The Limits of Technology

I was reading an article about all the electronic wonders in a small aircraft (pilot plus three [skinny and short] passenger small), including dual IFR-rated navigation systems and the assorted displays that go with them. It reminded me of listening to an instructor extol the wonders of a training aircraft with such a complicated Flight Management System (FMS) that the student needed 10 hours of dual instruction in a simulator learning how to work the FMS before the first training flight. I’ve flown the older, non-FMS versions of that aircraft. The only thing students didn’t handle on their first flight was the propeller control [gear shift], and that was only because the owner of the plane had stipulated it.

I think we’re reaching the point of diminishing returns in training aircraft and electronics, at least for the casual pilot.

Before I go farther, I need to explain that I am an electronics minimalist when it comes to small aircraft. I have no problem with an all glass, EFIS, FMS, ADS-B, EIEIO* cockpit corporate or airline aircraft, so long as final authority defaults to the pilot.** I do not like having a lot of computer between me and the airplane if I just want to go out and bore holes in the sky or get a $150 hamburger.*** I learned on a basic set of instruments, with two nav/com radios. I find that the more glass in the cockpit, the less time I spend flying the plane and the more time I spend head-down in the cockpit. This is not a good thing.

GPS is a wonderful tool, one I leaned on when I flew charter and air ambulance. It also went “blork!” at inopportune moments, like when I was in solid clouds, requiring a quick mental and instrument re-set to using ground-based radio navigation systems. In one case, I watched another company pilot do his best to get lost in clear skies and great visibility fifteen miles from the airport because the GPS got the electronic version of a migraine. I’m pointing out the front window saying, “Airport, Jake. There’s the airport. Right there! Follow the highway to the airport.” Once we got on the ground, the not-so-sotto voce comments from the flight nurses were . . . uncharitable.

My head understands that electrical systems are a lot, lot more reliable than when I got started flying. Ditto computer systems and display packages. Solid state electronics don’t get bits shaken loose the way older equipment did and does. When everything works, and the pilot is aware and paying attention and understands all the limitations and procedures for the system, a “glass cockpit” can provide magnificent situational awareness of where things are and what’s going on with the plane. I get that, I see it work for a lot of corporations and airlines.

Where I start getting wary is when a system is such that it has to be flown first, and the aircraft comes second. I cannot get excited about a plane used for teaching the absolute basics that requires ten hours of computer simulator time before the student and instructor can start the engine and go cruise around the neighborhood. That requires too much “head in the cockpit” work, which means that the student is getting conditioned to look inside the plane, not outside. That way leads to loud, unplanned flight stoppages.

“First, fly the airplane.” When all else fails, ideally, the pilot should be able to turn off the top levels of technology and fly the plane, then land the plane safely. Any FMS that gets in the way of that in a basic trainer makes me unhappy as both an instructor and as a pilot.

A number of the older instructors who do a lot of instruction have begun complaining about students who see screen, lock onto screen, never look away from screen. They treat the plane—at least at first—like a video simulator that happens to have additional sensory inputs. Trying to get them to look outside the aircraft in order to fly it is a real challenge, and they tend to default to see screen, fly screen.

At least one small-plane maker experimented with a heads-up display. It was not a success, because what works for a dedicated crew and aircraft, and crew members who use the system daily is not ideal for people who fly once or twice a week and switch airplanes.

Cars are getting to be the same way. My parents’ sedan-like vehicle has a clock that is one hour off for six months of the year. Why? It takes two people and the manual to reset the clock or to make other changes in the display. The electronics guide for my pickup is fatter than the driver’s manual, I kid you not. The good news, in the pickup, it “only” takes four screens to get to the clock reset. I’ve never messed with anything aside from the clock and the radio/auxiliary sound input screens. The main instrument display has both analog and digital read outs, and I focus on the analog.

When the Electronic Flight Information System was first proposed for small aircraft, a demo version went on display at the big airshow at Oshkosh. To the fascination and discomfort of the sales staff and observers, almost everyone who tried the system flew it into a mountain. They fixated on following the “highway in the sky” flight path and ignored the terrain. At the time, it set off my warning bells, because I know I get target fixation like that even from the basic instrument panel. What about a student who has grown up with video games, and watching screens?

There’s a balance between technology that makes flight safer and provides more, and more usable, information to the pilot or driver, and technology that overloads and distracts the pilot or driver. Where is the line? Should there be an unofficial limit to how many state-of-the-art displays and boxes are in basic training aircraft? Should there be a default switch that an instructor or pilot can flip to eliminate excess material on the primary display?

I don’t have any answers. I know what I know, and what I’ve observed. I also know that the tech horse is out of the barn, and we’re never going back to the planes I “grew up” with.

*Not really an aviation equipment acronym yet, but it probably will be.

** No, I’m not a fan of the Airbus design philosophy.

*** The formerly $100 hamburger, post inflation.

63 thoughts on “The Limits of Technology

  1. I had to replace my smartphone. I spent most of the day figuring out how to shut off, disable, or remove the stuff I don’t want. I don’t want it doing strange things if I swipe wrong, or sneeze, or wink at it. I don’t want an over-eager, mongoose-crazy assistant in my pocket. I want a =tool=. A =tool=, dammit, with which I can be proficient and confident.

    The point of an automatic transmission is that is easier to learn to use than a manual, not five times harder.

    • “It has intuitive design!”
      “You mean it’s utterly irrational but happens to fit your momentary impulses?”
      “…”

      An especially evil “safety measure” is the “if you use the swipe-password wrong three times, it wipes your phone.” I have toddlers, AND I’m a clutz. NO!

      (No, I have never had “intuitive design” that actually worked well for me. Seriously, they’re using an electric folders system– what is so hard about either organizing it like you would a folder, or making it so there’s a link to a setting in every possible place you could look?)

  2. Solid-state bits can vibrate loose from mounts, break pins, or simply wear through connectors and wires. They’re made as cheaply as possible, so the inexpensive headphones or cable that works intermittently have the same manufacturing flaws as the electronic boxes used in flight systems. A poor antenna connection makes the GPS board useless at key times.

    • The quality of the GPS antenna matters. The quality of the GPS’s clock matters. Atmospheric conditions slightly change the propagation speed of the GPS signal, so you have an inherent uncertainty about location from that. If you aren’t in the middle of empty sky, GPS signals can bounce off objects, meaning that the receiver is now ‘hearing’ two or more signals from the same satellite, and can’t always tell which one is the most direct.

      From a maintenance perspective, all the electric bells and whistles are the sort of problem for the small plane new pilot that the bureaucratic-academic complex will overlook. GPS has to connect to the antenna, so you will have at least one and probably two sets or more of connectors, which could get dirty. Dirty connectors will mean a more compromised signal than clean ones. Okay, GPS is digital, or at least not purely analog, so it has some ability to cope with noise. I think that appropriate distrust and caution for GPS sounds like a lot to get a new pilot up to speed on if they do not have an engineering degree.

      One of the things being investigated now is ground based augmentation systems, or GBAS. Plain GPS does not work well enough for all the stuff that they want to automate, especially with landing, and there is work being done on very expensive systems to enhance GPS near airports.

      • Back when I first read about the small GPS jammers and their range, and at almost the same time read about the FAA’s Grand Plans to eliminate all ground-based navigation systems, I said to myself, “Self, even I can see the problems here. This ain’t gonna end well.” Apparently I wasn’t the only one to express, ah, considerable discomfort with the loss of redundant navigation and approach systems.

  3. Back when I had the little yellow airplane in my avatar, I had an Opel GT with the same number of instruments. The car had a clock and ammeter, while the airplane had an altimeter and a compass, but other than that the instrumentation was pretty much equivalent: speed, oil pressure, temp, etc. I do wonder about people who learn to fly without developing good Dead reckoning and finger on the map Pilotage skills. I’ve recently been trying to get up to speed with current aviation. It looks like I would need to upgrade to at least a new com radio and ADS-B to even take off from my local airport within 30 NM of a major international hub. There might be an exception for that old Chief if I still had it as it never had an electrical system.

  4. I’ve noticed a few things about aircraft computerization from reports of various mishaps, including the 737 MAX business.
    One is that data presentation doesn’t necessarily take human factors into account – e.g., having the AOA reading and the “AOA sensor mismatch” indicator widely separated on the display.
    Another is that the systems don’t seem to take much advantage of information redundancy, even to the extent of detecting and flagging contradictory inputs (e.g., airspeed and GPS ground speed readings suddenly developing a discrepancy that could only be explained by either a blocked Pitot tube or flying into a tornado, or one AOA input varying wildly while the other AOA input, airspeed, and pitch remain steady).
    … But, then, I’m the guy who can’t figure out how to work the sound system in any car made after about 2005. Whatever happened to knobs and on/off switches? And any time I’m forced to boot up WIndows 10, I find that Microsoft has pushed yet another update that changes the UI yet again, and, as with the car stereo, I can’t find the OFF button.

  5. Not a Pilot (curse you astigmatism), but in a previous life I was a nuclear test reactor operator. Much prefer analog instruments to digital. I can glance at an analog meter and instantly know it either is or is not in the acceptable range. With a digital readout, there is a short but definite delay to figure out if 149.23 is where that reading should be. The bottom line, I scan the control panel and immediately know the plant status. Then there is the problem of “data overload.” Glass control rooms are capable of providing so much data that one can get buried in the minutia instead of paying attention to what’s really important (similar to “Airport, Jake. There’s the airport. Right there!”) . Yeah, there are algorithms that are supposed to highlight the importance stuff, but at the back of your mind you know that incidents* are by definition unanticipated, so what did the guy who wrote the algorithms forget.

    *In nuclear speak, all unplanned/unanticipated events are “incidents.” Incidents that break important things, kill people or release radioactivity are “accidents.”

    • Oooh!

      Thank you, you just totally justified something I wanted to do in a story!

      Er, to be polite, here’s how I am planning to use it.
      It’s a spaceship. There are a lot of buttons. Since I didn’t want to have to create a language and language classes, they’re all pictures and colors. They do not have an engineer. They have a half-trained field medic of the correct military, who knows how the medical machines work.
      So, in story, pretty much any four monkeys can drive the thing…when nothing is going wrong. The indicator goes from green to yellow? Time to scramble and figure out what the heck that means, and THEN what to do about it.

      But if it’s all green, the computer is driving you to the correct place.

      • Sounds interesting.

        When indicator ‘A’ goes from green to yellow, it’s usually fairly easy to correct (even for semi-trained monkeys). It’s when Indicators ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ turn yellow and then indicator ‘Z’ goes from green to red that things get “interesting.” It’s seldom one thing that gets you, It’s that one serious thing that by itself isn’t catastrophic in combination with the ten minor things you ignored, that kill you.

        • *grin* Darn, you figured out what my really big “uh-oh” moment was going to be.

          (I use to be in Navy calibration for the air department– I know how nasty things can get when you have more than one instance of someone going “oh, it’s just a little bit outside of normal, it’ll be fine.”)

          • “Little bit outside of normal” heard that more than once LOL.

            In the aforementioned life, one of our sayings was “Nothing worse than an I&C (instrumentation and controls) tech with a screwdriver loose in the plant.”

        • Obviously, they survive. Spoiler, so does the ship, and it provides a handwavium framework for how they figure out how to run the thing when it’s not all going well.

        • I presume the maintenance personnel are supplied by Lowest Bid Trained Monkeys, Ltd., for reasons of Efficiency? And they’ve all been through the required number of hours of on-line learning to get their certificates?

      • A) assuming the operators can even *see* the colors (for you people with “normal” color vision, look up “tetrachromat” to get an idea of where you stand vs. people who *really* see color)

        I’m primarily red/green color blind, but decades of asking people for help has taught me that the official 7 to 15% of males (it’s a sex-linked recessive) is actually more like 30-50%. Most of the time you know that grass is “green” or the “red” light is on the bottom and act accordingly, but when I hold a color-coded transmission gear out and ask what color it is, I get the runaround about half the time. It’s not like it’s a trick, it can only be one of half a dozen primary colors, not shades or pastels or weird stuff that, frankly, I suspect is some kind of con.

        I understand color is the primary visual input most people have; I once watched an electrical engineer hook a pair of cables prominently labeled “+” and “-” up and let out about $300 worth of magic smoke. When I asked him why he hooked the leads up backwards, his answer was “But I put the red on positive!”

        Oh. And your fancy tech camouflage? To people like me, you stand out like a roach on a countertop…

        B) those pictures are always “intuitively obvious” to the people who come up with them. For the schmucks who had an idiot light come on at 80mph… why does a picture of a menorah mean “low tire pressure”? What does a gravy bowl have to do with “oil pressure”? What does a flying bird have to do with “library?” Why does an icon of a Joshua tree mean “WALK”?

        Maybe they were taught what the icons meant before they saw something that they were pictures of, and now that’s how they see things. Otherwise, something is *broken* in their heads.

        Your design team gets awards, and the eventual flight crew augers in at 0.9c…

        • I actually play with colors and how much people can see in a different quarter-of-the-way-in story. 😀

          There are a lot of folks who simply can’t see as many colors as other people– I love the “see how many bands of color you can count” tests that are a knock-off of the 100 hues test, they let me SEE where the “gaps” in my precision are, and that’s just kinda neat– but are these the color coded things you’re asking folks about?

          I can see how use aging would change the red and yellow to where they look the same REAL QUICK, and any sun tends to turn green and red the same color, too. Blue is fifty fifty on if it goes like green or something else.

          • Yep, those are what I was talking about.

            > how many bands of color you can count” tests

            Rainbows are blue and yellow with a gap between them. I’m told “purple” is a color, but it’s only blue to me.

        • As for pictogram design– that’s why they have the guy who is at least half-trained to know what kind of a category they’d be looking at, and what color coding the doors is about, and other frame of reference stuff.

          (Plus, a lot of the pictograms are literally a low resolution picture of the thing that is being used. Which can cause problems if you have no idea what the ship looks like.)

        • Took me forever to figure out what the exclamation point inside a badge meant the first few times I saw it. To me exclamation point means urgent or emergency, “what a funny looking emergency brake light.” Umm, no, why that is what means low tire pressure I have no idea.

          Or why my new ATV flashes a six digit numerical code I have to look up on the internet to find out what it means. If it would flash “TEMP” or the little flashy thermometer symbol (like my older ATV of same model) I would know to check the fan fuse and water level in the radiator. (Actually did check the fan fuse first, because it was a known issue from my previous ATV of same model and engine, for whatever reason they blow a fan fuse every year or so unless you put a larger than called for fuse in. Obvouisly something they haven’t fixed in the newer models)

          • I had a Yamaha Turbo long ago. Quite the tech ride for the day. It had a little “information panel” with idiot lights. There was one for “low brake fluid.” Bear in mind there was a window on the brake master cylinder so you could *see* the fluid level, but they ran a wire and a sensor anyway.

            The icon they used *plainly* meant “insert rectal thermometer.” I wasn’t the only person to interpret it that way, either.

            I have no doubt there are DIN or ISO standards for “Automotive Information Display” now, but I refuse to search for them, and have no intention of learning them. I

    • Back when Three Mile Island was a big deal, IEEE* Spectrum did some articles on What Went Wrong. (I don’t recall much of it; my professional mistakes generally involved blowing up integrated circuit leads, or occasionally the probes on the wafer test station.) One of the pictures in a human factors segment was interesting. The reactor in question had two different types of control rods (because reasons, I suppose), and The Designer couldn’t be bothered to make it obvious as to which was which. In short, inviting Murphy into the control room and asking him to take a seat while you went to get coffee.

      The unofficial and presumably Highly Unauthorized fix was to use some beer tap handles. One set used long and skinny handles, while the other used globular ones. (One wonders what the bartenders who got the other end of the trade thought about their new beer handles. “For Emergency Use Only!” comes to mind…)

      (*) Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering. I belonged until it was too clear that they were encouraging as many people as possible to get a BSEE, even though the companies that were donating a bunch of money to IEEE were far more likely to hire Sajeev on a short-term contract through his H1-B owner agency.

  6. Don’t worry, the electrical engineers have complete knowledge of what the system could need to do, physical phenomena in play, and of the fundamentals of their field, and so do the computer scientists. We just throw the fancy academics at the problem, we won’t need any of the knowledge of the blue collar types who have historically operated and maintained the equipment, and we can just turn loose high school kids who have looked up a youtube video on google.

    Wow, I’m surprised I got my tongue that far into my cheek.

    • I have to state this carefully, for reasons. I used to test a lot of equipment like those, analyze outcomes, and figure what to fix. The test plans written by 3rd-raters were what scared me. When you read the plan and realize that you 1) Have To Follow That Plan and 2) the plan won’t let you answer the test questions, you realize that there’s a horrible combination of incompetence, unfounded faith in The Model, and (of course) PM School: Cost, Schedule, Performance.

      • “What happens if I do this, then this, and then that?”

        “No one needs to do that!”

        Holds up approach plate/checklist/procedure best practices from On High. “Like I was saying . . .”

        “Gulp. Ah, let us get back with you on that.” *sound of fleeing designers*

  7. To what extent is the over-instrumentation mandated by Authoriteh, and how much wiggle room is left for some wily entrepreneur to manufacture and market a Basic Air Transportation device?

    • I’m not trained or experienced in this.

      I gather that there are two or three issues in play driving things, and making push back difficult against progress minded group think run amok.

      1. Airplanes have a certain amount of inherent complexity. You need to design aerodynamics, structure, controls, propulsion, etc… Potentially, one person could do it all for simpler aircraft, if they have enough experience and skill. But that is decades of aircraft engineering experience, not something you can just learn from a book. Most often you will need a team, which can include folks fresh out of school, but likely relies on experienced aircraft design specialists. The experienced folks likely ‘grew up’ on some system for handling the complexity of aircraft design projects. These folks will want to minimize risk in ways that opens them to capture by bureaucratic process.

      2. Airplanes are expensive. Your funding that pays for development costs like fuel, pilots, maintenance and windtunnels is likely to come with strings that require compliance with industry norms. And the customers with money to pay for units are going to want to minimize their risk of not making back the investment. If the bureaucracies like something, it must minimize risk, they think.

      3. Pilots licenses are specific to categories of aircraft, perhaps even to models. Which makes sense, because aviation history has many incidents of pilots not successfully being able to just hop into a subtly different plane and fly it safely. People will buy airplanes that they can get pilots certified to fly. The FAA has a fairly difficult process that has to be satisfied for an airplane model before they will license pilots to fly it.

      4. Beyond that, everywhere has issues of sustaining maintenance. Analog systems, and the skills for maintaining them, are seen as more expensive than digital. There are still applications that will pay for training young electrical engineers in the old analog techniques, but you see for most a pressure to just hire digital circuits designers to build a fancy smart system. If you want to go analog in an industry where the MBAs have bowed to that logic, and don’t have experienced analog engineers, the techniques still are described in old textbooks, but rediscovering them the rest of the way will still cost. Of course, this thing with China could change the factors driving things that way for the past 20-30 years.

      5. Years of Hollywood computers may have given the public an excess of confidence. Engineers, bureaucrats, lawyers, etc, all come from the public, and inherit a lot of the same blindspots.

      • > analog techniques,

        A friend of mine got his EE back in the ’90s from a highly-regarded college. A few years later he told me he as scrambling to keep up at work, hitting the books hard each night. The curriculum he followed had only basic electrical theory, then it was all digital stuff, and he had wasted his school time on microcontrollers and software that was already obsolete. Meanwhile, he found that he didn’t actually know much about, you know, *electronics*, particularly the analog stuff he was having to deal with at work.

        “If I knew then what I know now, I would have taken a whole different course set… but they had already stopped teaching much of what my bosses think are the basics.”

  8. If it’s electronic, it can fail. (If it’s mechanical it can fail too, but mechanical things tend to fail much less often.)

    Your talk about how you learned to fly is interesting, because while I’m not a pilot, I am a photographer, and my experience with cameras has been somewhat similar. I learned to take pictures with a manual camera – the only thing electrical in it was the lightmeter. As a result, I learned how to take pictures without electronic crutches. I’ve owned eight or nine digital cameras of various models, and made doggone sure that every single one has had the manual modes: aperture-priority, shutter-priority, and full manual. Autofocus is nice, and most of the time I trust the lightmeter, but I still remember how to do everything manually. Useful to know, sometimes.

  9. Not a pilot but everything you write rings true to me including what wolfwalker wrote in the comments among others.

  10. DR nav off a chart. Piper Cub with NO radio was the first airplane I flew. It didn’t even have a 6pack in it… LOL Unless you fly those ‘systems’ everyday, you’re behind the airplane immediately, and even worse off when it burps. I’m betting half the pilots can’t even find the backup analog instruments, or even have actual charts in the airplane.

    • You no longer have to have either of those. I wish I was kidding, but “electronics are so reliable that if you have a dual EFIS, analog backups are no longer required.” You can imagine the thought bubble over the room full of CFIs.

        • It’s either 13 or 42, depending on whether Douglas Adams predicted the situation.

      • My brother was a USAF cargomaster on C5s. He learned when they had printed forms and slide rules. One day he got some new guys in who brought nifty electronic tablets with them, with software that made it easy to balance the load on the aircraft.

        My brother had never seen the tablets before, and assumed they were there to be trained on the forms and slide rules. And he ran into an immediate problem… the new guys knew *nothing* about balancing an aircraft, other than the vauge concept that it was a good idea. They’d been trained as tablet input operators; they had no idea what the software did, or what the numbers meant. They just typed stuff in, and it told them where to put the cargo.

        Yes, it saved some effort, but now they had another failure point; if it got damaged, lost, or the batteries went down, the plane would not fly, because they weren’t teaching the basics. Someone up the procurement chain had a brilliant idea, and why weren’t the grunts grateful?

        And as he also pointed out, the paper worksheets were proof that the plane was correctly loaded if something ever happened that prompted a flight investigation.

        • Bingo. Another reason for paper charts et cetera. You have evidence that you anticipated the potential for difficulties.

    • The current term for analog flight and engine instruments seems to be “steam gauges”. After all who would want anything so archaic. Once upon a time I spent quite a bit of effort learning to read those Steam Gauges with some degree of efficiency. Most of my small taildragger time was in Aeroncas, a Champ and a Chief, but I did get a few hours in a J-3. In those, even the analog instruments were mostly for show, rather than really being necessary for flight.

      • Several years ago, I helped qualify and run the steam engines at the state logging hysterical park/museum. To a first approximation, there are two steam gauges; one for pressure, one for water level. (I’ll skip the displacement and other lubricators; some have indicators, some you better check at the beginning of the day and maybe midday.)

        Just enough instrumentation to tell you what you needed, and nothing more. FWIW, experience on one engine gave you enough to run the two others at the park. Although, a 75HP steam tractor weighing tens of thousands of pounds got a bit more respect than the horse-drawn portable engine…

        It’d be possible to instrument the devil out of these things, but the information isn’t essential.

        • There’s a tractor pull video on YouTube. Five-engine supercharged monsters, turboshafts throwing fire, etc. The sled humiliated most of them.

          Then they hooked it to a big 1800s-looking steam tractor with iron wheels, which took off at a walking pace. The weight winched up to the front of the sled, and the tractor kept moving sedately down the track as the sled plowed a trench. Every now and then the boilerman would throw a box of sawdust in, which showered up in sparks, just for show. It dragged the sled all the way to the end.

          It wasn’t very fast, but some of the tractors that failed had 5,000hp or more, and tractor pulling in those classes isn’t a cheap hobby.

          Like the guy said in “Gumball Rally”, “Some things get meaner as they get older.”

    • It’s so much fun to reach over mid flight, turn off the GPS and ask the student “Show me where we are on the chart.” The expression on their face is so cute. As an added bonus you get to see if they pre-folded their chart before the flight, something that’s not particularly easy to do while flying a light helicopter. Yes, I’m evil…

    • I recall my first flight in a J-3 with pa piloting. I looked over the instrumentation, such as it was. I looked again. I shouted back, “Where’s the fuel gauge?” (yes, I know – now, you really go by the clock/watch) An arm comes up and points… “You see that wire sticking up from the cowling? There’s a cork on the end of it.” It’s amusing to watch the expressions on younger folks faces when I relate that.

  11. Steam gauges … I still use vernier calipers, learned how in 9th grade science. How many people know how today?

    • I wish I still remembered how to use a slide rule.
      But considering that it’s been over twenty years since I’ve faced a problem I couldn’t handle with basic trig and a unit circle…

    • *goes to look them up*

      People had to be taught to use those? I know my grade school science classroom had them– because that’s where they did the middle-school science, too, and ALL the cool stuff from the high school moved there every time they upgraded stuff, so a lot of it had been moved there when the baby boom meant they had to buy all new stuff– and we didn’t get taught anything about them, but the science teacher let me play with them as long as I didn’t break anything. (My favorite teacher of my grade school years!)

      I can see how it would take a little bit of fiddling to get the idea, but all you really have to do is look at how the thing moves and the pattern is obvious, isn’t it?

      • Addition and subtraction are easy enough, but the use of the log scales is not obvious if you don’t know what a logarithm is yet…

        When calculators became common schools changed how they graded calculations; with the calculator, there is one, and only one, correct answer. (barring some calculus stuff) Students picked that up by assmosis, and then are horrified that there is no discrete correct answer, just a range of error. “Between 9.9 and 10.1” was good enough for designing the SR-71… a modern aeronautical engineer doesn’t think the way the old guys did.

        • *spreads hands* Maybe that’s why I think calibration is so common sensical; I know that there’s a difference in tolerances between “a tablespoon,” “a level tablespoon,” “a heaping tablespoon” and “three level teaspoons.”
          (Especially if it’s noted “no more than three level teaspoons.”)

    • I do, but I admit to preferring the convenience of digital measuring tools.

      I’ve been looking at buying a gear tooth gauge. Half-century-old P&W or B&S verniers go for $500-ish, or you can get ex-Soviet metric verniers for $300-ish. Then there’s a guy in England who makes some using common digital caliper scales for $200.

      I’m old enough that I sneered at those; they’re going to die sooner or later, probably sooner. But… they’re common, easily-replaced parts now, and easier to use, and cheaper too… and I’m old enough that worrying about reliability more than a couple of decades in the future is a waste of time.

    • True story:
      Heinlein mentioned a kid having a “sliderule” in his room at one point.

      I, a kid in the 90s, read the word a few times, found no context clue other than it was something you could pick up and fiddle with, and figured it was scifi stuff. Like “clear aluminum” or “sonic screwdrivers.”

      My uncles all boggled, then felt old, when this ended up being mentioned in conversation.

      • I still have my aluminum Pickett slide rules (one a pocket version) that I got in college. OTOH, I had one of the first hand-held four-function calculators on campus. Had to ask permission to use it during tests; almost always granted “provided I can play with it after the test”. A couple years later, it was replaced by an HP-45. It finally died a few years ago.

        (Aluminum slide rules were popular in the Midwest, and any place where the humidity made wooden slide rules iffy to use without adjustments.)

  12. I read that Keuffel & Esser donated the ruling engine for their Log-Log-Decitrig (the Chevy small block of slide rules) to the Smithsonian, aka The Attic of America.

    Anyone remember Smoley’s New Combined Tables? Only half a generation before my time.

  13. Speaking of slide rules, I just dug out my old Jeppesen plastic E6B that I learned on many years ago. I also have an aluminum one that isn’t all warped and twisted like the plastic one. The current equivalents from Aircraft Spruce are $15 for a plastic one or $25 for an aluminum one. There are also electronic versions, but with an E6B and a paper map you should be able to navigate anywhere VFR.

  14. I despise this switch to all electronics, you can’t work on it, or haywire it, and it ALWAYS breaks! And unlike a lot of mechanical or analog stuff, when something electronic/digital goes, it tends just go. Whereas the analog or mechanical stuff often goes in such a way that you can either predict it’s issue compensate for it, or haywire something together to make it back to the shop. A lot of computer and digital electronic crap on new equipment is designed so the equipment WILL NOT run without it working properly. Bad enough when this is on vehicle twenty miles back in the woods and you have to walk out. You’re not walking home from a mile up.

    • Refrigerator: “computer died, can’t get a replacement.”

      Washing machine: “computer died, can’t get a replacement.”

      Air conditioner: “computer died, can’t get a replacement.”

      I’m not sure what the refrigerator computer *did*, beyond some fuzzy logic buzzwording. The one on the washing machine probably replaced the complex mechanical timer. The one on the air conditioner was just the control panel, but you couldn’t operate the AC without it. I’ve heard of microwave ovens with the same setup.

      In each case, the basic appliance was fully functional, it was just the electronic gimcrackery that had given up.

      I’ve seen some *fancy* refrigerators hauled off to the dump. When it’s time to put a refrigerator in the Project House, I might see about aquiring one, and figuring out how to run it with a simple thermostat. Might take an Arduino if it has a variable-displacement compressor or something fancy, but it’s not rocket surgery.

      • With fridges, they sometimes need the computer because the new no-ozone-hole coolant can and will blow up. You can find news stories if you search for “the refrigerator exploded.”

  15. Pa leaned to fly in a J-3 Cub. The instructor used that plane both as it was inexpensive (by comparison, yes) to fly and flying the plane was all there was. Later on, for night flying, he’d rent from the airport. I recall the story of landings or touch & goes with the landing light purposely left off. “Alright, use the landing light this time.” It burned out just then. “Well, you know you can land alright without it.”

    • Absolutely. I prefer to land without the landing light, because it forces me to look at the end of the runway, not fixate on the fast-moving tarmac under me. Only one of those will give you your elevation above the ground.

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