As a pilot for a major airline who has flown many large jets from Boeing, Lockheed, and Airbus, I want to shed some light on challenges we face with automated tools we have at our controls.
Several accidents recently have shone a spotlight on the confusion that occurs with unfamiliarity of these new systems and how they interface with flying the jet. The Asiana Flight 214 to San Francisco last year is a real example of this. A perfectly functioning Boeing 777 flying an approach into the airport on a clear, VFR day landed short of the runway striking the rocks of the seawall at the edge of the airfield. This demonstrated the lack of ability for some pilots to fall back on basic flying skills due to autopilot and auto throttle emphasis. In the case of Flight 214, the airport operations had been working on the runway and had shut down the VASI (visual approach slope indicator) and the ILS (instrument landing system). It is unclear whether the pilots were aware of these NOTAMS (Notices to Airmen) or not but this meant that there was no visual signal from the indicators located near the runway to give them vertical guidance and they had no vertical or lateral guidance on their cockpit instruments. When the indications of the instruments did not match the visual sight picture, they should have taken over manually and flown the airplane. What does this mean exactly? It means that basic flying skills must be used which include using pitch and power to control altitude and airspeed along with the basic math skills we call the 3 to 1 ratio (the airplane travels 3 miles for every 1,000ft of altitude loss). We calculate mentally the altitude we should achieve at a certain distance from the runway. The crew on this flight expected the airplane automation to keep them on track instead of relying on visual cues and base knowledge that all pilots learn during their initial training. These factors, along with a cultural undercurrent of never challenging the Captain and lack of CLR (crew leadership resources) practices, were found to be significant contributors to this accident and the subsequent injuries that were incurred.
Air France Flight 447 over the Atlantic Ocean had many automation discrepancy links in the chain of events as well. Imagine the fear of not understanding what the jet was doing or how to recover it. The crew had all sorts of conflicting information on the instruments and confusing autopilot and auto throttle responses due to iced up exterior static ports and pitot tubes that normally feed air density, temperature, and pressure information to the flight instruments. We have standby back up airspeed, altitude, and attitude instruments. Those may have also been erroneous as well but normally the backup attitude derives its information from a gyroscope which would be unaffected by icing conditions. It is probable that if they had put the wings to level with the horizon on the instrument and set a proper power setting for level flight, they would have recovered successfully.
I am certainly not writing this to “Monday morning quarterback”. We have all had our share of mistakes, scary situations, and wishful do overs, but with experience comes learning. I am writing this to show that we are trending toward a situation of crossover. This would be an “X” on a chart of benefits of automation vs task saturation and confusion. We pilots need to continue building our experience while thinking about system failure possibilities. Training needs to be comprehensive and include various automation failures and reviews of basic flying skills. The FAA needs to put the bar high with expectations of solid flying skill requirements. The airlines need to support training, its time, and costs while thinking of it as preserving their assets by mitigating incidences and accidents. As passengers, you need to demand that these requirements are being met so that you have the safest flights possible.
Safety comes first when it comes to flying you to and from your destinations! Stay tuned to more great information and I thank you for flying with me! Blue Skies!