Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Inventing the HOOYA Display

One summer's evening a few years back when everybody was pretending to have money, I witnessed a fellow in a Mercedes SLR make a grand entrance into a trendy local outdoor cafe. He first struck the opposite curb of the narrow drive with his half-million-dollar exotic, then gingerly backed up and tried a tighter turn, this time hanging his ground-bound silver missile up on the near curb and crushing the doorsill. A repair bill rivaling the cost of a semester at Princeton, to be sure.

In fairness, the alleyway was tight, and the SLR, with its Holmesian schnoz, clearly required two traffic lanes of initiating arc to accomplish the maneuver. Maybe a few 2 a.m. practice runs before trying to impress the beautiful people?

Just up the road, some tubby-ish 30-something guys in team logo uniforms riding matching carbon fiber race bikes huffed and puffed up a hill, a half-football-field back from a fit 50-something guy riding a steel bike straight out of the 70s. The old guy was wearing the team jersey of whatever cycle racing team wears plain white T-shirts.

These two road-going tales, when stretched every-which-way by your humble blogger to make a theme, reinforce the old adage that those of us who can't afford Mercedes SLRs and carbon fiber race bicycles like to bandy about: It's not about whether you own a Mercedes SLR or a carbon fiber race bike: it's all about not looking like a dork.

Good judgment, talent, competence, cannot be packaged in a machine of any price.

The National Transportation Safety Board recently reviewed the safety merits of advanced glass cockpits in general aviation aircraft and concluded that pilots of advanced computerized light planes live no safer lives in the skies than pilots of old-school analog aircraft.

Less safe lives, perhaps.

Of course, the Board's initial report on the safety of glass cockpits makes no presumption about pilots becoming over-confident in sophisticated machinery -- rather that interface standards differ from cockpit to cockpit, and pilot training on these new systems is inconsistent at best.

AVSIG folks who are currently discussing the report agree that unlike the advanced cockpits in airliners, which require weeks of intensive type-specific training for airline pilots, general aviation glass cockpits may be presented to pilots with little opportunity for familiarization, and even with extensive factory training on a given glass cockpit, transition to another can be problematic.

Think about the last time you had to navigate the menus on a new cell phone. It's hard not to agree.

But the forum braintrust points out another set of factors that work against general aviation pilots in glass cockpits, namely the tendency of those who have taken to the air in the computer age to look at computerized airplane primarily as a computer with wings, and worse, to associate state-of-the-art technology with state-of-the-art safety. One guy, whom we'll refer to as J. Wiley, commented on working with new pilots in glass environments. He compared their cockpit demeanor with that of the average cubicle dweller at-work, locked in trance-like gaze with the glowing computer screen.

No verifying that what's happening on the screen is happening out in the real world

No looking out the window. (This thing has a window too?).

Possibly forgetting that in this video game, he/she *is* the video game.

There is much to recommend in modern general aviation aircraft: collision avoidance, weather, and systems monitoring that far exceeds the onboard information available in decades past. But in any case where airmanship becomes an afterthought to flight technology, it's fair to say things won't go well when things, for lack of a better term, don't go well. And chances are that the many menus of tech in a modern airplane place the thought process for sheer survival many layers beyond the world of some modern winged computer jockeys.

More than a few Cirrus crashes have I've-got-a-State-of-the-Art-Plane-with-a-Parachute written all over them, including a number of chute-first-and-aviate-later incidents. One chartering company actually touts the capability of its weather radar-/parachute-equipped fleet by offering that passengers can "Travel on your schedule, where you want, and when you want" -- no mention of little killjoys like weather.

If the bad decisions that crash airplanes are increasingly no more sophisticated than the bad decisions that crash more mundane transportation, the future isn't looking bright.

Back here on the ground, after recently being rear-ended in a snowstorm by a kid checking his text messages, I had the opportunity to spend some time at the body shop. There were a lot of brand new smashed luxury cars there. The fresh kills, according to the shop manager, had a common story.

"When everybody started buying SUVs we'd get crashed SUVs after snowstorms, because these people thought they were invincible in the snow. Then people started buying high-end cars with traction control, roll control, anti-lock brakes, lane departure warning, and all this gee-whiz stuff, and now they're the first ones we see after a snow storm."

He pointed to an S-Class Mercedes sedan, whose three-pointed star had been fractured into a more terrestrial-looking mishmash of chrome twigs after its driver had run into a stopped semi-trailer on the freeway.

"The guy saw an ad for a Mercedes with a collision avoidance system on television," said the body shop man. "And he said he assumed if it was on the lower-end car in the commercial, it was sure to be on his car, which was brand new and cost twice as much."

Funny, no? Gets better.

Mr. Mercedes, said the dent man, saw he was in trouble on the snowy freeway but didn't even hit his brakes. He assumed the (non-existent) computer crash avoidance program in his car would do a better job.

"Instead of the Head-Up Display," said the man who spends his days correcting bad decisions with blowtorches and mallets, "they should have invented the The Head-Out of Your *** Display."


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