Deer Valley Pilots Association

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Safety Articles

Something Wrong!
—or—
We're Too Low!

By Dr. Chuck Crinnian, MD

When you google “Cockpit Automation,” this photo comes up first.  There is something wrong with this picture!
The term “automation” was coined by a Ford Motor Co. engineer around 1946 to describe a system in which there is a significant substitution of mechanical, electrical, and computerized actions that take the place of human effort and intelligence.  While watching the news this week and seeing the Korean Asiano crash investigation I had to wonder, is automation such a good thing?  The computerized actions of the automatic flight management system did not appear to be a triumph of intelligence.  Or, was the lapse of intelligence a pilot issue?

Shortly after the first aircraft were flying in the early 20th century, Elmer Sperry demonstrated the world’s first autopilot.  Since that time, we have seen the development of: automatic direction finders, auto-throttles, flight management systems, automatic dependent surveillance broadcasts, automatic attitude leveling, and so on and so forth.  Statistics show that we are not much safer with all this automation.  There must be something wrong with this picture.  We are spending a lot more money and not getting a return with the improved safety of flight.  God forbid this could be a human factor; we have spent too much money, time and technology to take the human factor out of the loop of aviation decision-making.

Well, it is a human factor.  Cockpit automation has given us benefits, but has created some new costs to flight safety.  Cockpit automation has given us modes of confusion, errors of omissions, and “automation surprises.”  In addition to the traditional “stick and rudder” skills a pilot should possess, automation creates more demands on operational knowledge, new areas of attention, and new demands on coordinating the automation to the human factors.  In other words, automation has created new ways to screw up.

Despite the benefits of cockpit automation, there are significant costs.  These costs have been expressed in the form of accidents and incidents that are attributed to the breakdown of the relationship between the pilot and the automated system(s).  There has been little improvement in accident rate in the last 20 yrs.  The accidents have changed, now they tend to relate to human error in system management.    One of the leading causes is “automation surprises.”  Technically speaking, an “automation surprise” is a failure of the human operator to track, monitor, or anticipate the action of automated systems leading to unintended system behavior.  In other words, “What’s it doing now?”
Automation is great.  I use it with confidence.  But, it takes training, practice, and education.  It is a tool and, like many, in the wrong hands, it is a weapon.

We all have some degree of automation in our aircraft.  Let’s all do an exercise on our next flight.  First, pick a destination.  Get out a paper chart for that destination.  NO I-PADS!  Do some flight planning with getting the weather from FSS by phone.  Make a flight plan using that old E6B.  Fly your plan without using navigation radios.  Use only the compass, the clock, and the chart.  Get back to your roots of aviation.  You will have fun and gain confidence that you can overcome automation!

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