Automatic Pilot: Dropping the Crutches

There’s a great article in Vanity Fair covering the Air France Flight 447 disaster, and it asks Should Airplanes Be Flying Themselves?. It details the events leading up to the fatal impact and also covers the changes that have taken place in cockpits over the years with increased automation leading to increased safety, but also possibly increased danger once something really goes wrong. There is now so much automation, that pilots rarely really fly the aircraft directly, which can be good and bad. It’s becoming impossible to train for or provide automation for the extreme events, each crash is now rather unique and therefore impossible to predict and unlikely to be exactly repeated. And in a disaster situation, the automation can become paralysing, bewildering air crew with sometimes contradicting feedback. The trick though, is to know when you’re in a disaster and then what to trust, and how to teach pilots this ‘known unknown’.

John Lauber told me that with the advent of C.R.M. and integrated automation, in the 1980s, Earl Wiener went around preaching about “turn-it-off training.” Lauber said, “Every few flights, disconnect all that stuff. Hand-fly it. Fly it like an airplane.”

“What happened to that idea?”

“Everybody said, ‘Yeah. Yeah. We gotta do that.’ And I think for a while maybe they did.”

[Nadine] Sarter, however, is continuing with variations on the theme. She is trying to come up with improved interfaces between pilot and machine. In the meantime, she says, at the very least revert to lower levels of automation (or ignore it) when it surprises you.

In other words, in a crisis, don’t just start reading the automated alerts. The best pilots discard the automation naturally when it becomes unhelpful, and again there appear to be some cultural traits involved. Simulator studies have shown that Irish pilots, for instance, will gleefully throw away their crutches, while Asian pilots will hang on tightly. It’s obvious that the Irish are right, but in the real world Sarter’s advice is hard to sell. The automation is simply too compelling. The operational benefits outweigh the costs. The trend is toward more of it, not less. And after throwing away their crutches, many pilots today would lack the wherewithal to walk.