Why pilots dislike being on cockpit cam (Wired UK)


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If search teams ever find the wreckage of Malaysia Flight 370, a
significant shortcoming of the plane’s black boxes system could
revive a proposal that’s been kicked around for 14 years: putting
cameras in cockpits.

The most popular theory regarding MH370 is something killed or
debilitated the crew and the plane flew for hours on auto pilot
before running out of fuel and falling into the sea. If that’s the
case, the cockpit voice recorder will be largely useless, as it
contains just two hours of data. Investigators would glean little
or no meaningful info from the recorder.

A camera in the cockpit would augment data from the cockpit
voice and flight data recorders, providing additional insights for
investigators. The idea was first proposed in 2000 by the National
Transportation Safety Board, which said video cameras “would
provide critical information to investigators about the actions
inside the cockpit immediately before and during an accident.” Did
smoke fill the cockpit? Did a violent passenger break in? Did the
pilot pass out? Video could answer such questions.

A visual recording would have been helpful in determining what
brought down EgyptAir Flight 990 in 1999, for example: The NTSB and
Egyptian government disagreed on whether the plane was brought down
by mechanical failure or pilot suicide.

But pilots opposed the NTSB proposal as an invasion of privacy.
Airlines, which must pay for new safety technologies, didn’t jump
to support it. And so the FAA shelved the idea in 2009, saying the
evidence wasn’t compelling enough to mandate cockpit image
recorders. The agency’s position has not changed in the years
since.

Pilots don’t see the disappearance of Flight 370 as a reason to
embrace cameras. They cite two reasons for their opposition: Video
surveillance will almost certainly be misinterpreted or get into
the wrong hands, and it can adversely affect how they do their
jobs. “What a camera can capture can be so easily misunderstood and
misconstrued,” says Doug Moss, a former test pilot and accident
investigator.

Lack of legal and privacy protection

Presumably, video recordings would be governed by the same rules as
cockpit voice recordings. Those can accessed only after an accident
and must be heard only by investigators, though a transcript
eventually is made public. Those safeguards don’t always hold up.
In the past, recordings have leaked to the public. Some have been released
in the course of lawsuits after accidents.

For airlines looking to monitor pilots, it’s a tempting way to
see what’s going on in the cockpit. Michael G. Fortune, a retired
military and commercial pilot who now works as an expert witness,
says, “there have been times when those rules have been
disregarded.” So it’s reasonable to think video recordings would
become public (or at least be seen not authorised to see them) one
way or another, despite rules designed to safeguard them.

Pilots don’t like the idea of being judged based on a visual
recording, especially in court. “Video footage may appear to be
easily interpreted by a layman, but in fact, pilot and crew actions
in a cockpit can only be correctly interpreted by another trained
pilot,” says Moss.¬†“There is a wealth of unscripted and
non-verbal communication that transpires between pilots and only
they can interpret them. Using video cameras in the cockpit
would only add to the likelihood of misinterpretation.”

Pilot discretion

Beyond worries that what cameras record might be misinterpreted or
misused, pilots say the very presence of a video recording system
could be detrimental to pilot performance and decision-making. “If
cameras were in the cockpit, it could change the way flying gets
done,” and not for the better, Moss says. Looking over the shoulder
of pilots would pressure them to follow every single rule, which
isn’t always ideal. Modern American aviation is governed by
thousands of procedures, and “you cannot fly an airplane without
cutting any corners,” Moss says.

In an age where computers do a significant percentage of the
work, experience remains a valuable asset. Pilots know when to bend
the rules, they say. Constant surveillance would “tamp down pilots’
massive database of knowledge,” Fortune says. “I think that’s a
huge negative.” For example, a pilot approaching a landing might
exceed the speed limit in effect below 10,000 feet if a passenger
were having a medical emergency, to get onto the ground more
quickly. He could declare an emergency and explain his rationale to
air traffic control, but video would only show him breaking a
rule.

“It can create a little bit of an environment where you’re going
to start second-guessing yourself,” says Sean Cassidy, first vice
president of the Air Line Pilots Association, the union that
represents more than 50,000 pilots in the US and Canada.

Opposition

It’s worth noting that pilots opposed cockpit voice recorders when
they were first mandated, and those objections have largely
disappeared. It’s possible video surveillance will go the same way,
but pilots are holding their ground for now. Cassidy argues a video
feed of the cockpit wouldn’t actually help investigators all that
much. It’s a “very selectively focused” view of what’s happening,
he says, and doesn’t add much to the information investigators
already have. This is compounded by the risk that investigators
might misinterpret what they see.

Not everyone agrees. During a July,
2004, NTSB public meeting
on the topic, Ken Smart, then head of
the UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch, said cameras would
provide “essential information on all almost all the accidents that
we investigate insofar as they provide additional information.”
Pilots’ concerns about how the information is used can be addressed
with legislation. “Other than that,” he said, “I can’t think of too
many issues on the down side.”

Matthew Robinson, a retired Marine Corps pilot and official
accident investigator for the Navy, says more research needs to be
done before cameras can be installed in cockpits, to figure out the
specifics of the systems. He echoes concerns about privacy
questions and the cost of these systems. But as an investigator,
“more information, more data, more evidence is always welcome in
figuring out what brought down an aircraft,” he says. “I’ll never
turn down evidence.”

This article originally appeared on Wired.com

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Source: wired.co.uk
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