Do Multi-Function Displays Disengage Pilot Brains?

Credit: Adobe Stock/denisismagilov

Author’s Note: This is the third of a three-part article that compares U.S., British and Pakistani safety board reports-and an analysis. The reports are, for the most part, directly quoted, but I have inserted comments and cut portions for clarity and the purpose of proving my point.

While we are focusing on the problem of not disengaging automatic systems and flying the airplane, we may be failing to ask a more significant question. That is: Why aren’t we disengaging those systems completely, or, why have we still lost situational awareness when those systems have been disengaged and we think we’re flying manually? 

I conjecture that the answer may be in that MFD (multi-functional display) screen in front of the pilot that shows a perfect, even when not yet flown, approach and arrival.

Two of these three accidents occurred in clear weather, with the airport in sight out of the windscreen. All the pilots had to do was grab hold of the airplane then land, execute a missed approach or, in the Karachi scenario, execute an easy descending orbit and continue with the approach from the proper altitude.  

All three accidents occur while a part of an automated system is not doing what the pilot thought it would do; not getting him to the position he wanted at a given time in the approach or yelling at him that he is doing something wrong (too low or too fast). Things aren’t working, but the pilot in all three instances didn’t heed the warnings coming from outside the screen, or perhaps those warnings and cues didn’t even penetrate the pilot’s consciousness.

I’m not an expert in video presentations, but I can read and I’ve read several methods that a video sales person described to capture and hold a viewer’s attention.  Of course, she was doing it for the purpose of selling that viewer something, but her description of the methods of holding the viewers’ attention were very interesting.

Most successful video ads or spots have to gather the viewer’s attention in a strong manner at the outset. What better way to accomplish that than a “video” where the viewer sees a path that will allow the plane and passengers for which he/she is responsible to reach the successful conclusion of a flight. They are playing a real life and death game. Yes, there is a window to look out of, but the solution is in the screen in front of the pilot, just as a texting driver doesn’t see the solution in front of the car, only the one on his phone screen.

One of the next requirements mentioned by the blogger is not to have the picture end.  To engage people, the video in front of them scrolls so there is always something new to see. What could be more of a “scrolling” video than the flight path jumping from waypoint to waypoint on the screen in front of the pilot.

Another concept is to have the screen relatively clean of anything but the point one is trying to make. We do that with the extremely strong picture of the end of the approach at a runway; the ground, safety, home. The pilot’s attention is drawn into that screen and into the end point of the lines on that screen--touchdown.

Am I grasping at straws here? I don’t think so. There has to be some explanation as to why pilots are getting tangled up in and around automation when it’s not leading them to the desired outcome.

Perhaps they are so drawn into the video presentation in front of them that, on autopilot or not, the solution lies in the picture on that screen in front of them and doing what they had briefed they would do in a normal situation.

The Asiana Airlines Flight 214 pilot is high, but he doesn’t disconnect and grab the throttles. He corrects his in-space position, all the while not being aware the auto-throttles are not there to catch his speed. He has not committed to abandoning the automation. 

For the British Airbus A320 flight in the sand storm, the pilot doesn’t see what he expects on the screen, but he doesn’t abandon “the show” in front of him. The pilot is so drawn into a screen and evolving video that he can’t bring himself to disconnect from it even when it is not serving him well. 

Finally, as I see it at this point, although the Pakistani International Airlines (PIA) Flight 8303  pilot sees the runway in front of him, his attention is so strongly locked on the original scenario that he doesn’t compute the warnings he’s getting from ATC and from the airplane itself. When attempting to correct the situation with an open descent doesn’t work, he does disconnect, but then is still so engrossed in that picture on the screen that he doesn’t “see” that he’s trying the impossible. He appears to me to have lost situational awareness and even raises the gear and flaps at the point where they might have allowed him to at least have got the plane on the ground and stopped, albeit embarrassingly long.

Perhaps, it’s not disconnecting or staying connected to the autopilot that’s the problem. Perhaps, seeing a projected flight path on that “video screen” in front of the pilot is so attention grabbing that it blocks room in the brain to compute the solution outside of that screen even when a pilot appears to be looking in that direction through the windshield.  Forget the autopilot. Is the cockpit “video” disconnecting the pilot’s brain? 

Ross Detwiler

Ross Detwiler was a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot and corporate chief pilot—flying a Dassault Falcon 7X before retiring. He also was as member of the…


I am not surpsied by your comments. Older pilot as used to disconnect and fly manually while young one could not switch from automatic to manula easily. Much simpler to try to follow what the automation is doing instead of being prepared to cancel all automation and fly manually. The major problem is that actual airlines wants quick pilot training for cost reasons and expect that young trainee will understand what is going on automation compared to "older" or "older generation" pilot were used to do and cope with.
You are right! We went from a reluctance to use automation to reliance on it. It is the training one is subjected to during their early career. Today it seems that one cannot fix an automation issue without using an automation solution. Pretty soon it becomes a mental habit. Maybe we should have more hand flying solutions in the simulator training.
I believe that too many pilots in "glass cockpits" are flying reactively rather than proactively. Reactive: the aircraft performed an automated action so that must be the correct action. Proactive: I expect the aircraft to perform a specific automated action and it did that action correctly. Pilots should always fly the aircraft and not have the aircraft fly them regardless of the level of automation available.