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.

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars

Comments

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.

Lloyd Waldo · March 9, 2014 at 9:49 pm

I think it is worth your time correcting these mistakes actually. This crap is trending online, and people are reading it as if it’s actually credible.

Matt Braynard · March 10, 2014 at 3:59 am

Actually, I hope that you would take the time to go through it, line-by-line, to correct it if there are inaccuracies. A lot of people are reading it and taking it seriously, and someone has to offer a contrary view. It may as well be you.

And, specifically, you are saying that pilots in the cabins of domestic US flights are allowed to use internet-connected iPads/smartphones?

Charles Johnson · March 10, 2014 at 2:49 pm

Matt Braynard I think that Tom is saying that commercial airliners have state of the art navigation and communications equipment and that iPads would not have saved Flight MH370, which by the way was flying in clear skies. Tragically, it seems likely that the plane had a catastrophic failure – not going to speculate why – which prevented the pilots from being able to radio a distress signal.

GPS systems in aircraft is a step in the right direction. The GPS would tell the pilot where she is, but it would still need to be linked to a computer system on the ground that also received the same position reporting information. (http://www.forbes.com/sites/johngoglia/2014/03/10/why-cant-the-malaysian-air-boeing-777-be-found/) In a case like the present where all communication was lost having that information would be helpful. Using satellites to track the position AND report the position of aircraft seems like an excellent redundancy to overlay the present system.

Without looking it up, I’m not sure of the last commercial aircraft to be lost because of icing. The last I remember was the Air Florida flight that crashed in the Potomac River shortly after take off from KDCA back in the 80s. Today, most modern commercial aircraft have equipment to let the pilot know the outside air temperature so that they can turn on anti-icing for wings, windows, engines, and other important places. I would imagine turning on that equipment is on their checklist (to do list) while climbing out, and incidentally because that would not cause a catastrophic failure I doubt that is what happened with flight MH370.

Lloyd Waldo · March 10, 2014 at 2:51 pm

Charles Johnson, well hang on. If what you’re saying is so, and GPS would help us locate the plane, surely they would have cross-referenced any GPS information sent by mobile phones and other GSM devices on the plane. In a passenger cabin of 250+ people, there had to be at least 20 devices. I know I rarely turn my phone and ipad off while flying- sometimes i just forget to.

My understanding was that GPS is a one-way street in terms of the satellites- they just broadcast positions and the devices determine their own coordinates, so nothing is sent back to the satellite. You need ground towers to relay outgoing cellular reach-outs.

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.

· March 10, 2014 at 8:17 am

I’m sorry to have to tell you that I agree with Martin in everything. I’m a pilot flying Airbus 340 over Atlantic routes and inflight we miss often helps we are used on land. For example, you do not have access in the cockpit to a weather map updated! For issues regulations and permits, aviation will always lags far behind the real world. Another example: FANS communications system, after long years of implementation in the world is a mess, very unintuitive, slow and cumbersome.

David Poulton · March 10, 2014 at 11:27 am

I pretty much agree with what Rahat is saying here.. It would be ludicrous to have aircraft connected to the Internet for the reasons he rightly points out. I am a network expert and I can tell you no way should aircraft be connected to the internet for in-flight GPS\voice communications tracking. If anything radio communication should look to encryption for secure voice communications. Mobile applications tracking flights should also be banned from distribution by the likes of Apple and Google because the more info made public is only providing a more complete arsenal when used in the wrong hands. Greater on-ground system development on alarm and reporting of the people boarding flights, baggage handling, and vetting is going to provide greater protection for safer flying.

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.

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?

Antoin O Lachtnain · March 12, 2014 at 12:42 pm

I was reading the comments on there! Aviators are a defensive lot. I showed the link to a friend whose start-up supplies electronic flight bags (basically iPads with maps and real time data and he completely agrees with you.

The truth is likely that some planes have some of these features, but only just barely. They are implemented in a haphazard, disconnected fashion which just increases the pilot’s information overload instead of helping resolve it.

Carlos Varsavsky · March 13, 2014 at 8:21 am

A lot of silence here… I will add a few things I have recently heard of to comments I made when your article was first published.

GPS tracker: yes. BUT secondary radar (transponder in mode S, or ADS-B) gives that information for as long as it is on. Since every electrical device must be able to be isolated via CBs for fear of being unable to stop a developing cockpit fire situation if something goes wrong with the device, pilots’ worst fear, so should the GPS tracker. Hence a total electrical failure or intentional shutdown would also disable the tracker as well. It would take some risk taking to make the tracker unable to be switched off. Personally I would take that risk, FWIW.

Data streaming: a guy who sells that type of equipment says that they would cost $100-500K per aircraft once you build into it the cost all the certification and testing, and the data stream would be too big: hundreds of parameters per second (I have seen the list) + voice. I have been thinking, and the related article says the same, that streaming a selection of parameters would be trivial. E.g. say 20 parameters for the plane + 10 for each of 4 engines once every 10 seconds and at an average of 5 bytes per parameter would amount to a ridiculously low 240 bps, when a voice call on your mobile requires 4-8 Kbps I am told. Peanuts! (I hope I got these numbers right…). Something should be done along those lines at least.

Satellite phone/internet: Some do (I think), but in extreme stress situations there is no time to use them. Some alreadty have text communications to base, e.g. QF32 was in direct contact with base all the time, but that was an emergency in slow motion with time to analyse and think.

Real time weather: not sure that is so bad or that having it would make much of a difference. Forecasts are pretty good for the duration of the flight, they have onboard weather radar (picks up water drops in the air, e.g. in a Cb or storm) to pick up local problems, and if something changes radically they will be told by the (crackly) radio. The things they can’t see (icing, clear air turbulence) no system can pick them up to warn them.

OK, enough for tonight… :)

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.

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 …?

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

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

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!

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?

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.

Rob Chan · March 10, 2014 at 1:18 am

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

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…

Tony Silvestre · March 10, 2014 at 4:54 am

Right on old friend. Knowing people like you are doing this shit gives me hope.

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?

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.

Larz Blackman · March 10, 2014 at 3:46 pm

No, this is incorrect. The “induced error” you mention is called Selective Availability and was originally used to keep foreign weapon systems from using the US’s GPS system to attack us. It was turned off in 2000.

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.

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

Español / English


Subscribe to e-mail bulletin:
Recent Tweets