Jumpseat: Do We Need Big Brother in the Cockpit?

As a result of the speculative theories regarding the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370, the subject of cameras and streaming data from the cockpit has been re-energized. But why? And for what purpose? The obvious answer is to monitor cockpit activities in the event a situation arises. But what kind of situation? A terrorist event? Pilot suicide? An in-flight emergency?

First, let's address the subject of cameras. In this day and age of CCTV (closed-circuit television), it seems that almost every aspect of our daily activities has the opportunity to be captured on video. Most of us seem to accept this invasion of privacy as a necessary evil. Most of us have nothing to hide ... except for perhaps an accelerated car ride through a red light. And in that circumstance, law enforcement would consider the traffic light camera a deterrent to speeding.

But is a camera in the cockpit of an airliner really a deterrent? Are we implying that one of the reasons for installing a video system would be to dissuade pilots from committing suicide, sabotaging their own airplanes, or preventing terrorists from carrying out their diabolical plots? Or is the purpose simply to monitor cockpit activities? Are airline pilots participating in wild orgies with flight attendants, or manipulating controls and switches irresponsibly?

The most important question should be, "Will cameras in the cockpit increase safety?" Safety is the ultimate consideration in determining the value of any modification. In that regard, will a visual picture assist? The answer is, well ... maybe. From the standpoint that a video can be digitally stored and reviewed after the flight, perhaps yes. But that's after the fact. Along with the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and digital flight data recorder (DFDR), the video would become another part of the arsenal in analyzing a flight that has gone wrong.

Rather than just accessing a digitally stored video, why not have it streamed live? I guess the rationale for this logic is prevention. If the video is being monitored, a problem cannot only be discovered but it can also be addressed before the event becomes life threatening. In other words, the onboard systems and warnings that are carefully engineered by the aircraft manufacturer would be secondary to an individual on the ground who can alert the pilot to an impending issue or emergency.

Hmm ... really? How exactly? Airliners aren't drone-based technologies. Nobody on the ground has the ability to press a reset button or move a joystick to turn the airplane away from danger.

Let's consider a nefarious act is in progress. Someone, of course, has to be monitoring the video. And if no one is monitoring the video, then some type of warning system has to be installed as an alert to a given threat. But who monitors or who gets the alert? The airline dispatcher? The military? The FBI? Assuming this villainous act is caught live on camera, then what? Should the aircraft be intercepted and destroyed? Should the situation be allowed to play out and possibly save the lives of all on board? Isn't this a decision process best left to a professional flight crew?

In the circumstance that the ­airplane is being utilized as a tool for pilot suicide, what would a live video feed accomplish? A streaming video is not going to prevent the event. A suicidal pilot would have probably committed the deed before an intervention was possible.

So, assuming a camera becomes part of an airline cockpit, how should it be positioned? Should the device have a wide-angle lens so it can capture every­thing, including pilot movement, perhaps risking the loss of detail? Or should the camera be positioned so the lens is aimed just at instrument panel displays? Should some type of tamper-resistant safeguard be installed to prevent an attempt at duct-taping the lens? And, of course, the video system circuit breaker would have to be located outside the cockpit such that terrorists or devious pilots couldn't access it in-flight. And if a camera is installed in the cockpit, why not the cabin, a more likely source for a nefarious threat?

Consider another important factor. Video is subject to interpretation. No doubt your local law enforcement officers will agree that their car video cameras don't tell the entire story. The same can be said for viewing cockpit action.

Many years back my airline actually installed cockpit cameras in our DC-10 fleet for the purpose of passenger entertainment. Unfortunately, an emergency occurred on one of our flights while the camera was rolling. A passenger misinterpreted the actions of the crew despite their success at completing the flight safely. The passenger sued the airline, contending that the pilots caused the emergency. To the best of my knowledge the case was settled out of court, but the precedent was established. The airline had the camera system disabled.

On the subject of misinterpretation, consider that an incident occurs involving a crew. Depending upon the ­circumstances, a template must be established that affords pilots appropriate defense guidelines for disciplinary proceedings that utilize video recordings. Through a different source, this precedent has already been established.

My airline and many others have in place a program that makes use of downloaded DFDR data for the purpose of discovering operational trends that could jeopardize safety before they become an issue. The FAA has endorsed this program because it is proactive in nature. The program is called FOQA (Flight Operations Quality Assurance). That being said, information provided by FOQA is de-identified to all but a small collaborative group that includes the airline and the pilot's union. The crew remains anonymous. Unless the data indicates a blatant disregard for operational procedures, no pilot can be disciplined through the use of FOQA information.

Closing the discussion on cameras for the moment, I'll move on to the subject of live, streaming data. Great idea. But I go back to the same question. What is the objective? Is the objective to monitor flight data parameters similar to those of the DFDR? Or is the objective simply to track the airplane such that it never disappears? Or both?

Well, in regard to tracking information, the technology is already being utilized. The technology is called ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast). The ADS-B system is the basic core of Air Traffic Control's NextGen system, both of them topics this magazine has addressed over the past several years. In a nutshell, ADS-B tracking originates from the airplane antenna itself rather than from a traditional radar system, which propagates a signal that bounces back from a target. The antenna from an aircraft sends a signal to a satellite, which sends the signal to a ground-based station, which sends the signal to Air Traffic Control, appearing similar to how it appears now on a controller's display. For the moment, the plan is to require all aircraft operating in specified U.S. control zones to have ADS-B installed by 2020. Most of Europe now has this requirement.

Over the North Atlantic between North America and Europe, with very few exceptions, ADS-B participation is mandatory. The capability to track airplanes without traditional radar is already an established procedure. Oceanic controllers can't lose an airplane with the system. If the onboard equipment becomes disabled, the controllers will know. But the catch is the fact that ATC has to participate at a global level. Not every country has bought the technology.

Although most contemporary airliners have the ability to transmit a continuous position to a satellite, the equipment may not at this time be electrically wired to an emergency bus — the aircraft battery being a traditional source. That being the case, a mechanical or purposeful disabling event could shut down position reporting capability. Rewiring an airliner to prevent this situation is not a simple process. It would be a redesign of an aircraft system.

As for streaming data without dependence on the ACARS (Automatic Communication and Reporting System), the technology exists. But not all satellite companies have the capability, notwithstanding the aircraft equipment required. Of course each airline would have to subscribe to the service.

Bottom line? Having Big Brother in the cockpit costs time and money. If we are to accept the burden of this fact, let's just be certain that the end result improves safety and prevents the disappearance of another airplane. The solution shouldn't be based on pure conjecture and speculation.

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Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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