation, we often think of success as bigger equipment, more pay, greater technology and perhaps flying to far away locations.  Certainly a great goal if you can get there.

In terms of safety, it just makes things more complex.  The idea of going back to the “lightness of a beginner” is a great concept regardless of time and experience.

Most of the things that keep us out of trouble in an airplane are the things we were taught in the beginning. We slowly lose connection with those things as we succeed.

Things like situational awareness.

Remember your instructor making you use “all available equipment” in the airplane for SA?  That included the ADF, an RMI and Marker Beacons.

How many pilots do you see actually start time at the FAF as a back up to the GPS or DME?

Standard callouts at uncontrolled fields reduces the risk of a collision.  Those calls seem to be less common in jets and turboprops for some reason.

Go-arounds. Briefed and expected on every approach.  We don’t always know what the “other guy” taking off or landing is going to do or what the weather might hold at the bottom.

CFIT – LOC 30 MTV, October 2004

In October 2004, the pilots of a King Air 200 lost situational awareness during a localizer approach.  The NTSB determined that they elected to fly the approach with a GPS (KLN90B – challenging to begin with) that was not current and not IFR certified.  The pilots with this organization stated that the SOP was to use the GPS as a “back up”.

In this case, it appeared that it was used as the primary source and gave the crew erroneous information.  They mistakenly referenced the MAP as the final approach fix and executed the missed approach 4-5 nm beyond the actual MAP. The result was a CFIT accident with no survivors.

It did not appear that the pilots referenced the basics.  DME on the approach, the NDB, a through approach brief.  Anything that would have given them an immediate indication that things were not agreeing.

Hindsight is always 20/20. None of us are immune from human error but I can’t help but think that a simple setting in the ADF with the flip of a needle or a DME readout would have saved 10 lives.

“It’s not faith in technology, it’s faith in people” – Steve Jobs

As much as Apple invested in technology, Jobs continually commented on contributions and power of his employees.  It wasn’t lost on him that people make and drive those technology decisions.

In my very humble opinion – humans fly airplanes. Period.

When the autopilot is on, you are still flying.  In some ways, it seems that technology is taking the place of poor human performance.  The more technology we get, the more our skills diminish and more our skills diminish, more technology is developed. Bad cycle.

“How about we just fly it?”  I don’t hear that too often.

Something is wrong with this picture.

In the last 35 years, there have been 42 accidents in which the NTSB has found the probable accident cause to be failure to monitor automated flight. Think about that.

William Langewieshe might have said it best –

“Once you put pilots on automation, their manual abilities degrade and their flight path awareness is dulled; flying becomes a monitoring task, an abstraction on a screen, a mind numbing wait for the next hotel” (Vanity Fair, October 2014)

Perhaps it’s time we get back to training the pilot first. Technology second.