The dream of sitting back in the pilot or driver’s seat and watching while your plane or car drives itself is finally becoming a reality. Not in some Jetsons-esque future, but today, in the here and now. While we aren’t zooming around in hovercraft cars or space shuttle jets that can take us into space without the pilot needing any kind of advanced degree, there are advances that have made private, and business jet travel a lot easier and simpler for pilots; fly-by-wire is one of them.
A fly-by-wire system is defined as the following: “a semi-automatic, computer-regulated aircraft flight control system that replaces mechanical flight controls with an electronic interface.”
There are a number of reasons why this technology can and does improve all air travel business, but private jets in particular. Join us as we unpack the facts and break them down into understandable terms.
The impact of fly-by-wire
When the pilot of your private jet moves his controls, that movement becomes electronic signals which tell the plane’s flight control computers to make the necessary adjustments to the actuators (these are devices that convert one form of motion energy into another) which move the flight control surfaces.
The FCC’s monitor and image sensors are placed all throughout the aircraft to enhance the flight in any way possible. The computers essentially get a feel for the flight and the plane’s motions and limits. Traditional flight control systems are made up of cables, pulleys, levers, and rods, which pilots have to move using their controls to change the aerodynamic conditions and adjust the flight in some way.
These mechanical or hydro-mechanical systems are hands-on, which lets the pilot feel conditions and flight the same way the computers do through these components. Still, they are also incredibly complicated to operate and need consistent monitoring and lots of maintenance.
Enter fly-by-wire technology. This electronic system is extremely light compared to a traditional mechanical or hydromechanical system, which means that fuel efficiency on any private jet flight goes up significantly, bringing overhead costs down. It also allows aircraft designers a lot more latitude than a traditional system does. What keeps such a system from failing, you ask? Triple or, in some cases, quadruple redundancy backups.
Fly-by-wire flight control computers automatically keep the plane within its limits. Should any limits be approached too fast or too closely, the computer senses this and makes immediate adjustments. Human awareness can only tell us so much without further investigation, and we can only tell our hands to act so fast. Though that chain of events is high-speed in trained professionals, electronic impulses move more quickly when there’s no “deciding” going on. Bank limits are typically around thirty degrees.
If you go any further in a steep bank, the plane will essentially take over and trim in whichever direction is needed. The auto-trim function means you can “set and forget”: it will remove almost all undesirable yaw (rotation around the vertical axis) and roll (rotation around the front to back axis) forces, keeping the plane level and flying smoothly.
While human beings can only be so sure that they know the things that they were trained to understand, machines can have redundancy after redundancy. The primary sources of power in modern planes are the engine generators; any auxiliary power unit will have a generator aboard as well. Add two batteries and a ram air turbine in case all of these fail as well. The ailerons (hinged section on the outboard part of the wing), spoilers, and trim systems have a minimum of two actuators between them, and the same goes for the hydraulic system controls and engine.
The hearts of the fly-by-wire system are the data probes placed around the craft, which feed all their measurements into the flight computers. As you can see, the possibility of system failure is minute.
While fly-by-wire inspires many ongoing debates; it seems more and more likely that it will be a part of many future aircraft. Some pilots believe that surrendering such a high level of control to an autopilot system shows a lack of skill on the part of the pilot. Others see it as a helping hand when normal and unavoidable human errors might cause issues. Those for the system argue that more help allows pilots to be more aware and lowers workloads allowing them to focus more clearly on things that really need their focus.
The facts tell us that in situations where control is lost, pilots are more responsible than any autopilot system. The truth is that no system is foolproof, but the fly-by-wire system adds so much and takes away so little (except physical weight and responsibility) that it’s almost a no-brainer. The advantages to the private jet industry as well as the entire flight industry are clear, and we see a fly-by-wire future ahead of us.