Highly automated aircraft include all the airline types rolling off all production lines today.
But Airbus, a child of the digital age, is often tagged as being even more automated than Boeing. This perceived difference generates a lot of heat - but very little light – among pilot devotees of one or the other genre.
Aside from the genre issue, there is the pilot ego issue: automation is a tacit decision that the system can do “it” better than the pilot can. So of course it’s going to generate heat.
But rather than slagging off one system or the other, maybe line pilots ought to be getting involved in the fundamental debate: is automation ever good? And if it ever is, what is it good for?
The latest Airbus wheeze (sorry if your English is not old fashioned English English) is to set up an automatic, laterally offset emergency descent in the event of a depressurisation to which the pilots do not react.
Remember Helios? Airbus quotes a generic scenario like Helios as justification for this potential system (not yet set in stone, so you have time to tell them what you think). If such a system had existed in that 737, a lot of people who died might be alive today. But, on the other hand, what might go wrong with the system itself?
What do you think?
Meanwhile, let’s look at an accident that might have been prevented by automation, and another that looks as if it might have been triggered by it:
Cali: that highly complex American Airlines 757 accident in 1995 might have been avoided in its last seconds if the airbrakes had retracted automatically when the pilots firewalled the throttles. But they didn’t retract and the aircraft hit a mountain ridge just below its peak.
Amsterdam Schiphol: according to the investigator’s early reports into the Turkish Airlines Boeing 737-800 crash, the trigger for the accident was an autothrottle system that “thought” the aeroplane had landed and retarded the throttles during the final approach. The crew didn’t notice the airspeed loss until too late. The reason the autothrottle thought the aircraft had landed was that the radio altimeter was faulty, and was reading just below airfield elevation.
On the other hand, the throttles didn’t retard when the TAM A320 actually landed at Sao Paulo’s Congonhas airport in July 2007, and although there was an audio “retard, retard” alert, the crew didn’t close both throttles. The aircraft overran and everybody on board was killed.
To automate, or not to automate? And if you do it selectively, when do you choose to do it?