What happens when machines outdistance their human controllers
It had all begun when the doc said, “Turn and cough,” followed long seconds later by, “Hmmmm,” something he'd never said before. The diagnosis, alas: a hernia. Normally, it's no big deal and can be monitored for years, he said. But then again, things can go bad quickly, at which point it's 911 and sirens. I chose to be proactive. A grown-up. That was before. Now with less than 24 hr. to showtime, the kid in me was worried. How much will this hurt?
Fast forward to the following afternoon. I was back at my desk, checking email, sending files and answering the phone, a dutiful corporate soldier at his post. No one knew that I had just been cut, sewn, drugged and tossed; that there was a fresh zip line and staples in my gut; or that happy tabs of oxycodone were keeping the snarling beasts at bay.
The good part about ambulatory care is that you get to go home quickly. Turns out the bad part is the same, since there's no smiling candy striper with a tray of goo and a brownie, no Get Well cards and balloons, no visits from clucking friends and family. Meanwhile, the deadlines are unmoved.
The orders for my convalescence were simple: No heavy lifting, no driving, no strain — most definitely no shoveling no matter how deep the white stuff — and pop those pills as necessary. Easy enough. But after four days of internment in a snowbound house, I was going a bit bonkers. And that's in a place large enough to accommodate a pack of teenagers simultaneously. I couldn't wait to escape. I really was kind of desperate for open space, fresh air and sunshine.
Finally free, I got to thinking about confinement while baby stepping along Main Street. It seems to me that no matter how comfortable the circumstances, once told you can't leave the space it begins to close in. Thus, even a captain's chair on a business jet can get uncomfortably close, if that's where you must remain throughout a long flight.
Now apply that to the new generation of ultra-long-range uberjets from Gulfstream,and others. These provide the ultimate in business travel by every measure of comfort, technology and performance, including range. Most particularly, range. These are true globetrotters, able to fly 7,000 nm nonstop and more. That's New York to Beijing; London to Jakarta; São Paulo to Moscow; Cape Cod to Cape Town, among an almost infinite number of distant city-pairs. Extraordinary reach.
Put another way, that's 14, 15, 16 hr. or more between takeoff and touchdown. A long time with not much to do, probably, since the systems on the super jets are highly automated and amazingly reliable.
Hopefully, the folks in back welcome visits from those up front, however briefly, just so they can stretch their legs. Still, even with a well-provisioned galley and a separate crew lav, quarters forward get tight by the end of a third watch.
Beyond the matter of confine–ment is that of performance. These airplanes are more capable than ever, but they're operated by crews whose basic design has remained unchanged for eons. Long periods of immobility can make humans cranky, and as always, extended hours aloft, doing little can make them weary.
As thus a wonderplane can arrive on the far side of the world in the hands of people who are agitated, dog tired, and whose circadian selves are arrhythmic. Now introduce bad weather with turbulence, a hold, heavily accented and formal English, unfamiliar waypoints and a non-precision approach never before flown. Oh, and do that all at night.
Might anything go wrong?
A senior international airline captain recently told me he much preferred regular trips between North and South America to transoceanic routes because he more or less stayed within the same time zone, which helped keep him in synch. Compare that to the Challenger 601 crew arriving at the Van Nuys FBO for a one-stop trip to the East Coast. At the time he reported for duty that morning, the charter captain had crossed and retraced a total of 34 time zones in the previous 10 days; the copilot, 15 in the previous three. They would cross just one more before crashing on departure from Montrose, Colo., killing the captain, flight attendant and one passenger. Could circadian churn have factored into their decision to forgo wing deicing?
A friend who frequently captains a long-range business jet on transoceanic missions believes that the ever-increasing range capability is setting the scene for trouble. He notes that business aviation pilots must devote preflight hours to studying weather, overseeing ground services and fueling, handling overflight permissions and myriad other details in preparing for super-long missions, making for a duty day that goes well beyond the 16-hr. max recommended by the NBAA Safety Committee.
He maintains that unless there's a full backup crew on board — and ideally, separate, lie-flat crew accommodations — the airplane's arrival could be compromised by front office fatigue. And if the principals in the cabin favor a get-the-business-and-get-gone kind of travel tempo, the crew could be back in the air with way less than the minimum 10 hr. of true rest recommended by the Safety Committee within every 24-hr. period.
Ultra-long-range aircraft exist to satisfy the increasingly global travel demands of the business community. They are extraordinary conveyances but ones whose capabilities need to be exploited prudently, lest they become vessels of crew confinement spiriting their occupants into trouble halfway round the world.