WASHINGTON – Pilots are becoming so reliant on computer systems that do most of the flying in today’s airliners that on the rare occasions when something goes wrong, they’re sometimes unprepared to take control, according to aviation safety experts and government and industry studies.
Increasing automation has been a tremendous safety boon to aviation, contributing to historically low crash rates in the U.S. and many parts of the world.
But automation has changed the relationship between pilots and planes, presenting new challenges.
Pilots today typically use their stick-and-rudder flying skills only for brief minutes or even seconds during takeoffs and landings. Mostly, they manage computer systems that can fly planes more precisely and use less fuel than a human pilot can. But humans simply aren’t wired to pay close and continual attention to systems that rarely fail or do something unexpected.
Once you see you’re not needed, you tune out, said Michael Barr, a former Air Force pilot and accident investigator who teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California. As long as everything goes OK, we’re along for the ride. We’re a piece of luggage.
The National Transportation Safety Board will conduct an investigative hearing this weekend on the crash of an Asiana Airlines jet that was flying too low and slow while trying to land at San Francisco International Airport last July.
The plane struck a seawall just short of the runway, shearing off its tail and sending the rest of the airliner sliding and turning down the runway before breaking apart and catching fire.
The hearing will focus on pilot awareness in a highly automated aircraft, the board said.
The pilot flying the plane was attempting to land without use of the autopilot. Normally, the pilot in the second seat is supposed to have his eyes on the plane’s computer screens to monitor airspeed and other readings, rather than looking out the window.
In this case, the second pilot was a training captain who was grading the performance of the pilot flying the plane. The training captain told investigators he thought the plane’s autothrottle was maintaining engine power and thus speed, but discovered that wasn’t the case just moments before the crash.
Aircraft systems can have many modes, or settings, and perform quite differently depending upon the mode. Pilot mode awareness is showing up in crashes and near-collisions, according to an automation study released last month by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Mode changes occur frequently during flight, often without any direct action by pilots. If pilots aren’t continually paying close attention, they can lose track of which mode their systems are in.
Pilots also make mistakes when selecting modes. Mode selection errors were cited in 27 percent of the crashes reviewed in the FAA study.