Aircraft Automation and the Degradation of Pilot Skills

This is a photo of an airplane cockpit

Bill Gibbs

[0:00] Okay. It's 2 pm in the eastern time zone of the United States, but whatever time it is for you locally, we welcome you and thank you for joining us. My name is Bill Gibbs, and I'll be the webinar coordinator. Today's session: Keeping pace with change: Challenges for the Aircraft MRO Industry, is with Dr. Patti Clark. It's a part of a series of 3 webinars we will present during the 2015, 2016 academic year. Each features noted Embry-Riddle faculty or alumni who are national experts, talking about an important area of interest in their field.

We're very excited today, because this is the first session ever to use our new webinar platform, Adobe Connect, which we will also be using for our Eagle Vision classrooms. Those of you that are students are getting a first hand look at what Adobe Connect will look like for you. Here's today's agenda, and I included a picture of myself, so you know who is talking. We have just a little bit of housekeeping, and then our featured presentation by Dr. Clarke, followed by a question and answer period, and then finally a brief update on upcoming webinars and degree briefings. Let's begin by a poll, as we often do. I want to find out where in the world you are as you listen to this presentation. You should see a poll in front of you. If you just take a moment to touch the dial and let us know if you're from North America, Europe, the Middle East or Asia, Africa, South America, Australia, or from outer space.

You may laugh about that last one, but with Embry-Riddle having 6 alumni who are astronauts, including Terry Virts, who was up in the [00:02:00] international space station just last year, you never know. There may be one of our alumni who are joining us from out of this world. We'll take just a second more to broadcast the results, give everyone a chance to log in, and see where you all are from. Let's take a look at it. It look like today about 80% of you are from North America, with the remainder mostly in Europe, and a few scattered in Middle East, Africa, and South America. Let me say: Wherever you are today, wherever you're located, thank you for joining us. I deeply appreciate your taking your time to learn about this topic.

Before I begin, I'd like to cover just a few housekeeping topics. If you have any questions during the webcast, you can place them in the question and answer section, which you'll see immediately to the right of the screen. Submit your questions for the presenters. You can submit questions at any time, including right now, and we'll try to answer as many as we can. You won't only see your question and an answer for you, we will broadcast the answers verbally from the speaker. The presenter's email is going to be included during the Q&A time at the end of the presentation, so if you have subsequent questions or questions that were not answered during the presentation, you can ask them of her at that time via email. The slides are already available, you'll notice there at the bottom of the Q&A section, there's a "session slides." You can click on those and download those immediately into your presentation, or into your own personal computer. A follow up email will be sent to all participants and posted to the webinar's website with an on demand link tot he recording, as well as other helpful information. More on that at the end. We offer [00:04:00] a participation certificate, again, it will not be offered within the webinar, but will be offered upon request. You'll get information about that in your follow up email.

When you get that follow up email, I encourage you to click the survey link and complete the survey. Your input is deeply appreciated and carefully reviewed. In fact, 2 of the webinars presented later this year are the direct result of audience input on surveys from last year. All right. With the housekeeping out of the way, let's take one more poll. Find out if you're related in any way to Embry-Riddle. If you'd take a moment to take the poll, and find out how you do. Are you a current student, an alum, pursuing a degree, considering pursuing a degree, a staff or faculty member, or you're not affiliated but you're definitely interested? Give a moment for the results to all post in. They're still coming in as I speak. Okay. I think we've got this pretty well settled. Let me broadcast the results. As you can see, we have 37% who are current students. Welcome students. Another 14% who are alums, and over 10% of the audience considering a degree. Thank you for that. The rest, either staff or no affiliation. Whether you have an affiliation or not, we do certainly welcome you to this session today.

Let me introduce Patti Clark. Dr. Patti Clark is an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Worldwide and currently developing a new Master’s degree for the university. She has aviation experience ranging from an Air Force aircraft [00:06:00] jet engine mechanic to airport manager. She is a certified Project Management Professional, Certified Member of the American Association of Airport Executives, and a licensed Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) Technician by the FAA. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a Ph.D. from Northcentral University. With that, I introduce Dr. Patti Clarke, who will begin her presentation.

Dr. Patti Clark

Thank you Bill for that kind introduction, and I thank all of you for attending this webinar. I hope you find it informative. I'm going to caveat, before we get started, that we can only cover some high points in this webinar, and there's a myriad of factors and issues related to MRO challenges, so we're just going to hit some high points today. That said, let's move on to the program. Here is some of the topics we're going to talk about today. The focal point, I think, resides around the advancements in aircraft technology. We'll take a look at a current snapshot of the aviation maintenance workforce today. What does the industry look like? The anticipated problem, the recruiting and training of the aviation maintenance technician of tomorrow, do we have a future problem? Then, potential solutions, techniques, and ways to develop an educated and skilled, as well as diversified workforce to meet these challenges.

In this picture, you have 2 distinctly different aircraft. It's just an actual illustration of how much has changed [00:08:00] in the composition and structure of airplanes. On the left is a photo of the mosquito, which was a British world war 2 aircraft. The fuselage was constructed almost entirely of plywood. Of course, that was a bit of an anomaly. Most aircrafts were at that time, and continue to be, constructed of metal. On the right hand side, the trend is for newer aircrafts to contain more and more composites. Composites of course, are lighter materials composed of fibers, epoxy resin and other materials that are bonded together through a heat treatment and curing process, hence the word "composite." If you ask, "Why composites?" Of course, composites for aircraft, they're very much lighter, stronger, and resistant to corrosion. All of these factors are very favorable for aircraft construction. Of course, this picture on the right, this is a 787 fuselage, which is a composite fuselage. Really the first in the world. Overall, the aircraft is about 50% composite by weight. Of course, other places we see composites used now are in the wings, vertical fins, tails, those are areas.

Moving on to those advances in aircraft technology. Again, that was just an example of the composite side. Not only have the structural components changed, but also the complexity of the aircraft systems. Computerized monitoring and controlling systems, fadex, EEKS, and air data computers were just the beginning of these changes. We now have integration of systems to provide really more holistic, this comprehensive oversight and understanding of operations. [00:10:00] It takes pilot inputs, mechanical settings such as flaps, slats, brakes, power changes.

All of these aspects factor in to providing that bigger picture, that overall operational picture of the aircraft. Additionally, engine technology is making great strides. Of course, everything from more increased thrust to again, more advanced materials. They're using composite blades. More diagnostics and computerized monitoring and actuation. Of course, the engine world kind of led this evolution of understanding and integration and monitoring. They're making even bigger in roads into this area. Of course, avionics, which are the electronic suite. Those things that tie it all together. They include, of course, a myriad of multi-function displays, computers that monitor and control all the facets of flight. Everything from knowing what the fuel consumption, the altitude, your navigation settings, warning, weather, air traffic, all of those are parts of air craft and becoming even more advanced. Just like your computer is faster, so are computers in air craft.

Of course, all of this information and all of this technology that's moving ahead also gives us the opportunity to have a lot more big data. These systems generate information, the individual data systems or data sets can be collected and used to diagnose problems. You can see an over temp, high fuel flow, even a weight and balance problem that may be [00:12:00] there. In the future, we're beginning to use this data, or trying to learn how to use this data to predict future problems, such as engine anomalies, trends that are out of limits ... Not out of limits, but perhaps are trending upwards ... Some operational changes, and even structural issues. All of those provide a way to monitor, but also to diagnose problems. We have more technology, and more data, so that all sounds good. What's the problem? Is there a problem?

Well, there is a problem. There's several of them, but let's first take a look at the status of the MRO workforce, and then I will try to tie this all together. The information on this slide is directly taken from Aviation Week & Space Technology. They presented a webinar late last year on the aviation and aerospace workforce. Kind of a "here's where we're at." I want you to look at the top line, which is the aerospace and defense line for this chart. One thing you should notice, if you look on the bottom in the legend there, your generation Y, which is kind of your millenials ... There's of course discussion whether there's millenials and generation Y, or whether they're all one, but we won't talk about that. The generation X and the baby boomers. As you can see, there's a big percentage of baby boomers. Those are the people who are 50+ working in aerospace and defense. It's much more than in other comparable industries that are listed there below. The only one that's fairly close is engineering and manufacturing.

This is a problem. [00:14:00] This bubble has been forecast to burst with the baby boomers retiring for several years, now, but it hasn't yet. Most of the reason the baby boomers are still in the work force are probably fairly obvious. The economic downturn, the recovery, those type of things. They seem to be hanging on in larger numbers in aerospace and defense, and of course within this work force, this industry of course encompasses the MRO industry as well.

Now I want you to take a look at the generation X, which is your middle group there. You'll see that they're kind of small. They're actually smaller than any other group listed there. This age group is the group that should be moving into leadership and managerial roles now, but we have such a large number of baby boomers holding onto positions, we're not retaining or attracting those generation X individuals. Just in my opinion, I think this is probably the biggest challenge facing the work force today. Lastly, look at the millenials, or the generation Y. They look pretty good, overall, but there's actually a problem, because we're not keeping them in the workforce. There's a very high attrition rate for the youngest members of the workforce. Those with 0-5 years. As I said, if you look at this overall, you can see that there's a large problem or potential problem, because of the proportions we have. [00:16:00] As I noted, I think really our generation X workforce is going to be a forthcoming or emerging problem.

We've looked at the current picture, now what can we see into the future? Taking these things we've already talked about here in technology and the workforce. Bluntly, the bottom line is we're not building a sustainable workforce for the future of the MRO industry. At some point, baby boomers will retire, and their leadership as well as their needed skills are going to be gone. Already, for example, we've seen some glimmers of this reality. I recently had a senior level government contractor tell me that over 1000 civilian air craft maintenance and repair positions were open in one of the US airforce depots. That's one depot, in one location. Folks, to me, that's just the tip of the iceberg.

As we know, the military was formerly a stepping stone to the civilian MROS and military depots for aircraft maintenance. With the downsizing of the military workforce, the number of available workers has decreased as well. We're just not getting those people moving from the military into civilian or military civilian roles. Of course, then the second bullet there, we've probably seen that several times. Boeing forecasts a requirement globally of 609,000 maintenance technicians through 2034. This is new positions. These are new positions. Now granted, that number is [00:18:00] a global one, with over 200,000 of those being in the Asia area, but in North America alone, the forecast is around 113 new positions. Where are we going to get these technicians?

 Additionally ... That demand is greater than supply, so additionally, as I noted in the previous slide, we're not attracting or retaining the young people at the needed rate. If we go to the root or further down into the problem, schools are not programming or teaching children to think about skilled trades, but instead, focusing and programming them for college. Most children have absolutely no idea about the aviation maintenance career field. They know about pilots, and they know about flight attendants, because they see them on the airplane, but they have no concept of how an aircraft is maintained, or that maintenance is even a requirement, frankly. They may understand that a car has required maintenance, because their parents take the car to the shop, and they see garages. They know that some upkeep is needed to keep it on the road. I think if you ask them, an airplane just takes off and flies to the other, right?

This is a problem, and potentially probably the root of our problems. Then, we need to talk about the training gap. As we talked about the composites, and as they emerge to be a bigger part of the aircraft, we need new skills to repair and maintain the aircraft. In the future, the skills for repairing composite materials, mixing temp time, just knowing ... This skillset is very specialized. The proper application [00:20:00] and putting them all together is very time consuming, but it's also very specialized. We're going to need ... We're also going to still retain the need for mechanical skills. They're vital to aircraft repair, and this is not going to change in the future.

However, this skill seems to be waning in younger technicians. With the reliance on computerized systems, technicians are losing that ... As we go back and talk about that holistic skills of understanding how things come together, how the system works and operates within the larger systems ... We seem to be losing that edge on capability. The technician can follow the instructions in the technical data, and those provided by the computer, but they don't know how to work through to solve a problem using system knowledge, using their brain.

I can tell you from years of experience, that aircrafts do not always break by the book, and you can't fix them by the computer sometimes. Truthfully, the younger generation has, in my opinion, sort of an automation addiction. We often hear this term with regards to pilots, that over reliance on automated in the cockpit may impair flying skills. I think it's just as true for younger aircraft technicians, or even our younger generation. Then you factor in the environment in which our ... Especially that millennial group has grown up in. Everything is just, "Go ask Google." Any question you can come up with. If they have to reason through without electronic assistance, how well do they do? All these factors have impacted the younger generation logic, and those very critical in aircraft maintenance, deductive reasoning skills. [00:22:00]

Now. Of course the third bullet, don't get me wrong that automation and computerization are not necessary. They're definitely needed in the new sophisticated aircraft of today, and even the older ones as we upgrade the avionic suites and systems. This is GA, this is business. Everybody's got to adapt to this evolution of technology change. As aircrafts become more complex, and systems and integration and informational output ... Certainly more robust IT skills are going to be required. We need to balance that skill set. We need to balance the computer knowledge with the technical, those mechanical skills as well.

I seem to have painted a lot of issues out there, and it may be a little gloom and doom for the challenges in the aircraft MRO industry. How do we correct these issues? There's not one solution, and these offered today are not going to be all of them, but there's several of them out there. They're going to take time, but we need to start now. Here's some suggested solutions. I think this first one is very critical. This is better and stronger partnerships with the industry and academia. We have partnerships, but we really need to have those difficult conversations. Industry needs to acknowledge the problem, and academia, we need to provide assistance. That assistance needs to be ... Putting these 2 together will come up with better solutions. What is industry doing today [00:24:00] to recruit and train the MRO workforce of tomorrow? Are you partnering with Part 147 or Part 65 schools, or better yet, just as I talked about, into the high schools and even middle schools, to educate young people on the aircraft maintenance industry?

The second bullet: We need to encourage and foster diversity. Aircraft maintenance today remains a very male dominated field. In 2014, women made up less than 3% of all A&P technicians in the US. Now these are licensed individuals, but overall, the workforce participation is very low. Previous research conducted confirmed that most women no little or nothing about the aircraft maintenance career field, and if they did, it was through association with somebody, a woman who had been in the field, and predominantly if she was in the military. We need to change that. Then diversity has not, or doesn't seem to be a priority in the overall industry. This is aerospace and defense, MRO being a part of it.

With the Aviation Week webinar, they presented that the diversity population overall was only about 23.6%. We need to inform women and minorities about the opportunities within the aircraft maintenance field. With about 35,000 new aircraft entering the commercial airlines, there will definitely be a need for a bigger workforce. Whether it's 100,000 or whether it's 50,000, there's going to be a need. [00:26:00] We also have to replace the people that are leaving. Why do we continue to not attract women, which are roughly 50% of the workforce? Why the low number of minorities and other diverse populations? I think the root is education.

Industry leaders need to ... Pardon me. You need to tell academia the shortfalls in people skills and future requirements. Together, we need to come up with more and more lasting solutions. Of course, going back to the academic side, we need to increase the awareness in dual enrollment. Partner with the industry for community events and communicate the need outside the industry. If industry is only advertising the need, or talking about the need with inside the industry itself ... I'm going to use an old adage my grandmother used to say. "You're preaching to the choir." You need to advertise outside the industry. We've got to get outside the box, and talk about the problem. Young people need to understand the work. We've got to increase that awareness in the younger generation, that it's not dirty or low skilled work.

Perhaps even more importantly, the parents need to understand the career field too. As an example, a southeast manufacturer had problems recruiting workers into their manufacturing facility, because the community had a perception that the work was dirty and menial. The parents in the community feared the work was similar to textile mill labor, and discouraged young people from seeking work with the company. We need to [00:28:00] dispel these misnomers. As I noted before, high level IT skills are needed to assist with troubleshooting issues. Let's face it, the repair work may often require little more than changing out a component or a part. Sure, some things can be dirty ... We talk about the line, and working brakes, hydraulics or whatever, they can be dirty, but overall, most of the work takes place in a climate controlled hanger in a very clean environment now. I'm going to caveat that hangers were not climate controlled when I worked in them, so that is very much a step forward.

Academically also, we need to illuminate the aircraft maintenance industry in our other classes, to bring awareness that it's a very important part of the overall aviation and aerospace industry. Aircraft maintenance can't just be discussed in aviation maintenance degrees or a side note to other courses. We need to expand that, as well. We have a lot of room for improvement, but as a group, we need to start this conversation. I'm going to borrow something from an earlier ERE blog that I wrote. I stated, "We need to ignite that kerosene virus for aviation maintenance and repair." Of course, today is not soon enough. If you're not familiar with that term, look up Herb Kelleher and Southwest Airlines. He was pretty famous for that quote, or using that term.

This is pretty much a wrap up of what we talked about today. Just again, some kind of high spots of where we [00:30:00] were. We talked a little bit about the advancements in aircraft technology, where we've been, where we're going, what's going to change. A current snapshot of the workforce, and then the anticipated problem of the training and recruitment piece of it. Then, some potential solutions, which again comes down to the partnership. Bigger conversations with the academics and industry, and getting, again, I think, to the younger generation and changing some of the mindset. That's pretty much my presentation. I think if we have some questions, I'll take some time to answer those questions, if I can. If I can't answer your question ...

Bill Gibbs

Dr. Clark, I will let you go, and we will continue on.

Dr. Patti Clark

Thank you.

Bill Gibbs

Just real quickly, as we conclude, there are 4 upcoming webinars. February 11th, Dr. Clarke mentioned about aircraft automation and the impact it's had on mechanics and technicians, but it's had its impact on piloting skills, and professor William Waldock from our Prescott Campus will speak to that on February 11th. February 14th, we'll have a webinar on project management with Dr. Jim Marion. May 12th and May 9th are 2 special ones to assist you to be more effective communicators. If anyone says that someone in the aviation industry does not need to be a good communicator, they're vastly mistaken. On May 12th, the great communications that really make the point: Writing Effective Emails, Reports, & Messages, by Dr. Terri Mause. [00:32:00] That was a misspelling by the way, her name is not spelled "Mause." On June 9th, how to write a resume to get results, with Dr. Rose Opengart. I invite you to join us.

Speaking of joining, I encourage you to join us for the debriefing, which will be held one week from today at the very same time, next Thursday January 21st. 2:30 eastern. We will take a look at several degrees that have an impact in the area of aviation maintenance. Our associate and bachelor degree programs in aviation maintenance, our master of science in aeronautics, and also ... Dr. Clarke mentioned that many of our degrees have gone now more into the theory and systems, but we still do actually have a test prep course that is offered in a non creative format. We'll talk about that as well. Okay, this concludes the webinar. Let me just mention 4 things quickly. You're going to get an email, everybody who has registered for this session will get an email. If you'd like a participation certificate, simply reply, "Bill, I want a certificate." I will prepare one and send it to you. The email will include a link to the recording, it will include a link to a survey. I certainly encourage you to fill that survey out, if you possibly have time to do so. It's very brief.

Advances in computing technology have made today’s jetliners highly automated. From takeoff to landing computers are interacting constantly with the flight crew. While this technology is a very good thing, inadvertently it can lead to decrease in piloting skills, making pilots less aviators and more systems managers. The over reliance on automated systems has led to several well-known air crashes:

  • Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic in June 2009. Ice crystals caused the autopilot to disconnect, and the crew reacted incorrectly which led to an unrecoverable stall and subsequent crash.
  • AirAsia Flight 8501 crashed into the Java Sea in December 2014. The plane’s rudder travel limiter malfunctioned and the autopilot pushed the aircraft went into an abnormally steep climb, where it stalled and fell. The pilots’ responses were inadequate and 162 people died.

In this webinar, noted aviation safety expert and ERAU Professor William Waldock looked at the degradation of airmanship skills due to automation and what can be done to ensure pilots maintain the highest degree of concentration and control in an era of increasing automation.

About the Presenter

This is a head shot of Bill Waldock.

William "Bill" Waldock

William "Bill" Waldock is a Professor of Safety Science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Prescott Campus. He is the creator of the aviation safety programs at Embry-Riddle and has spent the last 33 years developing and enhancing the school's academic safety endeavors. 

A retired U.S. Coast Guard officer and pilot, Waldock has spent more than three decades investigating accidents. He's worked more than 200 aircraft investigations and has analyzed 500 more. 

Waldock - who is president of the Arizona Chapter of the International Society of Air Safety Investigators - has written numerous articles on aviation safety, aircraft accidents, aircraft fire investigation, and crash survivability. He has appeared in numerous safety-themed video programs and has provided expert commentary to both the print and electronic media.


Bill Gibbs
Webinar Coordinator
Embry-Riddle Worldwide

600 S. Clyde Morris Blvd.
Daytona Beach, FL 32114-3900


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