The revolutionary change in aviation automation

The revolutionary change in aviation automation

A discussion and evaluation of recent research findings on automation and suggestions on how it may improve military flying training


A discussion and evaluation of recent research findings on automation and suggestions on how it may improve military flying training.

The revolutionary change in the level of sophistication and automation contained in technologically advanced military training aircraft such as the Pilatus PC-21 and the latest version of the BAE Systems Hawk, serves as catalyst for the critical evaluation and review of current military flying training philosophies and practices, viewed against recent research into automation and flying training. Automation in aviation has many benefits, yet poses as many (if not more) challenges such as cognitive, human-machine interface and inter cockpit issues related to automation and most notably the training required to mitigate these issues. The challenges of training military pilots to use automation are highlighted before offering some solutions. Realistic and holistic approaches are evaluated and discussed as possible options to military flying training solutions in addition to recommendations by manufacturers. The author relied heavily on research aimed at airlines and civil flying training, although there are many similarities especially in the human factors and initial military flying training environments, making the information applicable to both domains. Finally, further areas for research into military flying training and automation are highlighted.



Automation is the execution of a task, function or service by a machine agent. In aviation, it usually refers to the autopilot, FMS and other automated devices and systems that are continuously developed and upgraded (Mouloua, Hancock, Jones, Vincenzi and Kantowitz, 2010). These devices and systems have varying modes of automation depending upon the situation and the selection by the pilot(s). These modes are interchangeable between the pilot(s) and the automation itself, presenting a rich source of possible issues and situations with undesired consequences in terms of safety and efficiency.

The widely accepted standard of 1000-hour airborne labour to cultivate the skill required to aviate, navigate and communicate effectively as pilot, has changed a lot in the last 40 years (Baxter, Besnard & Riley, 2007). Computers and their displays, chiefly the FMS, were introduced to cockpits and flight decks to enhance safety (Orlady & Orlady, 1999). A portion of the burden of responsibility for safety and efficiency was passed onto automation; although it is unclear weather automation was solely responsible for safer operations (Ranter, 2005, cited in Baxter et al., 2007). What is clear, however is the fact that the arrival of the glass cockpit did not reduce pilot training as anticipated (Orlady & Orlady, 1999).

While no doubt easier to fly, modern aircraft has shifted the pilots’ workload, rather than reduce it. Each new piece of automation adds to the pilot’s management and monitoring load, meaning that it does not always result in a reduced workload. (Woods, Patterson and Ross, 2002 cited in Baxter et al., 2007). The poor observability of concurrent modes of automation creates difficulties to predict the outcomes of certain modes. This increases the heads down period devoted to program, monitor and interpret automated information at the expense of focusing on the primary task of aviating, which lead to the addition of aviate, navigate, communicate and manage when training aircrew (Baxter et al., (2007). These issues with automation present training challenges.

Entry into service of highly Automated Military training aircraft

The development and production of the Pilatus PC-21 and Hawk Mk120 military training aircraft revolutionised military flying training, effectively emulating modern fighter jets, employing a high level of automation and simulating weapons, radar and tactical aspects of multi million dollar fighter jets. With a glass cockpit, FMS, autopilot, synthetic radar, data-link and performance reaching into jet trainer territory, the PC-21 is the latest generation turbo-prop aircraft, currently replacing previous generation non-automated trainers all over the world, such as the Pilatus PC-7 and PC-9, while the latest Hawk is replacing older jet trainers which had little or no automation. The modern high level of automation is undoubtedly a great and very welcome improvement over training aircraft from previous generations, however these improvements have challenges of their own, in particular the adaptation to automation and the training required to overcome these challenges.

Automation in Aviation

Benefits of Automation

Automation in the cockpit has several advantages, most notably the integration of information, allowing the pilot to be freed from manually gathering information related to navigation, weather, terrain, other traffic, aircraft performance, and flight path (Green, Muir, James, Gradwell and Green, 1996). This freedom allows the pilot to perform higher-level decisions, and build a higher level of awareness that can be applied towards improving Airmanship. More information, previously only inferred, such as wind speed, other traffic and ETA is now readily available. Automated control relieves the pilot of the physical aspect of flying, offering valuable opportunities for enhancing situation awareness skills by freeing up mental capacity that may help to build Airmanship (Idlekofer and Carrick, 2005).

Benefits of Automation

Observability. One of the biggest issues with automation, low observability, means that the pilots have little knowledge and understanding of the current or future configuration or automated behaviour, which can easily lead to loss of mode awareness, mode surprises and cognitive mismatches. In addition, low observability of automation links into various other Human Factors related issues like attention, focus, memory and decision-making (Baxter et al., 2010, Christofferson and Woods, 2002 cited in Ferris et al., 2010). Weather the aircraft involved is an automated airliner, fighter jet or an advanced trainer, the following challenges have been identified as general automation issues and may be applied universally to any aircraft fitted with automated devices:

Reduced mode awareness, brought on by low observability, increases the possibility of mode errors. Mode changes may be automatic and go unnoticed by the pilots, which may lead to salient information going unnoticed. Inattention and change blindness may lead to mode confusion after a change, as a change may be displayed but go unnoticed due to scene disruptions caused by eye blinks or saccades between displays (Durlach, 2004 cited in Ferris et al, 2010). It appears that there may be a large proportion of errors related to the manner in which information is displayed.

Complacency with regard to automation, and its implications. Excessive reliance on automation may lead to automation complacency and overconfidence due to the belief in the infallibility of the system based on high levels of reliability. Complacency may also reduce the crosschecking, monitoring and verification of human entries into the automated systems, leading to surprises or unsafe operations down the track. The multifunctionality of the automated system may lead to fixation onto a single mode or aspect to the detriment of situational and mode awareness (Campbell & Bagshaw, 2003).

Further issues with automation have been identified by Ferris, Sarter & Wickens (2010) as:

Workload imbalance can occur when the pilots’ workload actually increases when monitoring “clumsy” automation.

Deskilling can occur when aircrew lose their cognitive and psychomotor skills due to overreliance on automation. As a result, on the rare occasion when needed, these skills may be wanting (Campbell and Bagshaw, 2003).

Reliability, reliance and trust issues. Despite high levels of reliability, failures of automation do occur, resulting in the loss of the pilot’s trust and perceived reliability of these systems. A particular problem arises during the partial failure of a system, which may lead to mode confusion and reduced awareness of what levels of automation may still be available, and what are not available.

Military Flying Training

Military Flying Training Setup

Flying training in military organisations usually follow a four-tiered approach to training front line fighter pilots. The author constructed a table outlining the tiers of military flying training and the perceived similarities to civil training stages.

Military Flying Training Stages


Flying Training (FT)

Aircraft Example

Civil Equivalent


Elementary (EFT)

Cirrus SR22



Basic (BFT)

Pilatus PC-21



Advanced (AFT)

BAE Hawk Mk120

ATPL (Theory)


Operational Conversion (OCC)

BAE Typhoon


The author noted the prevalence of archaic training regimens in certain Air Forces, with a heavy focus on development of mainly technical skills and psychomotor skills, aircraft handling and the maintenance of accurate flight parameters. Only a cursory nod is given to Airmanship with minimal formal training or assessment thereof in either student or instructor training. Airline training followed a similar path, but changed trajectory in the late 1990’s with the introduction of meaningful non-technical behavioural skills programs such as Crew Resource Management (CRM) and Multi-Crew Course (MCC), considered as critical training components today (Orlady and Orlady, 1999). Military flying training was left trailing behind in terms of airmanship and human factors training.

Revolutionary change

“Flexibility is the key to Air Power” is a principle that every Air Force staff officer is aware of, being taught in many Staff Colleges around the world. In addition to the strategic and tactical intent, “Flexibility” infers that successful pilots and successful organisations need to adapt to changes in procedures, environments and upgrades of hardware or software of their equipment. These changes are usually evolutionary, however in very limited occasions, perhaps once in a career, a revolutionary change may be experienced. The upgrade from an aircraft with no automation to a fully automated third generation system, such as the PC-21, is a revolutionary change. Overgeneralising the training and training requirements in this scenario would be a mistake, as a revolutionary change of this magnitude requires specific changes to training syllabi of previous generations of aircraft (Orlady and Orlady, 1999).

Automation Training

Reportedly, the three comments most often heard from pilots newly exposed to highly automated aircraft are “Why did it do that?” and “What is it doing now?” and “What is it going to do next?” (Orlady and Orlady, 1999). High levels of automation in the modern cockpit require new ways of investing in pilot expertise and new views on training pilots (FAA, 1996 as cited in Rigner and Dekker, 2000). Automation thrust the pilot into a new role of pro-active manager of various resources with varying degrees of autonomy. This requires new skills and knowledge from the aircrew while.

Firstly, it requires the allocation of attention to the correct areas, integration of information and the activation of knowledge, which involves substantial cognitive demands. Secondly, Automation also changed the nature and necessity of cooperation between crewmembers. Each cockpit occupant have private access to the systems and can independently or invisibly alter outcomes without the other occupant being aware of the changes (Rigner and Dekker, 2000). These new capabilities need robust training to overcome the obvious confusion that may result in a multi cockpit aircraft, highlighting the need for CRM training focussed on the correct use of automation.

Issues with Automation Training

Training challenges. Advanced technology aircraft containing high levels of automation requires both the old skills and knowledge required of pilots and new skills and knowledge to operate the automated systems safely and efficiently. This makes the initial conversion onto a glass cockpit or a highly automated aircraft a “monumental step for pilots who only have flown analogue instrument cockpits (also known as ‘steam gauge’ or ‘rope start’ aircraft)”. Pilots converting onto later generation aircraft “almost universally like them but want more training and more systems knowledge” (Orlady and Orlady, 1999 pp 345). Most pilots realised that automation requires considerable training because it is complex and it requires substantial systems knowledge.

Dr. Charles Billings (1997, cited in Orlady and Orlady 1999) asserted, “The human operator must be able to monitor the automated system.” (p 346). In order to monitor it safely, the pilot must have a good knowledge of the system and what it is supposed to do, what to expect it would do next and recognise when something is going wrong. Partial failures are most difficult to detect and require in depth systems knowledge to “borrow” capabilities from remaining systems (CRM, 2016). In order to accomplish this the pilot needs a high level of training. Orlady and Orlady (1999) are of the opinion that “The pilot needs to know more than just which button to push to start or change a given automatic mode.” (p 346).

Older instructors and those unexposed to automation. Older pilots, over the age of 40 years, may be more prone to automation complacency and find it more challenging to allocate sufficient attention to automation information especially in a high workload scenario than their younger counterparts. However, more experienced older pilots have a more established mental model which may offer a potentially powerful moderator to the detection of automation failures (Mouloua et al., 2010). Training is the suggested solution of many of the challenges related to automation, however, adaptation to the new system may be slow especially when the instructor transferring to automated systems have only been exposed to earlier generations of aircraft (Campbell and Bagshaw, 2003).

Training as Safety Generator. Safety and efficiency remains the primary concern in any aviation endeavour. Training efforts and their impact on cost and timescales for completion of contractual obligations has to be balanced with the safety requirement and the undeniable effect proper training has on safety. A revolutionary change in the equipment and therefore, training has to be considered as a necessary expense, together with other essential expenses in the organisation (Mouloua et al., 2010). Training can simply not be overlooked or underestimated in terms of safety. Training for automation is an integral part of flying training and needs to be addressed at the core of any flying operation.


The question remains how to effectively train pilots for highly automated aircraft. The best practice in airline operations seem to be to allow automation to maintain basic stability and control of the aircraft, while functions requiring a high level of airmanship such as flight planning, systems management and decision-making should be performed primarily by the pilots, assisted by automation (CRM, 2016). As flying from point A to B is not the ultimate aim of a fighter pilot, the military pilot needs to consider additional aspects of mission management automation such as offensive, defensive, tactical, and secure communication systems (Indlekofer and Carrick, 2005). Specific training is required to address the increased demand on the pilot’s decision making skills, knowledge of systems, monitoring and crew co-ordination (CRM, 2016).

Realistic automation training. Training should be conducted with an aim towards real life operations from day one. Syllabi and tests should reflect the cognitive and performance requirements of the missions the student is anticipated to conduct in future. From the earliest technical ground school on aircraft specific technical lectures, Automation should be incorporated into the aircraft systems as an ever-present reality in every system instead of being regarded as a separate system (Rigner and Dekker, 2000). Simulator training is an invaluable resource, as well as free-play devices allowing students to explore the modes and logic of automation devices including navigation and weapons systems. This type of training is very technical, highlighting the need for CRM and other Airmanship improvement initiatives.

Holistic automation training. Rigner and Dekker (2000), in response to airline pilot automation training, suggest consistently exposing students to automation during all stages of training would be beneficial both in terms of cementing the idea of being pro-active managers of the automated systems and also share the training load. Similarly, if military students at all stages of military flying training are actively taught, instructed and assessed on the knowledge and use of automation, the burden of automation training will be equally shared between training organisations over the whole spectrum of the training system, from EFT to OCC. A workable long-term solution across an entire Air Force can be achieved if all training agencies and squadrons pull in the same direction.

Leadership. It is the author’s opinion that strong leadership is required to initiate, coordinate and standardise an Air Force-wide flying training system involving all training from EFT to OCC. Starting at the end user requirements in terms of training for the operational use of automation, OCC requirements should be cascaded down and replicated as accurately as possible on the AFT, BFT and EFT syllabi. Standardisation and evaluation departments across the training spectrum need to align their efforts and expose instructors to the requirements of the next level of training, in order to successfully prepare the students for their next level of training. Such a large effort most probably requires co-ordination by an officer holding the rank of Air Commodore (Brigadier-General) or Group Captain (Colonel).

Manufacturer suggested training syllabi. The manufacturers of new aircraft are in an excellent position to judge what will be required in terms of training to operate the new systems safely and efficiently in the role the aircraft was acquired for. One method of ensuring that adequate training is given to operate the new systems is for manufacturers to conduct the training themselves, at least to the initial cadre of instructors (Orlady and Orlady, 1999). Training and operational departments would be wise to copy the manufacturers’ training when conducting in-house training, and not allow economic, timescale or other pressures to dictate otherwise. The safety and success of an entire operation often rests on the quality of its training, most notably when automation issues become part of the equation.


With the research evidence available, it is clear that automation has a big impact on the human-machine interface, which can be addressed with specific, tailor made training solutions, some of which have been adopted in the Airline industry, but it remains to be seen what effect this will have in the military domain. In the military training environment, there are specific needs that need to be satisfied, given the revolutionary change these new training aircraft are bringing about, combined with the unique challenges military aviators encounter. The author suggests that some research based on civil operations may be readily applied to the military training equivalent.

Some suggested solutions to automation training include realistic training with the focus on real life scenarios and exposure to automation as early as technical ground school through all the stages of flying training, assisting the student to grasp the intricacies of operating technologically advanced aircraft. Holistic training, where automation aspects are taught during the elementary and basic stages may alleviate the training burden on the advanced and operational training units. Training suggestions by the manufacturer, who knows the product best, may be incorporated into local training regimes.

The aspects of training that are readily transferrable from civil to military are those universal truths in aviation such as the guarding against known human errors through training for the nuances of operating modern technologically advanced aircraft, be it an Airbus passenger jet or a Typhoon fighter jet or a technologically advanced trainer. Aspects of training that affect Human Factors are being incorporated into Airline pilot training such as cognitive issues, interaction with the automation and crew, retention of skills, age and experience. These factors may be directly applied to military training establishments in order to maximise the efficient and safe use of automation in multi and single cockpit scenarios.

However, there are aspects of military flying training that need further research such as the influence of automation on the relevance of the visual external scan, an age-old necessity for the combat pilot. Notwithstanding the lack of military specific research, there is a compelling case for military flying training organisations to utilise existing research, philosophies and practices related to automation training within existing, respected and successful training organisations around the world. The upgrading of military flying training with the aim of improving safety and efficiency, may be most opportune alongside the concurrent entry into service of advanced, highly automated training aircraft.


Baxter, G., Besnard, D., & Riley, D. (2007). Cognitive mismatches in the cockpit: Will they ever be a thing of the past? Applied Ergonomics, 38(4), 417-423.

Bredereke, J., & Lankenau, A. (2005). 15 Environment (pollution, health protection, safety). Safety, 88(3), 229-245.

Crew Resource Management Network [CRM] 2016. Human Factors for Pilots. Retrieved from

Campbell, R. D., & Bagshaw, M. (2003). Human Performance and Limitations in Aviation . Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, 74(2), 189-189.

Ferris, T., Sarter, N. & Wickens, C.D. (2010). Cockpit Automation: Still struggling to catch up… In E. Salas and D. Maurino (eds) Human factors in aviation, 2nd ed. (pp. 479-504). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Green, R. G., Muir, H., James, M., Gradwell, D., & Green, R. L. (1996). Human Factors for Aircrew. Avebury Technical Publication. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate

Indlekofer, U. R., & Carrick, K. (2005). Improvements in Situational Awareness for Military Fast Jet Pilots: Organisational and Industrial Framework. Human Factors and Aerospace Safety, 5(3).

Mouloua, M., Hancock, P. A., Jones, L., Vincenzi, D., & Kantowitz, B. H. (2010). Automation in aviation systems: Issues and considerations. Handbook of aviation human factors, 2.

Orlady, H. W., & Orlady, L. M. (1999). Human factors in multi-crew flight operations. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Rigner, J., & Dekker, S. (2000). Sharing the burden of flight deck automation training. The International journal of aviation psychology, 10(4), 317-326.