It is foolhardy to draw hasty conclusions about accidents. The investigation into the cause of the Asiana 214 Boeing 777-200ER crash at San Francisco International Airport on July 6 is still in its early stages. While it is not clear exactly how crew performance figured into the accident that claimed three lives, we believe that there is no excuse for landing short on a calm, clear day in a fully functioning jetliner. If the NTSB determines that the 777-200ER ‘s engines and systems were working properly, then how could the Asiana pilots have gotten themselves into that jam?
It may be that the crew was acting primarily as “automation managers” and not remaining sufficiently engaged in actively flying the airplane. It would not be the first time that this has been a factor in an accident . In the final 2.5 min. of the flight, the NTSB says, “multiple autopilot modes and multiple autothrottle modes” were inputted—all while airspeed was allowed to drop far below the 137-kt. target. It also may turn out that software rules governing interaction of the autopilot and autothrottle in the 777 are not intuitive under some settings and problematic for landing (see page 25). But that would be no excuse for flying into the ground.
On balance, automation has been a major contributor to the safer, more efficient operation of airliners. But automation has not reached the point where it can handle all contingencies. We have not arrived at the point alluded to in the joke about the crew of the future being a pilot and a dog (the pilot is there to feed the dog, the dog is there to bite the pilot if he touches the controls). So humans must be prepared to hand-fly an aircraft at any point .
For years now, concern has been growing that airline pilots’ basic stick, rudder and energy management skills are becoming weak due to over-reliance on automation systems. Pilots have become, in the words of Capt. Warren VanderBurgh of American Airlines ‘ Flight Academy, “children of the magenta,” dependent upon computers that generate the purple-pink cues on cockpit displays.
There is nothing inherently risky about using automation, he explains in a famous lecture, but there is a paradox about automation that crews must be aware of: In most situations, automation reduces workload. But in some situations, especially when time is critical, automation increases workload. For example, it is harder to rapidly and correctly reprogram a flight-management computer to avoid a midair collision than it is to turn off automated systems, grab the controls and take evasive action on one’s own.
This addiction to automation is particularly troubling because of the rapid growth of the international airline industry in the last two decades, notably in Asia and the Middle East. Many nations, including South Korea, do not have robust general aviation, light air freight and commuter airline sectors where pilots can amass hundreds of hand-flown takeoffs and departures, arrivals and landings before graduating to the cockpit of an Airbus or a Boeing airplane carrying scores of passengers.
In the wake of the Asiana crash , Tom Brown, a retired United Airlines 747-400 standards captain and former instructor of Asiana pilots , said in an email to friends that while he worked in South Korea, he “was shocked and surprised by the lack of basic piloting skills.” Requiring pilots “to shoot a visual approach struck fear into their hearts.”
Other expatriate training pilots who have worked in Asia and the Middle East tell similar stories about lack of basic head-up airmanship skills and preoccupation with head-down button pushing. They can perfectly punch numbers into the flight-management computer but if something unexpectedly crops up late in the flight, such as an air traffic control reroute close to the airport or a runway change, crews may not have time to punch, twist, push and flick all the controls required for the automation to make critical changes to the aircraft’s flightpath. And head-down, they risk losing situational awareness.
This pitfall is not peculiar to developing regions, of course. Advanced automation can lull any crew into becoming mere systems monitors.