Airbus or Boeing? Part 2

The stick. It’s all about the stick. I can dispel any worry about flying with a stick straight away: it isn’t really any different from flying with any other device. For some reason the human brain is pretty adaptable when it comes to stick or wheel.

When you first grab hold of it you will notice feeling of purpose. An aerospace quality. It is slightly springy. There is a damped feel as it slides back to neutral. There are many stories about how one should hold the stick. The fact is that it is beautifully hand-shaped for a reason: for your hand.

It’s offset and too far out for my liking. Despite lots of logical industrial design input I always feel slightly askew in the seat. The big arm rest is designed to support your arm enough so that all of the movement happens in your wrist. More accurate and precise. Right in front of you is a table that appears from the instrument panel supported on a hugely over-engineered telescoping structure.

The table is useful but it absolutely isn’t life changing. Nobody ever said “this aeroplane flies so beautifully because of its amazing furniture”. I still use my clipboard to keep my important bits of paper in one spot. It means I can eat lunch and do a fuel check at the same time. This freaks hardcore Airbus fundamentalists out. I’ll probably do it forever. Tiny rebellion.

IMG_2921And right there is the issue: fundamentalism. There is something about the Airbus way that drives a wedge of binary thinking between the ‘us’ and the ‘them’.

Maybe it’s gallic passion? I have a long association with France. I spent almost every holiday there as a child, I love the country, the people, the language, the food, the wine.

I owned three Citroens and only crashed one of them to the point of scrappage. They were clever and weird and efficient and frail. In short, they suffered vulnerability for the sake of some niche advantage. Like the Airbus they lived the French ‘avant-garde’ design dream, pushing the boundaries of what is the norm. Technocracy over practicality. Just think of the Citroen DS.

As a child dad would fly us to the south of France. We would stop to clear customs at Troyes airport, south east of Paris in the champagne region. Once the door of the Comanche was opened it was a straight dash through the Gauloises-fug of the small, warm terminal building into the loo. On the wall by the sink was a curving metal pole which held an ostrich-egg-sized ball of soap. Great idea. No firing the soap off across the room, no puddle of soapy sludge.

I loved the look of it. The exotic and stylish design. It meant I was in France! But: complicated given that the requirement is to have clean hands. And I’ve just looked them up on line. You can still buy them for your own home. You’ll be stuck into £8.50 bars of soap for the foreseeable future. All for what? To cure a minor cleaning problem? Form and function were both there but purpose? I was never so sure. It was easy to fall in love with. Less easy to live with.

Whether it is soap or cars there will be zealots who claim that the new, refined and beautiful way of reaching the design goal is the only way of doing so. Right and wrong, angels and demons. Life isn’t that simple.

France has a long and brilliant obsession with breaking through boundaries in aviation. It has its enduring obsessions too: stall-proof aeroplanes like the Rallye with its clunking, stagnation point-driven slats. The Breguet Deux-Ponts, the double-decker grandad of the A380. And who could forget the sleek, fast and beautiful Concorde?

But compared to these cousins the A320 is exceptional in one way: it is enormously successful. This is made more remarkable given that the market it competes in places huge importance on reliability and minimal risk. This tends to mean that traditional means successful. Indeed, the early years of the A320 didn’t exactly see them flying off the shelves. That took a number of years to occur and a long and ongoing programme of continuous development.

That sidestick is just an emblem of the progressive design goal that Airbus adopted and that goal was to make an flying machine that avoided the traditional complications of flying an airliner. Or flying any aircraft for that matter. Here is my summary of the Airbus theory of how flying should be:

When you learned to fly or first imagined an aircraft you probably did not conceive of having to operate other surfaces to relax control pressures on the elevator. Nor did you long to be constantly correcting for the pitching effect created by a change in engine power. Or all of the other myriad of little corrections and techniques that you begin to learn from lesson number two. Power plus pitch equals performance. That’s what you learned. And from then on you tried to achieve it. Tweak by tweak by workaround.

Airbus tried to design out undesirable features such as trimming and back pressure in turns. In doing so attempted to create a control system which just gives the pilot output of that simple equation: performance. The system tries to deliver the required result rather than demanding a combination of pilot inputs to make the result. It works to a point. The technology also allows in some other clever stuff as part of the deal. The aircraft essentially goes where you point it.

That’s the theory at least. But there are a bucketload of exceptions and some significant complexity beneath the sidestick. The ‘protected flight envelope’ means that every last ounce of lift can be extracted from the wing in a crisis and that ham-fisted attempts at flying out of that crisis wouldn’t overstress the airframe.

Electrical connections and lighter structures meant that the whole machine becomes lighter. Less weight means cheaper to operate. Augmenting aerodynamics with clever flight control computers also makes for less drag. Down goes the ticket price. That’s very good for business.

It’s all very clever. But the truth of the matter is that the theory is a little better than the practical application. The Airbus theory of flying reinvention only works if every other aircraft on the planet, large and small, is an Airbus. Until then pilots will continue to learn to fly on conventional aircraft with basic flying controls. They will learn to trim, and fly within structural limits and manage pitch/thrust couple.

In fact, one of the reasons they will need to do this is because of the A320 itself. The beautiful and perfect Airbus dream falls apart very quickly following even relatively minor aircraft failures. The upshot of many of these failures is to turn the Airbus back into normal aircraft with conventional controls just when you were hoping it wouldn’t.

It’s like a really terrible friend who promises to back you up, then at the most critical moment it turns out he’s had a better offer and is nowhere to be seen. Disappointing. This highlights how endlessly complex keeping an aircraft in flight really is: the plentiful computers that absorb hundreds of measurements from the flowing air and living, breathing aircraft structure are hugely busy creating an output. And yet that output is only really good for a narrow but common proportion of the type of flying that an airliner can do.

Guess who is left to pick up the pieces? Yes, that’s right, the human. Using the same skills that you learned on the most basic of training aircraft. History has seen this time and again. Massive automated systems that fall over, technological armies humbled by a stick-and-stone insurgency. As a piece of early fly-by-wire technology the A320 is impressive. But it is also flawed. It needs understanding and managing and its boundaries have to be understood.

This is a changed world: far from becoming just a technological whizz-kid, the truly capable Airbus pilot needs to be both a master of understanding the capabilities and limits of the machine and also a skilled basic aviator. Under the uniform, Superman-like, a white scarf needs to be found.

So the compendium of skills required of such a pilot is greater than either pure stick and rudder or systems manager. It is both. And everything in between. And sometimes both ends of the scale simultaneously.

This is true of the Boeings too. Remember, these aeroplanes are all highly complex, highly automated flying machines. In normal, day-to-day operation they need brains more than brawn. The systems need managing. The automation modes need understanding. But underneath it all they are just flying machines. They obey the same rules of physics and need the same care and attention as a Piper Cub.

The Boeing approach to this ramping between ‘modes’ of operation is simple: don’t bog the pilot down in complexity. Tell them about things that are within their ambit of control. Beyond that, be really clear about where the technology stops and the flying technique starts. Boeing is straightforward about its pilot assumptions too… The Boeing Co expects ‘trained and competent’ pilots to be operating the aircraft. They waste no text teaching basic flying techniques: You’ve already got a pilots’ licence, right?

The Airbus approach is a little different. Deep technical explanation is greatly prized. Often, complex equations detailing exactly how the lower end of the speed/angle of attack range of the flight envelope varies with altitude. Or perhaps how the cooling configuration of the avionics situation varies with temperature. All very interesting. But pointless. Knowing that these values or configurations vary is useful background knowledge. But the endless detail is unnecessary.

There is little a pilot can do about it. In fact, the whole point of the way that systems are designed with both manufacturers is to avoid second-guessing, overly-informed pilots and to stick to the carefully worked out processes provided by checklists and procedures. Mixed messages.

Sorting the good stuff from the ephemera is a challenge for the new Airbus pilot. The information becomes dense, difficult to navigate and ultimately not very compelling. For the instructor this presents a huge challenge: landing the key points with the trainee. Steering them gently away from the trivia and back to the boldface message can be close to impossible. None of these boldface messages are actually in boldface. Sadly.

Part three is going to be a tough choice. I am trying to decide between a deeper look at the science behind the language used in checklists, QRHs and manuals and an canter through the amazingly far-sighted approach to future navigation that both manufacturers took back in the early 80’s. What takes your fancy?


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