Nothing can go wrong… go wrong….

July 30, 2008 by Bruce Landsberg

The old joke about the fully automated airliner with no flight crew – just an automated cabin announcement that misfires – seems prophetic with last week’s NTSB announcement about massive display failure on Airbus aircraft. There were 49 failures on Airbus 319 and 320 aircraft including seven incidents where all six screens failed simultaneously. Didn’t think that was possible? Neither did the manufacturer, the FAA or the NTSB.

As light GA manufacturers rush into glass cockpits, is it unseemly to ask what assurance we have that there will not be a catastrophic failure or at least a significant failure in our less robust systems? Several years ago I had the privilege of getting a demo in one of the early all-glass light aircraft which suffered a total flight display meltdown. It wasn’t an issue since we were in good VFR and there were backup instruments. Still, this isn’t what’s supposed to happen.

After one flies enough and sees enough equipment break – some of it harmlessly and some of it at the least opportune time – a sense of caution or perhaps cynicism sets in. Duplication of hardware on critical things like comm, nav and flight displays means less fancy footwork on the pilot’s part when something goes south.

I suspect the record keeping on Part 91 flights flown in light aircraft when a flight display dies is not very accurate, even though NTSB Part 830 requires, somewhat vaguely, pilots to report the in-flight failure of electrical systems that require “sustained use of ….backup power to …retain flight control or essential instruments.”

Has anybody had, or know of someone who had, a major glass malfunction and did it get reported and to whom? The purpose is not to rat out the manufacturers but to insure that weak points get fixed before someone is hurt.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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