If you’re like William Langewiesche, then your opinion is yes. But if you’re a true stick-and-rudder pilot, you’ll find the book Fly by Wire an interesting, if not infuriating read. Disguised as an insider’s guide to the “Miracle on the Hudson,” this book actually revisits the old Airbus vs. Boeing debate and presents a strong argument in favor of Airbus’ flight envelope protections — automation designed to override pilots if they push the airplane too far.
Fly by Wire is advertised as a second look at US Airways 1549, the famous flight where Captain Sully Sullenberger ditched his crippled airplane into New York’s Hudson River. Langewiesche relates the narrative of that five minute flight back to the Airbus fly-by-wire system.
The heart of Fly by Wire explores Airbus’ design and development philosophy through interviews with Bernard Ziegler, the former French test pilot and engineer behind fly-by-wire design. There’s something unlikeable about Ziegler — maybe it’s his overwhelming ego, or maybe it’s his low opinion of professional pilots.
Ziegler states that the Airbus isn’t designed with great pilots in mind, and quickly points out that most airline pilots are average at best. With that in mind, he wanted to build a plane that would actively protect the passengers from pilots. And he’s quite frank about it:
“Bah, these airline pilots. It’s all about their command authority… What that means in practice is they want to be able to choose how their passengers die… Some [are arrogant] yes. And they have the flaw of being too well paid… You’re not supposed to be the blue-eyed hero here. Your job is to make decisions, to stay awake, and to know which buttons to push and when.”
This might feel like a slap in the face to true stick-and-rudder pilots, but Langewiesche defends Ziegler to the end. He cites a number of pilot-error accidents, and convincingly argues that an Airbus would have saved the day. The poster child for his case is American 965 which crashed in Cali where, among other things, the crew failed to retract the spoilers during a climb in mountainous terrain. Modern Airbuses will do this automatically in case the crew forgets.
Fly-by-wire critics might point accident at the Toulouse air show, where an A320 overrode pilot control inputs and gently flew into the trees. Langewiesche rightly faults the pilots for putting the airplane into a dangerous situation. But he turns the argument around and reminds us that 133 people survived the crash. Langewiesche writes that the crash was inevitable, but flight envelope protections are what made it survivable.
Despite his sometimes controversial claims, Langewieche puts readers at ease with his lighthearted and humorous tone. He glosses over some of the technical aspects of aviation, but the material isn’t watered down. Instead, he presents an eloquent argument that is accessible to pilots and non-pilots alike. Regardless of your opinion of fly-by-wire technology, I suggest you give Fly by Wire a read.