"Unless pilots are trained to cope when automation fails, logic dictates that manufacturers might as well design them out altogether."
That's the logic. But will it survive the argument?
The greatest service the Dutch National Safety Board could render to aviation in its investigation of the Turkish Airlines Boeing 737-800 crash at Schiphol is to use the study to dig deep into the psychology of pilots working in the modern aviation environment. And the psychology of their employers.
The same is true of the French investigators working on the XL Airways Airbus A320 crash during its post-maintenance test flight from Perpignan last November.
Of course, the Dutch will have to look into the system design issues that led the autothrottle to retard the power to idle at about 2,000ft during the instrument landing system approach, but that is the easy bit. Human factors is where it gets complicated.
What is unsettling about these two accidents is that the flightcrew appear to have thrown common sense out the DV window, along with some of the fundamentals of safe piloting. Both crews died, but since they clearly didn't intend to let their aircraft get into the unrecoverable situations that killed them, the world needs to understand what happened. The Turkish crew forgot to monitor power and indicated airspeed on final approach; the XL crew carried out a flight test that took the aircraft to the very edge of its flight envelope at a suicidally low level while approaching an aerodrome.
The inquiries need to compare these accidents with others like them and try to find out what the common human factors are. In every case, the training the pilots received needs to be put under the spotlight, as does the selection process.
Highly automated aeroplanes have brought higher levels of safety - meaning fewer accidents - than their predecessors.
The downside of high automation appears to have two main facets: the first is that the complexity of fourth-generation systems and their logic means that, although technical faults or anomalies are more rare, unique and unforseen combinations of circumstances with the potential to confuse pilots are more likely; second, although the type of training given for these aircraft ought to have changed appropriately since the days of Lockheed Constellations, it has not changed much, despite industry acknowledgement that traditional pilot skills and awareness can be eroded by automation.
Regulators and the airlines have a lot to answer for: the regulators for their tendency to cling to recurrent training tradition like a drowning man to a piece of driftwood; and the airlines for assuming the latest aeroplanes should deliver not just improved reliability, but lower crew training costs. In fact increased systems complexity, combined with a lack of line flying practice at manual procedures, demands a different pilot training approach.
Unless pilots are trained to cope when automation fails, logic dictates that manufacturers might as well design them out altogether.
But since the uproarious outcry at the loss of the world's first pilotless passenger aircraft is totally predictable, it will not happen for a very long time. Meantime, the industry had better learn to prepare its pilots properly, because it clearly isn't doing it now.