plane60sWhen I trained as a pilot I was appalled at how 1960s aviation is. This will be hard for you to believe, but even when you have WiFi on the plane, commercial pilots in most cases do not have Internet in their cockpit, nor do they have satellite phones, nor GPS trackers. All they have to connect with ground is old style radios. And radios that sound awful. Radios are not safe, anyone for any reason can interfere with them. Indeed any person can buy an aviation radio without any kind of permit and start pretending he or she is a controller and aircraft have no way of verifying that they are indeed speaking to a real controller. Plus there is the confusion factor.  When you train as a pilot, a lot of what you have to learn is how to understand controllers over a radio, a radio which has poor sound quality and leads to frequent mix ups because of the different accents and languages that are spoken around the world by controllers and pilots. While in theory all controllers should speak English, Spanish traffic controllers for example speak in Spanish to aircraft that have Spanish identifiers, or address them in Spanish, sometimes depriving other aircraft flown by non Spanish speaking pilots of information that could be useful to them. Moreover, radio frequencies forces pilots to listen to everything that is said to other aircraft until you are called, something that I find extremely distracting when piloting.   Imagine if you had a telephone system in which you had to listen to everyone else’s conversations until somebody finally spoke to you. Well that is what is happening in the air right now all over the world.  Primitive. In my view  it is indefensible that we send planes loaded with passengers over the oceans without Internet, real time voice communications nor  GPS trackers. And even over land and near the coasts we use radars to know where aircraft are, but radars have very short range so we can’t have radar coverage over oceans.  The radar/transponder system is just obsolete as a way to know where aircraft are.  But still the norm. Then many times pilots are proud of their FMS systems, and in general I don’t know for what reason many times pilots are proud of aviation the way it is.  But that is wrong, for example FMS systems don’t have QWERTY keyboards.  Typing in them is a slow, painful process.  And when pilots make it to airports, many of them are still using paper charts, yes paper charts from Jeppesen to find their way in and out and around airports.

That Malaysian MH370 can disappear over the ocean and nobody knows exactly where, or the Air France 447 flight over the Atlantic went down and it took months to find the black box, is just irresponsible on the part of aviation authorities. My own Citation, a private jet, has a GPS tracker so we always know where it is. It cost less than $1000. We also have a satellite phone that allows the pilots to call for help anywhere in the world on concrete problems they may face that the radio operator may not be able to solve. Those also cost around $1000. And there is now Internet available to planes around in the world. But commercial planes, even when they have it for passengers, do not have it for pilots.  And it is illegal to install equipment that is not approved by flying authorities around the world. Think of a product like the Dropcam and imagine it on all commercial aircraft showing ground personnel in real time everything that is happening in the cabin, cockpit and recording in real time, that combined with good communication with the pilots would make aviation much less of the black hole it is today.

madmen flightIn some cases a passenger with WiFi on a commercial plane can have more vital information than the pilot in the cockpit. For example, weather information. A pilot has a weather radar but the passenger can have real time weather information along the route, and that is as useful and sometimes more useful. But pilots in many jurisdictions are not allowed to use iPads with real time weather information. Private aviation has incorporated iPads and real time weather info much faster than commercial aviation. A commercial plane radar sees the next dangerous clouds (CBs clouds that can bring an airliner down) and that is all they show. But the passenger with Internet can have information about dangerous weather activity all the way to the destination. The passenger sees beyond what the pilot sees. Why can’t airlines have those tools if private jets already do? They cost very little more. Think of all the money we are spending on TSA and its equivalents to make aviation safe — can’t we spend a little more and have truly connected planes? If all commercial aircraft had GPS trackers, at least we would known exactly where  AF 477 or MH 370 went missing.   We should have every commercial airliner install a GPS tracker.  Secondly we should connect all flights to the Internet and provide pilots with real time weather information anywhere in the world to supplement their weather radars as most private jets already have. What I find especially dangerous are flights that cross the Equator, where there are the most high altitude CBs during the night when you can’t see them.  Thirdly, we should connect all FDRs (black boxes) to the Internet in real time so airlines know exactly what is happening to planes and alert pilots via the Internet and or satellite phones of unexpected dangers.  Lastly we should give pilots a way to speak both over radio and over the internet/satellite connection so they can obtain help from their airlines or anyone else and not just that controller which has the radio that they can talk to. In many cases the communication could be via messaging that is directly sent to flying instruments and all the pilot has to do is hit OK.  Right now the way things work is incredibly dated.  A controller for example gives a certain aircraft a flying level while all the other pilots are listening in (in case the instruction is for them), then the pilots of the target aircraft have to acknowledge that they received the instructions, then the pilots of that aircraft have to remember what the instructions were (they are not sent in writing in any way and believe it or not, many pilots carry notepads tied to their legs not to forget and write them down while flying), then they have to go to their instruments, say the autopilot, then they have to input the new flight level in the autopilot, then they have to go to that flight level. Wouldn’t it be much easier to get an instruction over the Internet, hit OK, and have that instruction go to the autopilot and the plane to that level?

Or here is another example, ice detection.  Right now the way pilots fight ice, and let’s remember that ice brings down planes, is by guessing when ice forming conditions could be happening and activating anti icing.  In many cases they have to look at their own wings to see if there is ice building up.  Again here night and day are very different, as at night it is harder to see that you are going through ice forming clouds. Some pilots have to turn on lights that shine on the wings.  All this activity should be improved with sensors and real time weather information.  Sometimes pilots have to navigate, be on the radio, fight ice and fight CBs all at the same time.  This is just not fair to pilots.  Anti ice should go on automatically.  As things are it is an unnecessary burden on pilots.

Now the good news here is that we now have pilotless aircraft, drones, flying more and more frequently.  It is my view that as driverless cars will show how to make driving safer, drones will show how to make flying safer.

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Martin Varsavsky · March 12, 2014 at 12:23 pm

My article basically says that most commercial airliners don’t have GPS trackers, don’t have satellite phones for the pilot, don’t have Internet in the cockpit, don’t have an FDR connected live to the Internet, don’t have real time weather information and use a radio system that is confusing antiquated distracting and subject to abuse.

What of this is not true?

Dennis Logue · March 10, 2014 at 3:21 pm

Wow, this might be the most ill-informed aviation comment I have seen. Pilots do have real time weather data And in fact pilots actually report much of the realtime Wx (weather) data along the traffic routes. Secondly, the internet is Not ‘realtime’ nor is the data on it, which comes from servers somewhere. Third, the electronics on commercial aircraft are very sophisticated and comprise an alphabet of acronyms that are too many to mention here. Most of the things that make driverless cars possible originated in aviation. And finally, drones (pilotless planes) are not the answer because they do not have very many of the items the author cited … They receive most of that information from ground installations via radio, which is prone to lost comm. And in a ‘Lost Comm Situation’ ‘legal drones’ are programed to go off somewhere safe and fly in a circle until they expire … How would you like to be a passenger on that plane?

Martim Weinstein · March 10, 2014 at 3:20 pm

You do realise GPS is a USA controlled system with an induced error. Could that error be corrected, yes. Would it for foreign systems? No. As soon as any security alert came through the induced error on GPS would be increased and it would likely become more of a problem than a help. Radio localization systems and inertia systems are more reliable than a system with an induced error. Is there space for improvement? Yes. Is it with internet and gps? No. Alarmist and very light on research article. Pity it’s getting all the attention it is getting.

Vit Soukup · March 10, 2014 at 3:05 pm

Well at least in europe datalink is comming soon, which can replace lot of radio communication. And I have to agree lot of aviation/ATM technology is so outdated today (AFTN.. ;o), but somehow it works. Anyway there is some progress but changes are rather slow.. If you do change some technology it had to be done worldwide and that is main problem.

Silvia Hartmann · March 10, 2014 at 2:55 pm

That sounds about right to me. Can we also have cameras monitoring the plane so that if a pilot wants to know what’s happened to the engine, they don’t need to send a steward with a torch to look through a window …?

Utomo Prawiro · March 10, 2014 at 2:29 pm

Aviation need to change. Technology changing very fast. I hope it can be safer in future

Eric Soto · March 10, 2014 at 1:54 pm

All the technology assertions in this article are way beyond completely misleading! The author clearly did not make it past his Cessna 172 training, where indeed aircraft generally have nothing more than VORs (navigation radios) and basic voice radios! In contrast, commercial aircraft have vastly more equipment than a pilot trainer, and the pilots in the controls are extremely experience in all the systems on board. There is a reason why we’ve had statistically NO accidents in general aviation in the last 40 years when compared to the hundreds of thousands of flight hours each year. Yes, not all aircraft might have the latest GPS advanced moving map, but a lot do! And those that don’t can still be flown safely due to the many redundant systems in use. So, as others have noted, this article is a sensationalism JOKE not to be taken seriously!

Tim Kern · March 10, 2014 at 1:06 pm

Next time, please check your facts BEFORE you publish. The non-flying public believes everything you say, and what you’re saying is needlessly alarming, as well as substantially inaccurate. Can improvements be made, faster? Sure. Have you looked at the incremental costs and benefits? Show me — it’s one thing for you to make decisions for your own Citation, and quite another for you to make decisions for 800 million passengers each year.

Michael Cozzi · March 10, 2014 at 12:20 pm

The author, is quite simply an idiot. You want to take reliable VHF communications and trust it to a packet network (which runs over radio anyway??). You fail at technology.

Rahat Mahbub · March 10, 2014 at 5:16 am

“The Malaysian Airlines plane was equipped with the industry standard ASD-B flight transponder. This device sends a package of GPS data back to air traffic controllers every second. It gives the plane’s altitude, speed and direction.” So, I am pretty sure they have more than a GPS.

Also, blackboxes do record conversations that goes on inside the cockpit. Pilots are highly trained and they do not need to be monitored like a baby using Dropcam and therfore, it lacks one.

I think pilots should not have access to the Internet, the same reason you shouldn’t be texting while driving. Trust me, the sensors in an airplane gives out much better weather forcast/information compared to Yahoo weather app on your iPhone. It sucks that they don’t come with pretty pictures from flickr, like Yahoo’s weather app does.

I am not in the aviation industry but a software engineer and my current company makes software for Boeing. And, I can assure you that if the vital software in the cockpit were connected to the publicly accessible Internet, chances are sooner or later someone would hijack planes the way one can hijack your computer.

So yeah, you should really update this post tomorrow.

Cary Cason · March 10, 2014 at 4:23 am

Yup, nearly 35yrs as an Avionics Tech currently employed by NASA and my input is that this article is 100% pure false information…

Gregory Bradford · March 10, 2014 at 1:59 am

The critical question to be answered here is “What about the current system doesn’t work?” And the correct is “nothing.” If it didn’t work you would have aircraft crashing everyday due to air traffic control issues.

Charles Boyer · March 10, 2014 at 1:37 am

Airline pilots do indeed have access to data streams and weather information, as it is uploaded to the aircraft in flight. In turn, the aircraft returns location, heading and altitude information back to the ground. Perhaps you have never heard of WSI Fusion?

Rob Chan · March 10, 2014 at 1:18 am

Pure troll in order to get page hits. Especially the “to be continued”.

James Gill · March 9, 2014 at 11:45 pm

This article is absolute trash, garbage, and reeks of scare tactics for views.

Erika Nilsson · March 9, 2014 at 11:15 pm

I am not in aviation, but after reading this guy’s argument I can’t really take him too seriously. I always thought that radio was always the most dependable way to communicate because you don’t need a complicated electronics system to use it (thus it is useful in a blackout). Also, “radars”? Who is this guy?

Tom Kilpatrick · March 9, 2014 at 9:42 pm

This is reckless: Repeatedly implying that passengers using iPads have better equipment, and better & more timely information than the flight crews. I fly with an iPad both as pilot and passenger – using professional aviation apps – and you’re just wrong. It destroys any other argument or point you tried to make. I read the rest and have worked in aviation 30 years, and it isn’t worth my time correcting your mistakes, misunderstandings and misinformation.

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