Except when landing or taking off, modern aircraft largely fly on their own. In the aftermath of the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes, questions have been raised over automation. Investigators believe pilots of the Lion Air B737 MAX 8 weren’t fully conversant with the plane’s automated systems. The aircraft in the Ethiopian crash was a Boeing of the same make.
On March 12, President Donald Trump tweeted: “Airplanes are becoming far too complex… Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT… Seeking to go one unnecessary step further, when often old and simpler is far better. Complexity creates danger… I want great flying professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!”
Is too much automation making aircraft unsafe?
Critics of “over-automation” say pilots spend more time trying to understand complicated automated systems than actually flying, The New York Times reported, based on multiple interviews with pilots and instructors. If computers malfunction at any time, a pilot who is more a “systems operator” than an aviator could be too late reacting.
* Back in 1997, an American Airlines pilot-training video flagged the overdependence on automation.
* About six years ago, the US aviation regulator Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) asked pilots to practise tackling an aircraft that is losing lift. But it did not enforce the direction until this week.
* In 2011, a US federal study found that in 60% of 46 recent accidents, pilots struggled to fly manually, and were sometimes confused by complicated automation systems
* In 2013, another US government report recommended that pilots should focus on flying better manually. In the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco that year, investigators found an over-reliance on automation.
* In 2016, an internal report indicted the FAA for not making sure that pilots were adequately trained in manual flying, and for not monitoring how much manual flying they really did.
* Sully Sullenberger, the hero pilot who landed a loaded aircraft in the Hudson off Manhattan in 2009, has been quoted as warning that fatal accidents were “inevitable if we continue down this path (of relying too much on automation)”.
Aircraft are becoming increasingly more automated and the global shortage of pilots is growing, so airlines are using less experienced pilots who, as an international airline pilot with a PhD on pilot training told The NYT, “can punch the buttons” but may not “be able to fly that airplane when it breaks”. One pilot in the Ethiopian crash had flown 200 hours — a small fraction of what the FAA requires, but the same as the requirement for a commercial pilot’s licence in India.
Some critics have blamed insurance companies for capping the amount of manual flying training that flight school students are allowed in poor visibility. Others have argued that the real problem isn’t with the training, but with the loss of learnt skills once pilots get used to autopilot.
After the 2013 San Francisco crash, investigators found that Asiana had “emphasised the full use of all automation and did not encourage manual flight”, The NYT reported.
A stellar record
Still, automation has made a massive contribution to improving airline safety. Many pilots say the advantages of automation are too many to bear comparison with any risks it might carry in certain situations. The NYT quoted former FAA inspector David Williams as saying: “The data is there that we’ve got a good system. The reduction of training is overridden by the advances in the equipment.”
All the world’s 47 airlines flying nearly 350 MAX 8s have now grounded these planes. Until then, MAX 8s had completed an estimated 8,600 flights in a typical week, according to data from Flightradar24.