It’s tantalizing (perhaps) to think that pilotless aircraft may soon be plying the skies. We’re not talking about UAS or drones but those with passengers on board. Of course, some will argue that we’ve had that for years with someone occupying the pilot’s seat but with the autopilot doing most of the work. Most of the time it works flawlessly.
I’m not aware of any incidents involving Category III landings with airliners or corporate jets but perhaps some of our jet readers can weigh in. There’s also been a test with a Bonanza that did a selfie landing at Beech field in Wichita a number of years ago.
The Asiana accident at SFO where two very experienced pilots managed to get sideways with the automation got me to thinking about the ways one could get into a bad spot with the electrons. Mode confusion is a problem when the box is doing exactly what we unwittingly programmed it to do. Frequently the designers know exactly what they intended but the users often are not so lucid.
Personally, I prefer simple automation so as to be at least partially involved, especially during the approach phase. In my aircraft, which has a basic two axis autopilot, the horizontal legs are preprogrammed by selecting an approach and the equipment will follow. It’s up to me to manage and direct the vertical automation for each leg.
That sounds so old school and it is! But being mentally engaged, if not physically, and needing to know exactly what’s going on now and what happens next is a pretty good survival strategy.
When everything is done for us, complacency often sets in. The hardware is so good that “the touch” is lost. One of the best examples predicted the future well before it arrived. See the Landmark Accident story on the American Airlines Boeing 757 accident in Cali, Colombia, in 1995.
According to the accident report, “Human factors researchers have written extensively on the potential risks that have been introduced by the automation capabilities of glass-cockpit aircraft. Among those identified are: overreliance on automation; shifting workload by increasing it during periods of already high workload and decreasing it during periods of already low workload; being ‘clumsy’ or difficult to use; being opaque or difficult to understand, and requiring excessive experience to gain proficiency in its use. One researcher has observed pilots on numerous occasions, even ones experienced in the systems, asking, ‘What’s it doing now?’ in reference to an action of the FMS that they could neither explain nor understand.”
Profound observation—well documented, observed repeatedly in the decades since Cali, and yet we still fall into the trap. Why?