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Earl Wiener's 15 Forgotten Rules for Computerized Flight

Our favorite? No. 20: "It takes an airplane to bring out the worst in a pilot."
July 31, 2013, 3:30pm
Photo via Flickr / CC.

Earl Wiener might not be a household name, but that's probably not for long. The late aviation expert is remembered among family, friends, and colleagues across the aviation and flight-research communities as much for his fondness for unicycling as his thought-leading work at the intersection of automation and human error. His prescient thoughts on the relationship between humans and computers are now more relevant than ever.

Take his 15 Laws. These kernels of wisdom "will keep giving for decades to come because human nature, hence human error, is not changing all that rapidly," writes Aviation Week's John Croft, who got his hands on both the laws and a cache of scholarly material from one of student and co-worker of Wiener's.


Some are dryly hilarious. Others are soberly prophetic. In the wake of the Asiana disaster, and as the FAA struggles to integrate unmanned aerial vehicles into domestic airspace and to figure out what the hell to do with that whole Next Gen Airspace thing, Wiener's little-known read like the next chapter to Asimov's three laws of robotics.

1. [Intentionally left blank]

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17. Every device creates its own opportunity for human error.

18. Exotic devices create exotic problems.

19. Digital devices tune out small errors while creating opportunities for large errors.

20. Complacency? Don’t worry about it.

21. In aviation, there is no problem so great or so complex that it cannot be blamed on the pilot.

22. There is no simple solution out there waiting to be discovered, so don’t waste your time searching for it.

23. Invention is the mother of necessity.

24. If at first you don’t succeed… try a new system or a different approach.

25. Some problems have no solution. If you encounter one of these, you can always convene a committee to revise some checklist.

26. In God we trust. Everything else must be brought into your scan.

27. It takes an airplane to bring out the worst in a pilot.

28. Any pilot who can be replaced by a computer should be.

29. Whenever you solve a problem you usually create one. You can only hope that the one you created is less critical than the one you eliminated.

30. You can never be too rich or too thin (Duchess of Windsor) or too careful what you put into a digital flight guidance system (Wiener).

31. Today’s nifty, voluntary system is tomorrow’s F.A.R.

It's unclear just why Wiener left Nos. 1 - 16 blank. An inside joke? A simple typing error? No clue. We like to think he intentionally left them blank for others to fill.