Are Pilots Depending Too Much on Airplane Automation?

Airplane automation systems have been found to be involved in the events leading to the crashes of two Boeing 737 Max 8 planes. (Image: via  pixabay  /  CC0 1.0)
Airplane automation systems have been found to be involved in the events leading to the crashes of two Boeing 737 Max 8 planes. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

The crash of two Boeing 737 Max 8 planes in a span of less than six months has pushed the aviation industry to the edge. Airplane automation systems have been found to be involved in the events leading to the crashes.

Similarity in crashes

In the first Boeing 737 crash in Indonesia, the pilots are believed to have wrestled against the automated system before losing to it. The plane’s sensor systems apparently generated a reading that made the automated system push down the nose of the plane.

Though pilots counteracted it and moved the nose up, the automated system overrode the manual action and pushed down the nose again. This kept happening several times, eventually leading to the airplane crash.

As far as the latest Ethiopian crash is concerned, publicly available data once again points to the involvement of the automated system. The plane apparently oscillated repeatedly in intervals of 15 to 20 seconds.

(Image via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

The plane’s sensor systems apparently generated a reading that made the automated system push down the nose of the plane. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

“Even from the available data, there are similarities between the Lion Air case (Indonesian crash) and this case in terms of this 15 second periodicity. That would point toward a similar phenomenon. We’ll know more when we get the flight data recorder,” John Hansman Jr., a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said to The New York Times.

Automation issues

Airplane automation poses several problems. For one, both the aircraft manufacturers and airlines struggle with educating the pilots about properly using the automation system. On top of this lack of knowledge, automation systems are becoming so complex that many pilots are unable to keep up with the advancing technology. The pilots who do get a good grasp on automation eventually end up depending too much on the systems. This makes the pilots complacent and degrades their manual flying skills.

In fact, a report commissioned by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) clearly stated that many American pilots were struggling with automation and lacked the ability to control planes in abnormal situations. When it comes to the Max 8 planes, almost half a dozen pilots have filed complaints of being caught off guard by sudden descent triggered by the automation system. However, experts do not see the crashes impeding automation in any way.

“Commercial aviation is going to become more and more automated… These crashes, in my opinion, simply aren’t going to change that in the short term,” Clint Balog, a former test pilot who researches human performance, cognition, and error at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said to The Verge.

Meanwhile, Boeing has declared that it has developed a software patch that will address the issues with the 737 aircraft. In addition, a new pilot training program has also been developed. The FAA has reviewed the patch and given approval for its implementation. The changes are expected to be rolled out by April next month.

(Image: Screen Shot/ Youtube)

The FAA has reviewed Boeing’s software patch for the 737 aircraft and has given approval for its implementation. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

“The FAA is aware that Boeing is developing a Service Bulletin that would specify the installation of new flight control computer operational program software… Boeing has also developed flightcrew training related to this software… The FAA’s ongoing review of this software installation and training is an agency priority, as will be the roll-out of any software, training, or other measures to operators of the 737 MAX,” the organization said in a statement (CNN).

Given the crash of two aircraft and eventual grounding of the 737 planes, Boeing has temporarily paused delivery of the Max 8 to its customers. In 2018, Boeing had sold 806 planes, with 560 of them being 737 Max models.

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