The latest innovations in aircraft design are, without question, highly integrated systems. We have departed from the days when every aircraft system was a box. An autopilot, a display computer, a power controller may all sit in one cabinet of equipment. Each one interdependent upon the other.
The other day, I saw advertised as an antique a British P8 aircraft compass. Maybe, 80 years old, it was claimed to be still working. This bit of kit was fitted to the Spitfire, Hawker Hurricane and Mosquito. Truly, a discreet equipment. One basic function and independent of all other aircraft systems except cockpit lighting. Afterall, a compass isn’t much use if you cant see it.
One reflection of mine from times past is the real difficulty of getting people to take an aircraft level view. Some might say this is aerospace design history. It certainly was a major struggle in the mid-1990s. It was a message that was not always well received.
Without mentioning any names, I’d roll up at an aircraft manufacture and be confronted with a hanger sized office divided up into cubicles. Sound absorbing partition walls of shoulder hight stretching far into the distance. This is where the Scott Adams got the idea for the Dilbert cartoons.
In one corner of the engineering building would be a venerable grey-haired gentleman who had spent his entire life working on toilet flush motors. At another corner would be a gaggle of whizz kids developing software specifications for the latest computing hardware.
Everything was the same placid light green with only a few signs to give identity to groups of people working together. Segregation and segmentation were a part of the process. Each functional group developed their skills to the highest degree in their chosen specialisation.
My role in all this was to sit in a rectangular meeting room receiving briefings from each technical team. The certification task had been divided up and everyone was doing their part. Certification plans for an autopilot, a display computer or a power controller were all competently presented. Preliminary safety assessments were dutifully described.
After a while it became all to clear to me that everyone was dedicated to their assignment but that communication between different teams was sketchy to say the least. So, questions like, where did you get that number from, when talking about a failure probability number taken from someone else’s analysis wasn’t always convincingly answered. As a result, I got to hammer on about the need to take an aircraft level view to the point of great irritation. It’s not that people didn’t want to hear the message. It was more that the means to look at interdependencies between aircraft systems was fragile and underdeveloped. We changed and progressively the challenge of integration was met.
Today, I sit and wonder if the new entrants in the aerospace world, rapidly putting together advanced new forms of air mobility, have taken on-board the lessons we learned in the 1990s. It’s not as easy to learn the above lessons unless the reason why is abundantly clear.