Airbus or Boeing? Part 1

IMG_3127This will not be a technical discussion. At least not deeply technical. When I write my aim is to be accessible, readable even, to those who have an interest in airline flying. The germ for this piece has been floating around for a while; “which do you prefer, Airbus or Boeing?” or, “what are the biggest differences between the two?” and usually “did you find it difficult to transition from one manufacturer to the other?”

Dusty places, empty ramps, not many friendly faces. Out there, you feel like a real cowboy; you owe everything to your horse.

These are great questions. These are also questions which in the dry, dispassionate and conservative atmosphere of a flight deck get pretty close to explosive sectarianism. It’s a question of tribe, it seems. A matter of belonging.

And, like all great tribal disputes it turns out that the similarities are far greater than the differences. Perhaps I might even be able to negotiate an uneasy peace between the two sides? Is there a Nobel Prize for flying?

Here’s my resumé (I’m writing American words with French accents on, see what I did there?): I’ve flown the Airbus A320 family including the Corporate Jet version, the 737, 757 and 767. I’m an instructor on both the Airbus and the 757/767 and in my time as an airline manager I’ve written procedures for, and integrated these types into, a massive flag carrier.

I’ve flown other manufacturers too: Rockwell, Beechcraft, Cessna and Handley-Page. In fact, I promise to write another piece in the future on the Handley-Page aircraft to describe how not to build an airliner and why the UK aircraft building industry floundered and foundered. But my main expertise is with the Big Two.

I’ve taken baby Airbuses on long haul routes, flown big Boeings on short haul routes. I’ve delivered them from the factory, taken them to the graveyard to be chopped up and even given them a new lease of life. I’ve operated both types “off grid” without the normal support of an airline ops system or schedule.

Dusty places, empty ramps, not many friendly faces. Out there, you feel like a real cowboy; you owe everything to your horse.

Jack of all trades, master of none. That is me. I lack the deep technical insight that some of my colleagues have: the kind that squeezes out the last few kilos (or Lbs, American friends) of weight or performance or fuel from the machine. My business is the practical job of getting the jet from where you are now to where you want to be. Safely, efficiently, comfortably.

So similar: this aspect of the Boeing/Airbus debate is so frequently overlooked that it surprises me. The machines are exceptionally similar in nature.

We can start by climbing in to a 757 or 767 or A320. Being in the flight deck surrounds you with much of the same equipment laid out in a similar way. The type doesn’t really matter, it all does very samey stuff, in a very predictable way, trying to achieve the same sort of aim.

Sit down, face forward, strap in and move your seat forward. In front you can see the primary flying and navigation displays. These are the same on both sides. In the middle, engine parameter displays, systems display and a way of alerting pilots to malfunctions. In the panel there is a lever shaped like a wheel (for putting the wheels up and down, comfortingly).

IMG_2461.JPGThrust levers control the engine power and sit in the geographic middle of the cockpit. To the right of them is a lever for the flaps (shaped like a flap) and to the left a lever for the speedbrake.

Front of house. Right in the middle at eye level are the autopilot controls and down by your knee you will find a clunky-looking computer thing that drives aspects of the autopilot and navigation systems.

At your feet you’ll find rudder pedals with a brake on each toe. If you reach forward you will find something to steer the machine with; either a yoke or a stick. Above your head you will see what looks like a mile of switches and knobs. You might even marvel at the bedazzling complexity; perhaps you will feel like a protohuman staring at the firmament wondering how any mortal could know its secrets.

But the real cleverness is in the design, not in the pilots. The overhead panel holds most of the systems controls such as hydraulics, electrics and fuel. Each system is grouped into its own area and it is designed to operate normally in a ‘lights out’ manner: no lights means everything is set up correctly.

The point is that all of this kit is very similar and achieving the kind of output in both types; that output is low workload with routine tasks heavily automated. Systems are automated, the basic task of guiding the aircraft through the sky is automated. This is because the business of flying an aircraft in a dynamic and highly efficient (read busy) airspace environment is exceptionally complicated.

It takes the extraordinary flexibility of the human brain to interpret compute and above all judge many aspects of this environment to keep it safe and reliable. The human brain is almost indescribably brilliant but it is not good at performing many tasks at once. I like to use the ‘Amalberti‘ principles of ‘demands to think’ and ‘demands to act’ to illustrate this point.

If we were walking in a busy park and chatting we might be enjoying the environment, perhaps altering our step to avoid people whizzing along the pathway on their bicycles. We would do both of these things easily.

I might ask you to tell me your phone number. 11 digits. Completely numerically unrelated. You could probably do this without much thought. Now for some simple maths; two plus two, five plus five, twenty five times twenty five.

As the maths get more difficult I guarantee you will – without thinking – slow your pace or stop walking to complete the calculation. This is your brain prioritising the calculation task over the stroll. If we were out running training you might simply be unable to do the maths as we would be prioritising getting a negative split or hitting our training pace.

If a bike appeared from nowhere and nearly knocked you down as you were busy multiplying two big numbers together you would leap out of the way. The calculation would cease. Survival would win as your instincts take over. You might even prioritise offering some loud feedback at the departing cyclist rather than completing the maths task.

The point is that we can choose to either act or think. If we do both, like on our run, the quality of both tasks suffer. And so it is true for flying an airliner. It is a primarily cerebral challenge. The muscle we most often exercise In flight is our brain.

Flying these highly automated machines is not the sterile sit-back-and-watch type of activity that you might imagine: Automation is not the same as autonomy. The machine is dumb, even though it is fed full of data, routes, calculations and navigation pathways it still needs a pilot to prioritise tasks and to manage the flight.

Both Airbus and Boeing state that their normal operating method makes full and extensive use of aircraft automation. So no difference here yet. But manual flying is part of every flight too. So more on that in Part 2 when we will have a look at sidesticks, tables and the science of language and logic.

Thanks for reading…

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