At the ALPA 62nd Safety Forum NTSB Chairman, the Honorable Christopher A. Hart, himself a licensed pilot with commercial, multi-engine, and instrument ratings, spoke to an audience of 400+ delivered a simple message, “the good news is that there is more automation; and the bad news is that there is more automation.”
The specific words from his address were:
“The most fundamental lesson that we have learned from our accident investigation experience is that introducing automation into complex human-centric systems can be very challenging…The problems that we have seen thus far from increasing automation include increasing complexity, degradation of skills, complacency, and the potential loss of professionalism.”
The headline may have declared that the fully automated cockpit is not yet ready,
and he mentioned that the precedent of “autopilot” car crash fatality occurring has been very telling.
The good news there is that the NTSB and the DOT, with their multimodal jurisdiction/experiences, can learn from all of these applications of computer control to transportation operations.
The Chairman’s real message was the vagaries of pilot/machine interface between the pilots and the machines. He has previously spoken forcefully on the subject of degradation of pilots skills due to the reliance on automation. Academic research using a B-747 simulator as a laboratory has provided quantitative data which narrows the focus of whence the problem emanates.
The primary premise of this highly qualified aeronautical engineer/pilot/lawyer’s presentation was that “human pilots are still crucial to the process,” but he acknowledged that the level of automation in the modern cockpit creates challenges. When car, train or aircraft is completely automated or completely manual, the man/machine control status is “unambiguous,” he said. If it is all one or the other, “you know who’s in charge,” he explained.
For good reasons, the cockpit is now a suite of various controls which are subject to highly reliable automation. The negative of that trend is that the human tends to become disengaged as (s)he relies on sensors/algorithms/mechanical devices to perform those functions.
“In other words, there can be too much of a good thing,” he aptly observed. Without the need to be checking settings or focusing on various indicators, the mind of even a professional pilot tends to wander. Not being constantly “in the moment of flight” (so to speak), it becomes difficult for the Pilot-in-Command and the Second-in-Command to resume the controls, particularly if the precipitant for reentry into direct flying is some unexpected event.
The dichotomy, Hart pointed out is that “[o]n the one hand, the human operator is the least predictable part of the system…But the human also is the most adaptable part of the system.” On the eve of the premiere of the movie “Sully,” the Chairman used the example of those pilots’ adjustments by saying “[t]he challenge is how to reap the benefits of the automation while minimizing its downsides…Will airliners ever be completely automated? Accidents such as the landing on the Hudson are the reason why, in my view, we won’t see complete automation in the airline industry for some time.”
Andy Pasztor, who is one of the best aviation journalists, has explained that there are positive steps being taken NOW to reinforce the skills needed to keep the computer engaged and the pilots engaged and ready to grab the yoke when called upon and to do so seamlessly. In the Wall Street Journal, he reported that United Airlines has taken the unusual step of requiring that all of its pilots return for added (not recurrent) training. This three month effort is named LEAP and was developed by United and the ALPA council for the carrier. In classrooms, the cockpit crews will reinforce their communication skills so that the PIC and SIC are on the same page, properly allocate their attentions and manage the automation systems between them. The article notes that:
“At the same time, increasing reliance on cockpit automation can lead to pilot inattention or confusion in the event of an emergency. Undue dependence on computers can degrade a pilot’s manual flying skills. For years, despite the high degree of safety in the U.S. airline industry, aviation regulators have struggled with the best way to foster greater pilot professionalism across the industry.”
Beyond this learning exercise, United will improve their “hiring patterns, fleet adjustments, cockpit automation and other changes facing the industry.”
As Chairman Hart noted in closing:
“If the industry hopes to continue improving safety, it must continue to enhance its understanding of the human-automation interface, through ever-better collaboration.”
Pilotless aircraft may be a reality sometime in the near to midterm. It is clear that the relevant safety agencies, FAA, NTSB and DOT, are carefully studying the development of computers which can meet extraordinarily high reliability standards. While (if) there is such a transition to automation, safety organizations, unions and airlines are actively developing procedures that assure that those adaptable beings in the cockpit are fit and able to respond.
Otherwise, these professionals might sully their reputation.