The Second Machine Age and Pilots

A new book, “The Second Machine Age” is causing quite a stir in economic and political circles. And I think the book does a lot to explain what we are seeing in aviation, too.

In “The Second Machine Age” MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson and MIT research scientist Andrew McAfee explain how our present era of the internet and almost limitless computerization and communication is different than the original machine age.

The authors postulate that the steam engine was the fundamental driver of the first machine age. The steam engine and other technology it enabled multiplied the efforts of men and animals that had performed the work before. The steam engine gave humans new power but humans remained fully in control. The original machines were helpless without skilled human operators to put the new mechanical muscle to work.

In this new machine age the machines largely control themselves. Instead of a highly skilled person operating a milling machine, or a lathe to create a new part or product, the milling machine and lathe get their instructions directly from the software that designed the part. There are still a few humans left to ask the computer to design a new product but the rest of the process is almost totally automated.

We have all observed how machines have replaced workers in almost all activities. And the trend is intensifying as electronic “machines” grow in capability faster than any technology ever developed before. The fallout for the labor force and the economy is immense, but the new machine age has also reached the cockpit.

The first flying machines, like the steam engine, empowered humans to leave the ground. But the human was very much in control of the aircraft and only great piloting skill could keep the early unstable and unreliable aircraft from coming to a bad end.

Now airplanes and engines can essentially fly themselves. All recently designed fighter jets, airline jets, and increasingly business jets, use fly-by-wire (FBW) technology. In a FBW airplane there is no mechanical link between the cockpit controls and the flight control surfaces. When the human pilot moves the flight controls in the cockpit an electrical signal is sent to an array of computers that decide how to position the actual flight control surfaces on the wings and tail.

The same technology is used to control engines with full-authority digital engine computers (FADEC). Moving the throttle sends an electrical signal to a computer that decides how to meter fuel to the engine and keeps it within operating limits no matter what the humans do.

It’s not a big step from a human in a cockpit moving a computer joy stick to a pilot on the ground moving a stick. Of course, the extensive use of drones by the military in far off wars for the past several years proves this technology is here and functioning.

Just as electronic control of a modern factory improves efficiency, electronic control of an airplane can do the same. With FBW computers doing the flying a more efficient but unstable airplane that humans would find hard to fly is possible and safe. Computers can control an engine with greater precision than any human so there are efficiency gains there. Three and even four people were required in the cockpit to fly large airplanes not that long ago but now the biggest airplanes ever built fly with a crew of only two.

The authors of “The Second Machine Age” describe how our society and economy are in this difficult transition zone with traditional jobs and work skills being replaced by electronics but a clear picture of how displaced workers will adapt has not yet emerged.

In aviation we are in an awkward situation with a high degree of automation even in personal airplanes but not full automation. The human must still make critical decisions and even vital control inputs at key moments while electronics handle the routine part of flying. History has shown that with training and experience humans become very skilled and reliable machine operators, but there is little evidence that we are reliable machine monitors. When things go well for long periods as they do with well designed machines we humans lose interest and simply can’t be alert enough to detect that one in a thousand, or worse yet, one in a million failures.

I have no idea where this new machine age will lead our society and economy and neither does anyone else. We can speculate, but nobody can be sure. I do expect automation to increase in aviation because the performance and cost savings gains are too alluring for operators to ignore.

At the personal aviation level we can choose to ignore the new age and keep ourselves firmly in charge of flying our airplanes. We will give up some performance and efficiency edge, and maybe even safety advances, but we can hold back the tide. I compare this to sailors who take on the challenge of moving over the water using only the wind and waves while even the most modest power boat leaves the sailor in his wake. Sailors sail for the challenge and satisfaction of mastering their machine and environment, and pilots flying their own airplanes can do the same.

But then even my sailing analogy goes to the bottom when I think of last fall’s America’s Cup races on San Francisco Bay. The boats had wings instead of flexible sails, there were two hulls and when the boats accelerated water wings—foils—lifted the hull clear of the water and speed quadrupled. Maybe flying our own airplanes with our own hands and skill is more like horseback riding. That can’t be automated by computers and the internet, can it?

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27 Responses to The Second Machine Age and Pilots

  1. Kayak Jack says:

    OUCH! It sounds like aviation has another division so well established that we let it sneak up on us – pilotless aircraft.

    Maybe, we are all like John Henry and the steam drill; only, we are standing next to our aircraft – with our hammer in our hands.

  2. Jim Butler says:

    Mac, with all due respect, you have fallen into the trap of seeing the finished product and being duly impressed, but influenced by the hype. These automated machining centers that you reference are wonderful things when you are watching them make the fifth or more part. However, if you were around for the first few parts, you would witness a large amount of human input in the form of set-up, adjustment, etc. You would also witness additional input as wear and other unforeseen factors have to be accounted for. Sort of a “rest of the story” situation. And now, we are having issues with pilots relying on too much automation letting their flying skills atrophy and not being up to the task when something unforeseen arises. What would happen if the human was not there, such as a fully automated aircraft or machine? That is a simple question to answer, it will crash. No amount of forethought or automation can predict the future with 100% accuracy. And until that is possible, automation will crash.

  3. David Toliver says:

    Bad news alert: Pilotless aircraft in the future is a certainty. Good news alert: I don’t believe it will be in my flying lifetime. However my hope is that 30 years from now, when it’s time for me to turn in the keys, automation will enable me to use private transportation to travel safely. I do feel sorry for the future generations who will never know the joy of piloting an aircraft. However, history is replete with examples of craftsmen whose skills are no longer valued.

  4. Thomas Boyle says:

    It depends on what you want to use the airplane for. For transporting your family safely in bad weather with a single pilot aboard, you want the automation.

    For experiencing the joy of flight, you don’t even need an engine.

  5. brett hawkins says:

    Mac flys for business as well as pleasure. He sometimes compares the speed and efficiency of flying his all-weather Baron directly from ABC to XYZ in half the time it would take to get there by scheduled airliner. At some point, elimination of the need for (most) pro pilots will reduce the cost of scheduled air travel to the point that Mac will no longer be able to justify using the Baron (or the IRS will do it for him by disallowing it as a reasonable business expense).

    For many recreational pilots, flying is like hiking, swimming, skiing, or yes, sailing or riding a horse. It is only incidently a form of transportation. We regard it as a passtime which can be simultaneously thrilling and relaxing. It also allows older pilots to go sightseeing in areas which would otherwise be limited to the very fit few. From this viewpoint, the pilot does not serve the airplane, the airplane exists to serve the pilot. The efficiency of automation is irrelevant.

    • Kayak Jack says:

      Brett sez: ” For many recreational pilots, flying is like hiking, swimming, skiing, or yes, sailing or riding a horse. It is only incidently a form of transportation. We regard it as a passtime which can be simultaneously thrilling and relaxing. It also allows older pilots to go sightseeing in areas which would otherwise be limited to the very fit few. From this viewpoint, the pilot does not serve the airplane, the airplane exists to serve the pilot. The efficiency of automation is irrelevant.”

      And therein lies the difference between profit and fun. For fun,we can do things that don’t make sense from a business or engineering point of view. We do them because they are fun.

    • Mac says:

      Hi Brett,
      A friend who is a pilot and has spent his lifetime in aviation told me he is now eyeing a new UAV business. He has been flying one of the quad copters with a high resolution camera for the past year or two and discovered something interesting. He has found that the “sightseeing” you can do with a drone and its camera is a lot like fun flying and sightseeing from a conventional airplane. In fact, he pointed out, he can fly his drone over places not accessible to his real airplane, fly it extremely low, and hover, something his airplane can’t do. With the drone he is enjoying aerial views he has never seen before even after many years of flying.
      Together we wondered if the availability of drones with excellent cameras will somehow replace much of the enjoyment pilots get from recreational flying now with a fraction of the cost and complication such as medical certification.
      I don’t know. I have never considered the prospect. But now I am wondering.
      Mac Mc

      • Brett Hawkins says:

        Mac, with all due respect (I am a fair weather sightseer and occasional yank-and-banker who could never fly in the system as you do), please, please, please don’t get on the drone bandwagon. It is yet another nail in the coffin of VFR/recreational flying.

        I have lived in both Europe and Asia, where small airplanes are truly toys for the wealthy and the average person has about the same chance of flying for fun as he would of making a trip to outer space. Let’s not hasten the arrival of that era here in the USA by ceding low-level airspace to flying spybots.

  6. I should start by saying Computer Science is my field. I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science and was on my way to a masters when a good job offer ended my quest for the Masters. I also have a minor in Math as CS is heavily Math oriented. I also have a small machine shop since I retired.

    There are a great many misunderstandings about computers and what the do and particular in manufacturing and flying aircraft. Often the computer is given credit for flying the aircraft when it merely serves as an extension of the pilots inputs. It may even limit those inputs to a safe level, and several computers may vote on whether the inputs are safe for the aircraft and/or pilot, but it’s still an extension of the pilots inputs. In some cases they allow an unstable configuration to fly, but in the end they still are an augmented response to the pilot’s inputs.

    Take drones. They can be programmed to fly a precise profile, but they also have an operator on the ground controlling them which is just an extension of the pilot’s inputs even if he/she is a few thousand miles away. The radio or satellite has removed the pilot from a dangerous situation. However it should be noted, that few of these aircraft are capable of safely sharing airspace with other aircraft as they have no capability of avoiding other aircraft.

    From a CS point of view, even airliners that are capable of being programed from take off to landing, a human has given the instructions as to the flight profile. Either in entering the profile, or the decisions the computer has to make while it is operating the controls. The basic instructions to fly the profile are relatively simple, but all and I have to emphasize the all commands were input by humans somewhere along the line. It’s important to remember a computer can do nothing it hasn’t been told to do and it can not respond to unexpected conditions. Even, in “fly by wire” systems the computer(s) serve as an intermediary to the pilots inputs and may vote on the safety of the inputs.

    It’s often difficult to put this into words, non computer people can follow as “it seem to them” as if the computer flies the airplane. It’s partially semantics, but the computer has basically been programed to respond to a condition such as “:if this condition exists, do this, or (if it doesn’t exist) do this. All of these moves and choices were entered by a human so the flight was programed in different stages with the programming to make flight decisions being little different than entering the flight profile…except for being a lot more complex. Almost every thing a computer does is some form of “if, then, or” statements including, current state, next state arrays. The main difference is the profile is entered just before the flight while the flying instructions were entered some time earlier.

    Computers do not just build parts with CAD systems. The operator has to enter dimensions of the part, offsets for the size of the tool and many other parameters. Yes, in some cases you can purchase a program that will control the mill or lathe to build the part, but you have to send in all the part dimensions. Many times a plant engineer will use a program to aid in designing the part and those dimensions can be use. It’s just that the computer does not design the part without human intervention
    Even the new 3 dimensional printers need to have the device dimensions put in to the computer

    Getting back to aircraft. As I mentioned, the computer(s) can not handle unexpected situations and the pilot is still responsible for recognizing those situations and over riding erroneous inputs in those cases much like recognizing an instrument or vacuum system failure in the old IFR flying.

    The danger is where many pilots are not willing to over ride the computer as they become conditioned to the computer making the right decisions. This is apparently what happened with the airliner that went down in the Atlantic a few years ago on a flight from South America to Europe.

  7. Mac says:

    Actually, Roger, it was the humans who failed over the Atlantic in the Air France Airbus. The FBW computers lost their ability to fly the airplane and keep it within the envelope of not stalling nor overspeeding, nor over banking. It is believed all three pitot tubes froze over. Without an airspeed/Mach input the FBW computers couldn’t fly the airplane so they reverted to what is commonly called “direct law.” That means when the human pilots moved the sidestick the computers commanded movement of the flight control surfaces without the computers being able to continue to protect the pilots from mistakes.
    The humans made a mistake, failed to lower the nose, and the airplane stalled and remained in a stall to impact.
    So the FBW computers could no longer fly the airplane without airspeed information, but in this case, neither could the humans. Who’s to blame? Frozen pitots, computers or humans? The humans took the rap.
    Bests,
    Mac Mc

    • That was my point Mac. The pilots didn’t argue with what the computer was doing. According to what I’ve read, had the been doing a proper instrument scan they should have recognized the error and recovered. If I understand correctly the computers found themselves in an unexpected state outside their pparameters and reverted to manual, but as you say, they did’nt revert to attitude control and stalled.

      Landing even a high performance plane like a Bonanza without airspeed input is an interesting experience. It’s something I’d expect ATP to be proficient at. At least in the Bo you can fly it by feel if necessary.

      • Hal says:

        The AF447 accident of June 2009, I believe, will become a watershed moment for not only air transportation, but for the much broader implications associated with the ongoing evolution of human-machine interface. While on the surface it appears like three well trained airline pilot’s failed to recover an otherwise mechanically sound aeroplane, from a momentary weather induced disturbance, the reality of how deep we are willing and able, to probe into the associated complexities remains – the gauntlet has been dropped!

        • Agreed.
          I believe it was Air France, but it may have been an industry group tha concluded from this incident that their training programs were not adressing computer failure and were allowing pilots to rely on the computers too much (paraprased)

          • Hal says:

            Agreed on your earlier (04:22) statements and clarifications, Roger – thank you for that! Most of us don’t fully appreciate that computers are only following human inputs and commands, either at the present time, or ones programmed months or years earlier. What I take issue with is how hard we pilots are on our fellow pilots – after the accident, when they are no longer there to explain or defend themselves! We take the easy out, and “…round up the usual suspects” ie pilot error, more/better stall training, better CRM training, etc etc. While these items are certainly helpful, but I am simply not convinced it would have brought that A330 to a safe landing in Paris. There have been a fair number of accidents and incidents over the last 20 years or so that point to a deeper issue – one that may require a complete re-think of how we interact with our machines – especially when things go wrong.
            Your statement, and I quote, “…much like recognizing an instrument or vacuum system failure in the old IFR flying.” holds the clue to the deeper underlying issues at play here. While this argument holds true in the classic cockpit, it no longer holds true in the highly integrated and inter-connected, and interdependent systems found in the modern airliner cockpits…

          • I was’t blaming the pilots as much as “the system and their training” which was the conclusion of Air France. OTOH taking into account the monstrous momentum, and lack of instruments, is it possible to recover from a stall in IMC with only attitude and power? I assume they have a functioning AOA that doesn’t depend on those external sensors. An inertial system should be able to calculate that , but again, I don’t know what they had available. I’ve never been in the cockpit of a modern airliner. I have been “up front” in a number of older airliners though and that was a long time ago, in a different world.

            Thinking about it, I have to agree. I’ve flown heavier aircraft a few time, but more as a student, not PIC and the major differene I found was momentum. It made a tremendous difference along with flying with power settings. None of them were the fully integrated setups in today’s large airliners. The “feel” was not there in the sense of a fast single or even light twin. You tell it to do something and then wait for it to comply. Take something like turning final. The momentum means you have to be thinking much farther ahead. Depending on altitude, in the Bo, I have to be setting up for the approach as much as 20 to 40 miles out and know when I have to start down to make the approach. IOW, I often had to remind ATC that I needed to start down. If I had to do that 40 miles out at 8,000 feet and know my power setting so I’d enter the IAF at the desired speed, the airliner has to do that much farther out. IIRC there are no manual instruments in the modern airliner, just redundant systems.

  8. stan sanders says:

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  9. stan sanders says:

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  10. Jim Butler says:

    Mac, the Air France flight that went into the Atlantic proves both Roger’s and my point. The computers can only do what they have been programmed to do, by humans. Since no human can predict the future, there will always be some combination of conditions that could not have been foreseen, not to mention hardware failures. When these conditions arise, if no humans are around, crashing is the only thing the automation can do. If humans are around, they may, or may not, be able to prevent the crash. As Roger pointed out, if someone is not actively working in the computer or machining industry, it is nearly impossible to explain the huge amount of human input required to get the equipment to perform as it does. When the lay people see these performances, they believe the computers/automation are nearly magic and can do practically anything when in reality these systems are quite dumb and can only do what they are programmed to do. In this instance, the definition of programming means someone has attempted to anticipate every condition that will arise and when these conditions are sensed, the computer/automation is to act appropriately. Sometimes the failure is in anticipating every condition that can arise, sometimes it is a hardware failure. The problem is that there has never been a computer or machining center that has not and will not crash.

    • You bet, Even Artificial Intelligence (AI) where the computer learns is based on a set of parameters put in by humans that allows the computer to compare results to what it has been told and modify its results accordingly, but that process is still limited by the original human input.
      This is one of the reasons I believe that a practical flying car “for the masses” is highly unlikely.

      As to GA, light aircraft and automation ; There is an RV10 here on the field that is capable of the pilot programming the entire flight from start to finish. He does do the take off and landings though. He could turn control of the plane over to the computers on climb out and take a nap until the middle marker awakes him. It wouldn’t be smart, and ATC might want to talk to him now and then, but that home built is capable of doing it. BTW it uses “highway in the sky” presentation for instrument approaches.

  11. Tom Davis says:

    “Aviation” is not a single, narrow field. The segment of aviation that Mac focuses on is optimized for moving people or freight on a schedule in any weather, or for military ends. While automation and remote-piloting will continue to have a huge impact on that segment, it won’t change personal/recreational aviation (see the next-to-last paragraph of Mac’s piece) UNLESS we let them change the rules; we can’t allow low-altitude, VFR flying to get pushed aside to make room for the new stuff.

  12. Mike Massey says:

    The Airbus incident where the pitot tubes froze over is an easy to overcome problem for software developers. The GPS and other navigation systems, when working correctly, create an accurate picture of true airspeed and winds aloft. If the system was taught to revert to the last ground track information that was reliable (before the airspeed indications began to conflict with the ground track information) it could automatically correct the problem and/or tell the pilots what to look for to correct it.
    One thing I have learned after 30 years in the field of technology is that most people resist change as long as possible and when they do accept it, it is in fairly small steps.
    We use to sell new computer technology to schools and colleges ( that was specified by various “Departments of Education”) only to find that no one in the local college or school wanted to learn how to use it.
    Technology is changing faster than we are as humans. Eventually technology will do a far better and safer job of flying machines than we have been doing for the past 30 years.
    I just flew left seat in an Aerostar 700 for the first time (with an experienced pilot in the right seat) and I was so far behind the airplane that if I crashed I could have called my wife and said goodbye before I arrived at the wreck sight.
    Even a good pilot can have a bad day and the autopilots that we enjoy with single pilot IFR are an example of how we always benefit from technology in the long run.
    The question is, when technology can fly better and safer than we can, can our egos handle it? Will we be willing to learn to use it? Even if we resist it, the next generation will fly safer than we did because of these new tools.

    • There are multiple ways of solving that problem including GPS which they are already using and as the are already using it for position, using the altitude component would be a short route, but interfacing and getting the FFA to approve would probably be the biggest hurdle. A solid state inertial “system” can fit in the palm of your hand and can be relatively inexpensive when the FAA isn’t involved.

      Although I can find many examples of resistance to change, this area (Midland MI) and surrounding area has a high percentage of early adopters. I was working on updating the Deb when Nature sidelined me. The New owner is installing a state of the art panel in the oldest example of its type flying. It’s actually the first off the assembly line with a S# of CD-2 manufactured in 1959. A the airworthiness certificate is dated 09/11/59

      The Universities (Saginaw Valley and Central Mi University – CMU ) were offering CS and CIS degrees early on while Delta College, a 2 Year college actually beat both by about a year.

      Many of our pilots are also early adopters although we have a few old timers who are “steam gauges forever” <:-))

      Much of the resistance to change isn’t really to change, it's to getting the money to update. Surprisingly most of the medical community and industry are still using XP for an Operating System (OS) because of the cost in software, hardware, and training which runs in the millions of dollars when you have 5000 to 7000 employees and thousands of computers. 2 hours of training plus at least a half hour on each end is 3 hours at an average of somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 * 3 * 7000 is just shy of half a million.

      The medical industry is also hobbled with custom written software that isn't just a front end, but database as well, making it doubly expensive for them. Industry looks at it and works from the approach, "does what I have now do what I want?” If the answer is yes, they are not interested in hearing any more arguments.

      Aviation OTOH can see tremendous advantages in going with the new technology, from an efficiency, workload, and safety standpoint. I mentioned the RV10 on the field that has a panel more advanced than most commercial panels because it didn't have to have the FAAs blessings and that was several years ago. IFR behind a glass panel is far less workload than the old steam gauges. I had no problem converting, because I found it easier. Every thing I needed was in one display, although the separate moving map display was convenient.

      I find the industry's approach to teaching "old timers" to fly behind glass, to be clumsy and discouraging. When I was introduced to it they wanted you to know the whole system before using it instead of taking it in steps, just like we learned to fly. Just go flying and get used to the displays, then how to enter and modify a flight plan. Modifying can be the most difficult. and finally enter and fly approaches.

      Like many things, the pilot's attitude is paramount when it comes to switching to glass.

      • Hal says:

        Both the GPS and the solid state inertial unit ideas are steps in the right direction, as long as they can be made completely independent of the onboard existing systems, a standalone system that can be activated when the primary integrated/interconnected ones fail for whatever reason. It is crucially important for us to appreciate that those precious few minutes that the cockpit crew of a state of the art airliner had, as it was plunging towards the Atlantic, were not wasted due to their fault. We humans inadvertantly, and years before, designed and programmed a system that we ‘assumed’ was infallible, we left areas of the flight envelope unprotected because we thought it would never happen this way – well it did happen this way. Unlike the steam gauges of the past, the failure in one system impacts many more resulting in a multitude of alarms, cautions and notices. The crew is left in a state where they do not know what to trust anymore. Now add to the internal cockpit display quagmire, an external set of challenges, a storm, at night, while over water, a FBW flight control system that has switched itself from normal mode to direct mode, autopilot systems are off, while operating in the thin air of 37k feet where the spread between stall speed and cruise speed are often down to some 20 knots or less. Although AOA is installed in all airliners, it is often not displayed, rather used by the flight control software for protecting the flight envelope… What were their chances?

        • Well said!

          Most, or rather all but a few of the public and government do not realize the limitations of computers. Some even liken it to a disciple of the devil and fear them as if the things actually can think. Don’t laugh, I’ve had people tell me that very statement.
          I believe it was Jim that listed the limitations of computers and I added our dependence on them, particularly in the cockpit.

          Even “if the programming covered all eventualities” which would be impossible, the hardware still fails. Then there is that random particle of cosmic radiation which is far more numerous at altitude, that may change a single bit of information. One single bit out of millions or billions of bits in a single program. That infinitesimal piece of a program can cause the entire computer to hang, or freeze. A single letter may contain 8 bits in old systems, but in modern ones it may be 16, 32, or 64. Programs may contain thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of of lines of programming, yet that single bit can cause the entire thing to fail. With a fully integrated system, that can lead to a system wide failure. And the life of any chip, be it logic, memory, support, or CPU is not infinite.
          Any of these failures are extremely rare events…(as far as we know), but we have redundant systems, just-in-case.
          We get into the realm of just how often is this likely to happen? Has it ever happened before? Is it possible?
          We get to the point of probability that is so low and the cost of programming along with hardware/redundant systems becomes prohibitively expensive to take all possibilities into account.

          Hal mentioned redundant, “independent” systems. Look at what we are doing with GPS. We have redundant hardware, but it’s still a single system that will have no backup if current plans are implemented.

          A single solar flare directed directly at earth could render the GPS system useless, possibly for months or years, never mind what havoc it could create through the power grid.

          No GPS, No backup. What happens to commercial aviation in that case. What use will the glass cockpits be in that case.

          It all boils down to “what are the chances” and what would be the cost to allow for it?
          Don’t forget that some human who can do something about it, thinks of all the possibilities so the computers can handle all possible flight regimes including unusual attitude recovery with no outside sensor input.
          IOW our safety is based on a cost, benefit analysis and an unjustified faith in computers. It’s not just our safety, but the life of an entire industry and all others that depend on the fast, inexpensive world wide travel it provides and the computers that make it possible.

          What would the impact be to society if we just lost the GPS system, nothing more?

  13. Jim Butler says:

    I am constantly amazed at the ability of the human mind to accept dual and competing lines of logic. On the one hand, we bemoan the prolific reliance on cockpit automation siting the atrophying manual flying skills that are needed when the automation fails.

    On the other hand, we believe that full automation with the absence of a human pilot is the coming wave and future of aviation. Hmmm…

  14. Kayak Jack says:

    Reading all this is educational and interesting. My 51 year old SkyHawk is like Henry Ford’s Model A. He resisted hydraulic brakes in favor of mechanical ones. “The safety of steel, from pedal to wheel!” he advertised.

    In this case, instead of computers and electronics between the stick and ailerons, I have steel. A friend of mine just retired as a test pilot for the Airbus, and now flies an RV. He’s very familiar with the fly by wire, and likes it. He also likes the older methods.

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