The greatest service the Dutch National Safety Board could render to aviation in its investigation of the Turkish Airlines Boeing 737-800 crash at Amsterdam is to use the study to dig deep into the psychology of pilots working in the modern aviation environment.

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.

What is unsettling about these two accidents is that the flightcrew appear to have thrown common sense out the window, along with some of the fundamentals of safe piloting. Both crews died, but since they clearly did not intend to let their aircraft get into the unrecoverable situations in which they ended up, 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.

Turkish Airlines 737 Crash 
 © Sipa Press/Rex Features

Highly automated aeroplanes have brought higher levels of safety - meaning fewer accidents - than their predecessors. The downside appears to have two main facets: the first is that the complexity of fourth-generation systems and their logic means that, while technical events are more rare, unique 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, it has not, despite industry acknowledging 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 and the airlines for assuming the latest aeroplanes should deliver not just improved reliability, but lower crew training costs.

Increased systems complexity, combined with a lack of pilot line flying practice at manual procedures, demands a different 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 outcry at the loss of the world's first pilotless passenger aircraft is totally predictable, it will not happen for a long time. Meantime, the industry had better learn to prepare its pilots properly.


Source: Flight International