Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Type rating part I

Onward and upward! I'm a few steps closer to the real thing this week; firstly I received through the post a little blue plastic wallet containing that magic piece of paper from the Civil Aviation Authority.

Formally, it is a commercial pilot's licence with multi engine and instrument ratings. Informally it is called a 'frozen ATPL', and is basically a licence to act as a first officer on passenger-carrying flights.

One of CTC's Airbus simulators. We'll be on these next week.
Secondly, three friends and I have just completed the type rating ground school and sat and passed what should be our last formal written exam — the type rating technical exam. This was 120 question exam on the minutiae of the Airbus A320.

Next week we move on to the flight phase of the type rating in some very fancy new full-motion simulators. You can actually take a look around these machines yourself, thanks to a recent visit by Google Streetview. Pretty impressive I think you will agree.

"If it's not Boeing, I'm not going"

For years there has been something of a rivalry between pilots that like Airbus and those that prefer Boeing. From the outside perspective this seemed to make little sense as there's really isn't a lot to differentiate them visually.

Our (admittedly limited) training on the Boeing 737-400 simulators didn't really shed much light on the mystery either. We had a lot to learn in adapting from our simple light twins to the 737 but fundamentally it flew and felt fairly similar, that is like a conventional mechanically controlled aircraft.

Boeing have moved on a long way from the 737-400 of course, and the tools to help the pilots to fly safely and efficiently are incredibly good, even going as far as heads-up displays on the 787. Fundamentally though it is a conventional aircraft that is flown in a fairly hands-on way to which has been added lots of clever extras.

Airbus, I'm starting to realise, have taken an entirely different philosophy to their design. Rather than asking "how can we help the pilots to do their job?" they ask "how can we stop the pilots from making mistakes?"

Central to the Airbus is the fly-by-wire concept. No longer are the pilots' controls connected to the elevators, ailerons and so on with cables and levers. The only connections are electronic ones through the many and varied flight computers.

This ability to intervene between what the pilot commands and what the plane actually does fundamentally changes the way the plane is flown. The pilots do not have to worry about overspeeding, stalling, over banking or over stressing the airframe because the aircraft will to prevent it happening*. A lot of the tricky secondary effects of the controls are cleverly eliminated, making it far easier to hand-fly.

On the face of it this seems to take control away from the pilots whose job is to control the aircraft. The buck, after all, stops with the captain. But in fact it gives pilots the ability to respond quickly and aggressively when the situation demands without fear of losing control or breaking anything. It's safer.

The 'glareshield' panel contains the commonly used controls for
both controlling the autopilot and manipulating the navigation displays
But the design philosophy goes much deeper than that. The cockpit layout reflects what pilots actually require most of the time — that is clear, unambiguous information on the state of the aircraft while it is flying automatically and quick access to the key controls.

Line pilots spend hardly any time flying manually, so the control columns are smaller and positioned out of the way. There are two computer interfaces, the glareshield (above) for short-term control inputs located right in the centre and unit with a screen and keyboard for longer term planning and navigation affectionately known as the McDoo down below.

Two basic principles ensure the pilots are not dazzled with a messy array of lights and gauges; 1. if a system is normal, it will be 'lights out', and 2. almost everything you need to know or touch is right in front of you.

More key information is shown on two small screens that the multitude of gauges and
dials on older aircraft.
Four flat screen displays replace all conventional instruments. One (on the right in the picture) tells you everything about the way the aircraft is flying; attitude, speed, altitude, height, heading, track, autopilot and auto thrust modes and much more, presented in a very neat format.

On the left is the navigation display. Finally, a proper moving map display such as car drivers have been enjoying for years! Again it is well thought out and can combine all sorts of data including weather radar, terrain, airports, approach procedures, you name it.

When things go wrong, 'Fifi' won't just bombard you with
alarms, she will actually help you fix the problem...
On the centre console, the third and forth screens contains all the engine and system information, plus an area that gives details of the state of certain aircraft systems (only the ones you need to know about!) and where any faults will appear. Not only will it tell you what has failed, it will also tell you what to do about it, and in what order. No more scrabbling about in reference books to find the right page.

This aircraft will help out the pilots in all sorts of clever ways. Anything that could possibly be automated has been; eliminating a large amount of error-prone switch bashing and mental arithmetic. Yet careful thought has been given to how this automation can be overridden if required, and the consequences of one system on another in all sorts of situations.

It's not perfect of course. Already I can see that the manuals are a bit of a linguistic mess and the obsession with acronyms has got way out of hand. With so much automation, you have to work much harder on situational awareness (knowing where you are, where you are going and where you should be). And the lack of any movement or force feed-back on the primary flying controls is going to take some getting used to.

My initial impression is the Airbus is a very complex aircraft to really understand — its logic is full of 'what if' situations and deeply nested trees of causes and effects — but hopefully a safe and an easy one to fly.

I'm not going to have to wait long to find out.

* When it is operating normally. If enough systems fail it will revert to a simpler mode, in other words it becomes like a conventional aeroplane again.