Many years ago, I was introduced to a safety video that has always stuck with me.
It was a training class at American Airlines Flight Academy that took a specific look at the challenges of automation dependency and the issues that American flight crews were dealing with. Although it is over 20 years old, its significance is greater than ever. Giving credit where credit is due, much of this article is based on that class.
I will admit that I am quite biased on the subject. I love automation. I fact I am constantly amazed by the things it can do. It can certainly pull off a much better hold entry than I can!
I am more amazed however by pilots who have a major reluctance to fly the airplane when the flight situation dictates. Perhaps it comes from my background as a cargo pilot flying lots of single-pilot IFR. We trusted our hands and decision making much more than a box in the avionics bay of the airplane.
What is the Role of Automation?
Ask pilots this question and get lots of varied answers. Here is what we do know. More and more accidents are being attributed to automation. Automation in the cockpit is not inherently dangerous but the way pilots rely in it certainly can be.
Consider the following:
Asiana Airlines 214 –
Over-reliance on automation and lack of systems understanding by the pilots were cited as major factors contributing to the accident. (1)
Air France 447 –
Airbus set out to design what it hoped would be the safest plane yet—a plane that even the worst pilots could fly with ease. Bernard Ziegler, senior vice president for engineering at Airbus, famously said that he was building an airplane that even his concierge would be able to fly. (2)
Turkish Airlines 1951 –
The crash was caused primarily by the aircraft’s automated reaction, which was triggered by a faulty radio altimeter. (3)
(1) NTSB (2) www.slate.com/blogs/the_eye/2015/06/25/air_france_flight_447, 2015 (3) Dutch Safety Board
Our flight decks are full of equipment that is made to reduce workload. We spend the majority of our initial and recurrent training time proving we can manage it. As the American Airlines video pointed out, we have become “children of the magenta”. It’s really not our fault. We are trained to be autopilot, FMS and “pink line” experts.
The problem – a high potential of losing situational awareness due to task saturation. More specifically, operating at too high of a level of automation in rapidly changing environments. All of the accidents listed above fall into that category.
Levels of Automation
There are essentially three levels of automation
Manual (Low) – hand flying the airplane
Autopilot Engaged (Medium) – flight guidance for short periods of time. This might include heading mode and vertical speed.
FMS/FMC (High) – Autopilot coupled to the FMS/FMC and lateral/vertical navigation.
Most automation related accidents happen because of the following – the crew was operating at a too high of a level of automation for the given flight situation.
I’m sure many pilots can relate to this story –
During a recent trip into DCA with beautiful VFR conditions, we received two arrival changes and two different runway assignments. Low altitude changes in a complex, crowded environment. As I look back, we spent a lot of heads down time reprogramming the FMS. Okay in cruise, not good in a terminal environment.
What we should have done was dropped a level in automation for better situation awareness and heads up time. I recognized that we were too busy with the “box”. I clicked everything off and ended up hand flying the visual to Runway 15, keeping my eyes on the crossing traffic and aircraft to follow.
Think of it this way. What can a computer do at that point in the flight that a pilot cannot?
We must change the culture that drives us to operate at the highest level all the time.
Drop a level for better SA
When crews find themselves busy with rapid changes in busy terminal airspace, drop a level in automation. Go from FMS to Heading and Vertical Speed Mode, then program the new arrival. Runway change with the field in sight? Click, click, click and point the airplane where it needs to go.
That is key. Pick the appropriate level of automation for the task at hand.
The autopilot does not understand “now”. Your eyes, your brain and your hands do. I have seen pilots that are so ingrained in using automation that they use the autopilot to avoid immediate traffic. Flight Level Change and Heading Bugs for traffic avoidance? Really?
About to descend through MDA? How many of us immediately reach for the Alt Hold? Not good.
Unfortunately, this is how we train today.
Another important point, if your airplane is deviating from the intended path, don’t allow it. It seems ridiculous to point this out but it’s amazing how many lives have been lost because of this. How many times have you heard in the cockpit, “what’s it doing now?”.
It’s deviating from the path you expect.
Often this can come from mode confusion but the result is loss of situation awareness and increased risk. Drop a level. It’s time to disengage and fly.
Automation is designed to reduce our workload.
It does an amazing job in doing so until it actually does the opposite. It’s all about situational awareness and crews should be trained to recognize when this happens. Crews are turning to automation in an effort to resolve deteriorating situations. The results have been deadly.
There is not an autopilot or flight management system that can extract maximum performance in an airplane. At least not in the time required to prevent an accident.
Fly the airplane first. Crews are not automation managers, they are pilots.