Influence of automation on airline pilots


Autopilot system

This topic is debatable and can’t be conclusive, hence I will give my views and facts on both sides.

Autopilot System

When man started flying, navigation was purely VFR meaning the pilot would look out for geographical cues such as lakes, mountains, and roads to navigate the aircraft. This obviously restricts how high we can fly and in what weather, but today we have airplanes carrying 500 people and flying as high as 43,000 ft in the air and have the ability to land in as little as 200 meters of visibility, all thanks to advancement in technology and automation.

It’s a well-known fact that it’s impossible to fly an aircraft like an Airbus A320 or even an ATR 72 without the use of automation. The pilot is manually flying only for the brief moment of takeoff and landings while the majority of the flight is being flown by complex autopilot systems that use ground and GPS based navigation aids.

In the present world, aviation has become much safer than what it was even 20 years ago, statistically its safer in the skies than on the roads and we owe it to automation. Technology such as TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) has saved thousands of lives in averting a midair collision.

ECAM (Electronic Centralized Aircraft Monitor) on Airbus and EICAS (Engine Indication and Crew Alerting System) on Boeing give the pilots a detailed view on each system of the aircraft and even show the steps to be taken in case of an emergency. This takes a huge load off the pilots and along with CRM training improves the operational efficiency of the pilots. In case of an emergency the pilots can fully focus on following procedures to diffuse the situation and make decisions to land the aircraft as soon as possible, while the autopilot is safely flying the aircraft, if the pilots had to manually take control they wouldn’t have the same ability to make quick and well thought out decisions.

Almost all major and even smaller airports today have ILS (Instrument Landing System) equipped runways, these use radio waves to give input to the autopilot system of the aircraft on approach to safely land. It contains two components – the Localizer which makes the aircraft line up to the runway horizontally and Glideslope which makes the aircraft descend onto the runway.

All modern aircrafts such as the A320, B77, B787, B747 etc. are capable of auto-land, which means the aircraft’s 2 autopilot systems land the aircraft with no input from the pilots. An auto-land can be performed on any ILS equipped runway and it’s a common practice. So, we understand that automation is an integral part of modern aviation, and a lot of lives would have been saved if these methods of automation were developed earlier.

These were the useful aspects of automation and now the cons of it will be discussed.

Each airline today has its own SOP (Standard Operating Procedures), pilots are training on company SOP and monitored to check if all SOP is being followed. The influence of automation is different in each airline. These SOPs are approved by DGCA so it doesn’t compromise on safety as such.

Training time drastically reduced:

The aviation sector is a fast-growing field, especially in India which is going to be the third largest aviation market by 2025. It is important for airlines to train and induct pilots as quickly as they can to fly their fast-growing fleet. Today a type rating course on an A320 takes a maximum of 45 days while a few decades ago it would take 6 months, making it harder for the instructors to expose one to all kinds of failures and get a proper feel and understanding of an aircraft before issuing the license. In theory, a pilot takes 185 hours of flying to master a Cessna 172 and get licensed but only 45 days of ground and simulator sessions to get endorsed on Airbus A320 or a Boeing 737. The newer trainee pilots and the junior first officers rely more on automation since they aren’t fully confident of flying raw data compared to older senior pilots who adapted to automation as it was imposed on them and are capable to handling situations where automation fails simply because they had 6 months to understand and train on an aircraft.

Are pilots losing their skill to automation?

This is again debatable but many agree that automation has indeed reduced the skill of manual flying compared to a few decades ago where pilots used to have the practice of flying more raw data. Today, many times the pilots perform auto-land elevating taking manual control of the aircraft at all, hence many experts agree that automation has indeed reduced the skill of pilots.

Accidents due to over-reliance on automation:

          There have been numerous fatal accidents in aviation due to pilots either relying too much on automation or not fully understanding how it works.

1) Asiana Airlines 214
Asiana 214 was a Boeing 777-200ER. On July 6th, 2013 it crashed on final approach into San Francisco international airport. The main cause of the crash was mismanagement of approach and inadequate monitoring of airspeed.
The aircraft was higher than the desired glide-path and in response, the captain set an inappropriate autopilot mode which without the awareness of the captain resulted in the auto-throttle no longer maintaining required airspeed and going idle, which made the aircraft go lower than the desired glide-path and eventually crashed due to lack of airspeed and low altitude. Fatigue from flying also played a major role in the pilots inadequate monitoring of systems.

Asiana Airlines 214

 2) American Airlines 965
American airlines 965 was a scheduled service from Miami international to Cali in Colombia, it was flown by a Boeing 757. On December 20, 1995, the 757 flying this route crashed into the mountains in Buga, Colombia killing 159 out of 163 souls on board.
Investigations concluded that the cause of the crash was due to the following reasons:
1) Flight crew failed to plan and execute the approach adequately and their inefficient use of automation.
2) Failure of the flight crew to go around or discontinue approach even after numerous cues alerting the pilots to do so.
3) The lack of situational awareness of the crew regarding vertical navigation, proximity to terrain, and the relative location of critical radio calls
4) Failure of a crew to revert to basic radio navigation when the automation-assisted navigation became confusing and required more workload during the most crucial phase of flight.
This example shows that the flight crew was not fully adapted to automation on the 757 and didn't fully understand its functions, they failed to revert back to flying raw data on time resulting in the fatal crash.

American Airlines 965

Air France 447, Air Inter 148, Air France 296 etc. are many more examples of how automation can result in loss of lives as well. The most important lesson the aviation industry learned from these was that the crew needed to not only fully understand and adapt to automation but also have the skill to revert to raw data when automation fails. Automation itself is not the reason for the loss of lives, it’s how pilots adapt to it and at the same time be able to safely fly without it that keeps our skies safe.
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