The Korean pilot in command of the Asiana Boeing 777 flight that crashed at San Francisco made a profound admission at the NTSB hearing last week. The captain, who was in training, found the visual approach “very stressful” and “difficult to perform.” The ILS was down for maintenance and the weather was perfect. He stalled the aircraft on short final, erroneously thinking that the autothrottles would save him in a bad case of mode confusion. Go figure.
Automation dependence, as it is now being called, is the growing realization that automatic everything in our cockpits is probably not the panacea that many thought it would be. This landmark accident may just help the industry and the regulators get their collective heads out of the automated sand. Seems like there is good reason for many of us to feel “very stressful.”
Come with me back to the days of yesteryear—December 1995. Recall when a perfectly functioning American Airlines Boeing 757 on a night approach into Cali, Colombia, was programmed to fly nearly 90 degrees off course? That’s not a good thing to do in the Andes, and a mountain intervened. The crew was confused about programming a complex flight management system even though they had a lot of experience.
American, which has flown into South America successfully for decades, decided it was time to reprogram their crews to: 1) remain proficient in basic flying skills, and 2) when confused by the automation—turn the blooming thing off and fly the aircraft. The technical term was to go down in levels of automation. Good idea!
Basic automation is very good and allows us to fly more precisely and with less fatigue. But when it takes more effort to learn and remember how to make the aircraft fly on its own than to just do it yourself, then we’ve outsmarted ourselves—or perhaps we’ve been outsmarted by those who somehow think that more automation is better.
All that glitters is not glass and servos. For the training academies and schools preparing the next generation of pilots, this is a modest suggestion to start with basics no matter how seductive the push for glass is. Not being able to fly a visual approach is a stunning indictment! For the manufacturers of airframes and avionics, look back at the spate of air carrier accidents where automation and complexity was at least a contributing factor. As I wrote more than a decade ago, “Simpler is safer, and if a massive amount of training and button pushing is required to operate the magic, then maybe we need a smarter magician. The lessons of Cali for pilots, avionics designers, ATC, and regulators alike are written in blood.”
Two other thoughts: Angle of attack is a critically important and basic flight function, and when a trainee is getting outside the parameters—even if he or she is a senior pilot—the instructor has the absolute obligation to go around! We could go on for days on this topic!!!
Looking Ahead: Let me wish you and your family a safe and healthy aviation new year and thank you for joining us. Special thanks to the donors who support the AOPA Foundation and help preserve our freedom to fly. The blog will stay in the hangar next week but will be airborne again after the first of the year. Until then—safe flights everyone!