Book Review The Glass Cage: Automation and Us by Nicholas Carr

Book Review The Glass Cage: Automation and Us by Nicholas Carr

  • August
  • 04
  • 2015
  • Dan Boedigheimer

The book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us by Nicholas Carr goes beyond the scope of aviation and reviews automation in cars, manufacturing, and the medical field. The book provided a good review of general automation philosophy principles along with some operational takeaways that can immediately be implemented in the cockpit.

The book provides an historical review, citing the first use of the term automation in 1946 in a meeting at the Ford Motor Company. Long before the use of the term, we began to see its influence in aviation with the first aircraft controlled by an autopilot. Flown by Lawrence Sperry in 1914 at the Concours de la Securite en Aeroplane aviation competition, Sperry violated the first rule of automation use today: the pilot must always be in command. On his third low pass both he and his mechanic climbed out of the cockpit and rode on the wings with no one in the cockpit. By today's standards, this is certainly a violation of CFR 91.13 careless and reckless operations, but earned Sperry grand prize in the competition. We are often in awe of the capabilities of newly automated systems but are not good at predicting the ways we may error in working with the automation.

During the flight, Sperry demonstrated an automation myth: automation is a substitute for a manual task previously completed by the pilot. In reality, automation alters the character of the entire task. It changes both the task and person responsible for that task. Physically removing the pilot from the process, by design or in operation, is not an adequate substitution. There are inherent limitations of automation and surprises that occur that were never predicted as a possibility by the engineers that designed them. Ernest Gann humorously explained this in his 1961 book Fate is the Hunter, commenting "some totally unrecognizable genie has once again unbuttoned his pants and urinated on the pillars of science."

Even today we continue to see an overreliance on automation due to its tremendous abilities. The book starts off with the FAA Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO) 13002: Manual Flight Operations. That SAFO addresses one of the recommendations of the Flight Deck Automation Working Groups report Operational Use of Flight Path Management Systems, Manual Flight Operations.

An interesting research study cited in the book was from Matthew Ebbatson at Cranfield University. Ebbatson studied loss of manual flying skills in pilots flying highly automated aircraft. He found a direct correlation between a pilot's aptitude hand-flying the aircraft to the amount of time they spent without the aid of automation. A stronger correlation also existed if the recent flight experience hand-flying occurred in the previous two months.

One thing missing from pilot training today is a required course in Automation Philosophy. It is important to understand our role as a pilot in a highly automated aircraft. The focus of Part 142 training centers is on learning the box, not as much on implementing best operating practices for interfacing with automation.

I recommend this book for all aviation professionals, from pilots flying highly automated aircraft to the engineers who design them. It is a great primer for a history of automation and philosophy of use. For even greater application of that philosophy in aviation, I recommend Ryan Swah and Chris Lutat's book Automation Airmanship: Nine Principles for Operating Glass Cockpits.

Chris Lutat is also offering two training sessions on automation at Bombardier’s Safety Standdown in Wichita, KS Oct 6-9, 2015. On Wednesday, October 7th, Chris will be presenting on Automation Airmanship and the 21st Century Go-Around and on Thursday, October 8th, a 4-hour workshop on Automation Airmanship for Business and Corporate Aviation.