Saturday, October 26, 2013

Automation vs. Pilots II

This past August 23rd I published a post titled: Automation vs. Pilots.  In it I discussed some of the fundamental errors made by the crews of Birgenair Flight 301 and Air France Flight 447.  Those errors were, in my opinion, the direct result of the aviation industry's insistence that flight crews utilize the automation to the maximum extent possible.  This philosophy on the surface appears to reduce risk and improve safety.  After all, most accidents are the result of human errors and reducing their workload would have the benefit of allowing pilots to pay maximum attention to the aircraft performance parameters and to foresee hazards. I agree with this provided we do not sacrifice the basic pilot skills in the process.  As we all know human skills are perishable and those which we do not practice on a regular basis fade away. This happens so gradually that we consider ourselves proficient long after we have lost a given unpracticed skill.  Airplane pilots do not have the luxury of allowing skills to fade.  We must practice all of our skills across the spectrum from easy to complex and we must do it regularly.

This chart attempts to demonstrate the disconnect; how we are using automation to erode pilot skills rather than reinforcing them.  The enclosed area represents the relationship between skill sets and practice (skill maintenance).  On the bottom the line moves from the easy spectrum to the difficult.  Start anywhere along that line and go up to the line sloping upward to the right.  Now move directly across to the right border to the line representing practice and effort.  You can see that for an easy task less practice is necessary for maintaining proficiency, while a more complex task requires more practice.  If all of our pilots operated within this envelope we would perform in the safest way.  Unfortunately, the industry accepted standard of maximizing the use of automation in all flight conditions works counter to skill maintenance.  That line sloping down to the right represents the actual manner in which our pilots are practicing skills.  Go up from the easy range to that automation line and across to the proficiency line and you see that the easiest skills get the majority of practice while the difficult skills almost never get practiced.  That area above the envelope and below the automation line is where we spend 99% of our time.  This is the area when we are watching the autopilot fly and we are bored stiff.  Here is where pilots look for distractions such as reading newspapers and magazines, playing with their smart phones, crossword puzzles.  I had one first officer ask me if he could address his Christmas cards while he was the pilot flying.  We should remember Northwest Airlines Flight 188 of October 21, 2009 which overflew Minneapolis, MN while the pilots were using personal laptops and oblivious of the time.  I once rode in the cockpit of a major airline, a Boeing-757, from Los Angeles, CA to Dallas/Fort Worth, TX.  Almost from the moment the landing gear came up to the moment the landing gear came down, the magazines were out.  It was interesting to watch that flight crew overshoot the turn to the final approach of DFWs runway 18R and blunder into the approach corridor of 18L after a few hours of mental detachment and attempting to use the autopilot to fly a visual approach in clear conditions.  This is the effect of workload reduction, a most predicable result of human nature.

Now look at that zone on the graph on the difficult side, the zone above the automation line and below the top of the envelope.  This is the dangerous shortfall area where we are banking on unpracticed skill sets to cope with difficult and even routine situations.  Like Birgenair 301 and Air France 447 we now can add Atlantic Coast Airlines Flight 6291 who crashed short of the Columbus, OH airport on a routine approach to landing on January 7, 1994, Colgan Air Flight 3407 which entered a fatal stall/spin while maneuvering for landing at Buffalo, NY on February 12, 2009 and Asiana Flight 214 who crashed short of the runway at San Francisco, CA on a normal, clear day approach on July 6, 2013.  Every one of these examples are crashes wherein flight crews lost control or misjudged their situation while attempting to rely on automation or poorly adjusting without.  Every one of these crashes involved wing stalls.

One other point: This high level of automation came to the largest airliners in the 1980s and the smaller ones in the 1990s.  Our older pilots transitioned from the earlier airplanes into these automated ones and have an experience background, while unpracticed and certainly rusty, which includes basic skill sets.  Our younger pilots only know the automated way.  They do not even know what they do not know.  As our old guys retire, and that is happening now, these foundational skills will fade even more drastically unless we change our habits.

Pilots, turn off the autopilot and the flight director regularly when you are below Flight Level 290.  Fly actual instrument approaches "raw data".  Use your minds and your hands.  Don't just go along for the ride, fly your airplanes.

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