A Conversation with NTSB Member Earl Weener
If you're watching this man on television, odds are the news isn’t good.
Earl Weener is one of three active pilots on the National Transportation Safety Board, which currently has four members and one vacancy.
The NTSB’s origins date back to the Air Commerce Act of 1926. Over the years, Congress has expanded its mandate. Today, it is an independent U.S. agency charged with investigating all major aviation, highway, marine, rail, pipeline and hazardous-materials accidents. It also coordinates federal assistance to victims of select accidents.
To date, the NTSB has investigated approximately 132,000 aviation accidents and issued more than 13,000 safety recommendations. It has set the gold standard for transportation accident investigation worldwide; many countries have modeled their accident investigative bureaus after it and continue to seek its assistance. Yet it operates with comparatively modest resources for a federal agency—an annual budget of $104 million and 400 employees.
Like his fellow board members, Weener possesses impressive qualifications. He has been a flight instructor for 48 years and a commercial pilot, and he continues to fly his own Beechcraft Bonanza. He earned a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Michigan and was the 2005 recipient of the Honeywell Bendix Trophy for Aviation Safety. While a fellow at the Flight Safety Foundation, he led international industry teams focused on reducing accidents during aircraft ground operations.
Prior to joining the NTSB, Weener worked for 24 years at Boeing, where he held senior engineering positions and played key roles in the development of first-generation glass cockpits for the 757 and 767 airliners. He also served as Boeing’s manager of engineering and technical government affairs in Washington, D.C.
Weener, whose term on the NTSB expires at the end of 2015, maintains that corporate aviation safety is “very good and getting better.” However, he cautions against overreliance on, or misuse of, technology in the cockpit. While he believes that new technology continues to make flying safer, he laments that “the airplanes are a whole lot safer than the pilots are. We have more autopilot drivers than flyers. When automation fails or doesn’t do the job, often hand flying is done without a lot of proficiency.”
Noting recent commercial accidents, Weener adds, “Overdependence on automation leads to accidents. Automation is good, but it needs to be used properly.” Increasingly airliners and corporate jets have the same or similar cockpit technology. I asked Weener about the limits of technology with regard to aviation safety, but we began by discussing his first experiences with airplanes.
How did you get involved with aviation?
My dad was in the Army Air Corps [in World War II]. He soloed in a [Piper] J3 [Cub]. I’ve always been interested in airplanes, so as soon as I could afford it I got my private license when I was 21, followed quickly by my commercial license, instructor and instrument ratings.
There’s been an uptick in general aviation and business aviation accidents recently. What do you think is driving that?
Accidents are a random process. When you don’t have them you tend to pat yourself on the back, and when you do have them you start to look for root causes. Overall we saw a 10 percent reduction in general aviation accident rates in 2013. I have no idea why.
What limits should be placed on the man-machine interface in today’s high-tech cockpits and how do we ensure that new pilots have basic airmanship skills and are not just “button-pushers”?
Look at Asiana 214 [a Boeing 777 that crashed on approach to San Francisco in 2013, killing three of 307 aboard]. If the pilot had had more information about how that automation [in the cockpit] worked, that would have been a factor in preventing the accident.
Having said that, there was a trail of mistakes during that whole approach: they were too high and too fast and later too slow and the automation was only peripherally involved in that. That went back to basic airmanship. The pilot was hand-flying the airplane when he got too slow. You also had a new instructor teaching a pilot new to the airplane on that flight—what we call “green on green.” This isn’t the first time that’s been a problem.
That airplane basically cartwheeled and burned, yet almost everyone survived. It really is a testament to the improved design of all Part 25 airplanes [those weighing more than 12,500 pounds, which includes most corporate jets].
It’s a great example of the work that was put in starting 30 years ago with regard to crashworthiness and interior materials, 16g passenger seats and measuring head-impact criteria. An earlier generation of airplanes going through that [crash] would not have done as well.
Here you had an airplane that stayed together, the landing gear fused off just like it was supposed to, the engines were designed to come off through fuse links. Because the landing gear came off and didn’t punch through the fuel tanks [in the wings], the fire they did have was from an oil reservoir. Everything worked like it was supposed to. There was plenty of survival time and plenty of survival space. That says to me that the industry really did a lot of things right. And that’s a 1995 design.
When you were helping develop the glass cockpit for the Boeing 767, what conscious limits did you place on the automation system? How do you find the proper balance in designing a cockpit that isn’t over-automated?
The design philosophy on the 757 and 767 is that the pilot should always be in control of the airplane [and should use] automation in a way he wants it to be used. In other words, you can tell the airplane to do just specific tasks—turn to a certain heading, climb to a certain altitude at a certain speed—or you can program the computer to fly the airplane just after takeoff all the way to an auto land, all automatically. The pilot is responsible for choosing the level of automation that he wants and the automation does not restrict the pilot from doing anything to the airplane that the airplane is capable of doing.
However, no matter the automation, you still have to have a well-qualified and proficient pilot, because automation fails. The hazard of an automated system that works right almost all the time is that the pilot is not ready to either detect or take over when the system doesn’t work properly. You are assuming that it is always going to work properly, and that is not the case. You’re also assuming that the designer of the system thought of everything. As an engineer, I know that is not possible. There are always going to be things that nobody anticipated and the pilot is going to have to take over and do what needs to be done in that situation.
Is there a role for more technology—such as the increased use of simulators and training devices—when it comes to basic flight training?
An airplane in flight makes a lousy classroom. There used to be a lot of flight-training accidents, especially in larger airplanes, until simulators came along. You can do things in simulators you can’t do safely in flight. I’m a big fan of training devices and simulators. A few years ago, I started using Microsoft Flight Simulator on my desktop computer to practice approaches and get ready for check rides. However, there are still things that simulators can’t replicate, such as the impact of G-forces on the pilot.
Satellite navigation is quickly taking a larger role in aircraft navigation and controlling aircraft traffic. To what extent can we eliminate the network of old-style, ground-based radio beacons that were used to provide navigation and still have enough redundancy in the system to keep everyone safe, especially if part of the satellite system fails?
My opinion is that we are putting a lot of reliance on satellite systems—particularly the global positioning system. But GPS is a weak signal and can be interfered with. It can be jammed. So we do need a backup mode for navigation. Keeping the ground-based VOR [very high frequency omnidirectional range] transmitters is important.
What makes the NTSB effective?
We are nimble, and we can choose, to some extent, what to ignore and what to concentrate on. It’s always a process of compromise. You try to choose what you are going to learn the most from, what is most valuable to the community.
RÉSUMÉ: Earl F. Weener
POSITION: Member, National Transportation Safety Board
PAST POSITIONS: Spent 24 years in senior positions at Boeing
EDUCATION: Ph.D., Aerospace Engineering, University of Michigan
PERSONAL: Lives in northern Virginia with wife, Linda. Weener is an accomplished mariner who spent four years living aboard a specially built steel-hull trawler, cruising the coastline and inland waterways of the U.S.
Mark Huber is a private pilot and longtime BJT contributor.