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On a Wing and a Prayer by Wire

On a Wing and a Prayer by Wire

By: Michael S. Hatfield
June 3, 2015

“Aviation in itself is not dangerous but terribly unforgiving of any incapacity, carelessness, or neglect” is a quote that exemplifies aeronautical endeavors. The first time ever that I saw this it appeared as a caption to a photograph. The photo was of an old-time airplane that had landed in a tree.

Trying very hard to avoid things that impose risk, we as dedicated humans set out decades ago to make travel in flying machines as safe, efficient, and economical as possible. We have grown safer. “Safer” has been accomplished by building in safeguards through integration of technology, equipment improvements, systemal redundancy, pilot training and constantly improving Operational Procedures. We have always known we have to “get it right and there is zero tolerance for error.”

The term “On a Wing and a Prayer” came from olden days and means that the “airplane was shot up or broken up, but it was a-comin-in for landing, anyway. Prayers needed!” Over the past forty years, amazing improvements have made travel by airline pretty darn safe. Fortunately in the United States, we no longer have to worry and fret about frequent airline accidents due to massive improvements made in Pilot training, Procedural Training, Aircraft Equipment and Technology.

OK, you get the part we will be riding in the sky on a wing or two and it is always a great idea to add a Prayer to the mix, but what do you mean about the “Wire” part?

“Fly by Wire” is the “wire part.” NASA just plain impressed us all with the advent of this concept back in 1972. This advancement was the result of years of work in Jet Flight Control Technology and is now the norm in jet aircraft. We are now “safer” for it.

A suitable definition of Fly by Wire means the “conversion of flight control movement inputs to electronic signals, transmitted through wires and flight control computers, to actuators that directly move flight control surfaces.” Flight Control surfaces make the airplane do what the pilot wants it to do.

It used to be when a pilot moved the wheel or stick, or depressed the rudder pedals, there was a manual connection to the ailerons (for roll or bank), the horizontal stabilizer (pitch, up or down of the nose) or the rudder (for yaw). This method of flight control manipulation would be by manually moving flight surfaces by a physical connection through pulleys and cables.

An airliners’ life of turning, banking, climbing and descending is now different because we now have “intelligent” flight controls. Does that mean we can expect all the flying to be done by computers? I am afraid not, as the pilot still flies the airplane.

We note the definition of “Fly by Wire” says that flight control inputs are converted to electronic signals, transmitted through wires AND Flight Control Computers. Flight Control Computers? What do they have to do with this and why are they now in the mix?

“See!” my buddy says, “I told you so, the computer is actually flying the jet!” No, partner, but maybe just a little “yes.”

What are Flight Control Computers and what DO they do in today’s airliner?

Flight Control Computers add safety to flying operations by automatically helping stabilize the aircraft in thin air at high altitudes, and prevent unsafe operation of the airship outside of its designed performance parameters. That is their purpose–to stop any operation of the airplane outside its designed envelope.

Do you mean the aircraft is not stable at high altitude? Actually, the aircraft is “stable” but a bit less so than at lower altitudes in dense air where control effectiveness is optimum.

I have a 93 year old friend who is a World War II Veteran flyer, retired Airline Captain and FAA Inspector who actually lived through, as a pilot participant, these last four decades. His well-documented stories of “how it used to be” back in the early days of the Airlines, frankly, frightens me. I read articles from back in the 60’s, which were my first years in flying, and actually recall hearing of all the airline accidents that occurred. I know his stories are true.

Now, due to 40-plus years of herculean efforts by dedicated men and women in this industry, 102,000 airline flights operate daily with a very, very small risk to passengers of the flying public. It is far, far, safer riding on a U.S.-based Airline than travelling in an automobile, or even riding a bicycle.

Today, every time I sit in the back of a Boeing or Airbus, I am very grateful for the amazing advancements and achievements.

We still travel along on a wing, with our own prayers, flying by a wire.

Captain Michael S. Hatfield served more than 25 years as a Captain and FAA Designated Lead Line Check Pilot for one of the nation’s largest Domestic and International Airlines. His position placed him center stage in the safe operation of large turbine-powered Commercial Jets in Passenger Operations inclusive of the challenging 911 period. Involved in General Aviation since his teens, he continues to enjoy flying while representing Buyers and Sellers as a Real Estate Broker for RE/MAX Accord in the San Francisco Bay Area.