using the analogy of


An aviation safety article




Last Updated: 8 March 2008

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As an airline pilot I have been a skeptic of Airbus 'fly by wire' (FBW) aircraft since A320 was first introduced in 1989. It is clear that the underlying ethos of Airbus Industries is to produce an aircraft that can be 'safely' (sic) operated by a minimally skilled aircraft 'technician' flying the aircraft at all times on the autopilot as a means to avoid the necessity of airlines employing properly trained, experienced professional pilots to fly their aircraft. This ethos ignores the fact that the primary role of airline pilots is not so much as to fly the aircraft from departure to destination with all systems operating normally, but rather to get the aircraft back on ground in a safe manner when aircraft systems fail. In their attempt to make the relatively easy task of operating an aircraft with all its systems operating normally even easier, Airbus have made the most important part of a pilot's job - namely getting a malfunctioning aircraft back on the ground safely - manifestly more difficult associated with the needless over-complication of the aircraft's automated systems. Thus for example, the 40 year old DC9 aircraft can be safely hand flown and landed with the loss of all hydraulics and all electrics, whereas the similar sized Airbus A320 is unflyable with the total loss of either system.

This issue has some interesting parallels in history. During the 'Hundred Years War' between England and France, beginning in 1346, the English longbow was a decisive weapon which conferred upon the English a significant advantage in battle. (the fact that the English squandered this advantage during the course of the war and were ultimately defeated with the advent of Joan of Arc is another story)

The longbow was unsophisticated, relatively simple to make and easy to mass produce. Made out of Yew, it was up to 6 foot long, with a pull of up to one hundred and eighty (180) pounds being drawn through a distance of about three (3) feet. This simple weapon could accurately hurl an armour piercing arrow up to two hundred (200) yards and kill or maim an armoured knight. A skilled Yeoman (archer) could fire off up to twenty arrows a minute. The opposing French had no comparable weapon to the longbow - their archers being Italian or Swiss mercenaries using the much more sophisticated (i.e. complicated) crossbow that could only fire a bolt about half the distance of a longbow (i.e. 100 yards) at a fire rate of about one or two bolts a minute. The overwhelming fire power of English longbow archers (yeomen) decimated the French army during the first major battle between the English and the French at Crecy in August 1346, with nearly half the French army being killed or severely wounded, including over 1000 French Knights, for the loss of only a handful of English soldiers.

The Medieval English longbow was a superb weapon. Incredibly powerful, rapid and deadly, it was a socially leveling force. With it the yeoman was superior to the knight, and the Kingdom of England was the master of Western Europe. Yet, important as it was, the longbow was an everyday object to the yeoman class that used it. Much to the chagrin of the nobility of both protagonists, the illiterate yeoman was far more effective in battle than any mounted knight in armour. The longbow was the machine gun of the Middle Ages so to speak and gave rise to the term "broadside" as wave after wave of armour piercing arrows rained down on the advancing French army. 1

The obvious question to ask is; if the weapon was so unsophisticated and easy to make, yet so superior in battle, why was it that only the English army had it? The answer lies with a class of freemen unique to English society called 'yeomen'. According to the Encyclopeodia Britannica "yeomen were a class intermediate between the gentry and the labourers, usually a landholder but could also be a retainer, guard, attendant, or subordinate official." 2 Although not entitled to bear heraldic arms, they were permitted to possess a longbow and other weapons such as a sword and axe. Longbow archery was a skill that that needed to be learned from early childhood in order to develop the physiological strength required to be able to pull the heavy poundages of a war longbow, and because of this yeomen archers were unique to English culture of the middle ages. The fact remains that one couldn't just conscript an unskilled peasant into the army and teach him how to use the longbow, unlike crossbow archery which used more complex technology to compensate for the lack of innate skill and strength of its user.

In a sense longbow archery is a pertinent metaphor for the profession of pilot; a profession characterised by skills that have taken four generations of pilots to develop and refine and which take individual pilots up to ten (10) years to master - a profession whose record speaks for itself and one in which professional pilots can be rightly proud of. The crossbow is a metaphor for Fly By Wire (FBW) Airbus aircraft - an overly complicated automated machine designed to enable a minimally trained 'technician' to operate a passenger jet within a cocoon of artificial computer 'safety' (sic).

As mentioned earlier, the French were decimated by the longbow at the battle of Crecy and at Agincourt 80 years later. (Agincourt - 6000 French dead with negligible English losses) The basic premise underlying FBW Airbus philosophy has the potential to suffer the same fate.

Interestingly enough, the reign of the English longbow was relatively short (about 250 years) - not because of the advent of firearms (the longbow was a far superior weapon compared with the early muzzle loading firearms) - but simply because the culture of yeomanry amongst the English society (i.e. Robin Hood and his merry men) was not actively encouraged by the ruling classes in England for obvious reasons, and because of that the supply of skilled Yeomen literally dried up. Also, being a skill acquired over a lifetime, the English Yeomen demanded (and rightly got) better pay and conditions than the average peasant soldier, and this was resented by the English gentry.

The Airbus philosophy is an affront to the profession of pilot because it promotes "no skill flying" and de-skills pilots of their basic flying skills. As such, it should be resisted by pilots imbued with the ethos of their profession. 3 Airbus' philosophy is certainly on the ascendancy at the moment, but it is not unstoppable. Boeing has not yet fully embraced it as the computerised FBW B777 still provides feedback through its controls to the pilots and is a delight to hand fly, and as such allows pilots to maintain their basic flying skills. 4 The outcome of this issue rests solely with the profession of pilot. If pilots remain complacent and silent (as most are at the moment) then the Airbus philosophy will undoubtedly become the most prevalent one for a while, until the carnage that will inevitably result from such a process becomes too apparent. (which it will, just as the fact that smoking tobacco is finally being acknowledged as being very detrimental to human health) This carnage has not yet happen because the vast majority of FBW Airbus aircraft are still under the command of skilled professional pilots who have flown second and third generation jets such as the DC9 and B737 and are still imbued with the ethos of their profession. 5

Second generation jets like the DC9 and B727 are like the longbow - relatively unsophisticated, yet very safe and efficient to fly in the hands of properly trained, competent pilots. By contrast, the Fly by Wire (FBW) Airbus is a bit like the crossbow - overly complicated, slow to re-program (i.e. reload) and a potential disaster when the operation starts falling apart, such as during an electrical fire or hydraulic failure.

Twenty arrows a minute versus two arrows a minute. DC9 versus A320. What side would you want be on in the heat of battle or attempting to defeat the ultimate emergency in flight?


1. The English bowman was so feared by the French army that if captured and not immediately executed, the French usually cutoff the index and middle fingers of the captured bowman to render him unable to ever draw another arrow. The offensive gesture of raising one's index and middle finger at someone emanated from the practice of the English archers holding their hand in the air with their index and middle finger extended just before the commencement of the battle to signal to the French army on the other side of the battlefield that they still had their bow drawing fingers intact. Needless to say, the gesture instilled great fear in the opposing French soldiers.

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2. Yeoman, in English history, a class intermediate between the gentry and the labourers; a yeoman was usually a landholder but could also be a retainer, guard, attendant, or subordinate official. The word appears in Middle English as yemen, or yoman, and is perhaps a contraction of yeng man or yong man, meaning young man, or attendant. Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (late 14th century) depicts a yeoman who is a forester and a retainer. Most yeomen of the later Middle Ages were probably occupied in cultivating the land; Raphael Holinshed in his Chronicles (1577), described them as having free land worth 6 pounds (originally 40 shillings) annually and as not being entitled to bear arms.

Copyright 1994-1998 Encyclopaedia Britannica

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3. Former seven times President of the Australian Federation of Air Pilots, Captain Dick Holt, succinctly described the role of professional pilot in his valedictory address to pilots in 1978 when he said:

"Through his seat at the front of the aircraft flow the efforts of thousands of people who provide the means by which he carries out his task.
However, it is an undeniable fact that:
His is the final responsibility.
His is the ultimate decision in any course of action.
He can never be complacent.
He must be humble; the elements keep him so.
He must prove himself to his peers over and over again throughout his career, or seek another job.
He must exude a quiet but magnetic confidence in his own ability and his aircraft.
He must create an aura of efficiency and capability such that the passengers stream on and off the aircraft
without even a thought about what is occurring at the front of the aircraft.
Finally, he must be ready during every second of his working life to defeat the ultimate emergency he may encounter at any time."

For more on the profession of pilot see:

'The Profession of Airline Pilot' by Alex Paterson

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4. The operations manual of most airlines operating FBW Airbus aircraft will not allow their pilots to fully disconnect the autopilot and fly the aircraft manually in "direct mode law". This ethos actively de-skills pilots of their basic flying skills - skills ironically needed to defeat the ultimate emergency such as an uncontrollable electrical fire or loss of all hydraulics.

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5. DEFINITIONS: Source: Oxford Dictionary (1991)

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Copyright Alex Paterson 2004




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Alex PATERSON is an Australian airline pilot by profession. He writes articles and advises on issues pertaining to aviation, politics, sociology, the environment, sustainable farming, history, computers, natural health therapies, esoteric teachings and spirituality.

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The document, 'A Critique of Airbus using the analogy of the Longbow versus the Crossbow' is the copyright of the author, Alex Paterson. All rights reserved by the author. Not withstanding this, the document may be reproduced and disseminated without the express permission of the author so long as reference to the author is made, no alterations are made to the document and no money is charged for it.

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