Open the pod bay doors Hal

HAL 9000, worst garage door opener ever.

So, yeah, autopilots. One of aviation’s greatest achievements. Properly used and designed they can relive pilot workload and greatly enhance safety by a bunch of percent. But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.

There have been a few recent crashes that are directly caused by over automation and poor flight crew training. Basically, something went wrong with a very complicated system and the dudes up front didn’t have enough time to figure out what to do before it was too late. The Lion Air crash in Indonesia last month is the latest example. In that crash one faulty angle of attack sensor tricked the the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system, or MCAS (autopilot) into thinking the plane was about to stall so it put the plane into a dive which the crew wasn’t able to pull out of. 189 dead. Apparently this had happened to the exact same plane just the day before and that crew had remembered their training and switched the MCAS off and recovered using good old fashioned stick and rudder skills. Unfortunately stick and rudder skills are not only in short supply these days but in the airlines they are actually discouraged. “The autopilot is much more efficient and safe than you flawed humans so don’t touch the controls!”

I think this leads to a bad mindset in too many flight decks these days. Take for example the crash of an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 at San Francisco in July 2013, which killed three and injured 187. The crew had inadvertently disengaged the auto throttle and basically allowed the plane to land short of the runway and slam into the seawall all because the pilots couldn’t figure out why they were sinking too fast. WHO FREAKING CARES WHY? GRAB THE CONTROLES, HIT THE BIG RED BUTTON (autopilot disconnect) AND FLY THE GODDAMN AIRPLANE!!!! But stick and rudder skills are in short supply these days.

We are trained to use and rely on the autopilot. When I was getting my type rating in the Citation 650 last fall the hardest thing I had to learn was how to use the box. “The box” is the generic term for the flight management system/navigation/autopilot/do everything system that controls the aircraft. If your going to do something with the aircraft you put it in the box. So I happened to have one of the instructors as my copilot while I was undergoing training in the full motion simulator one day. I thought that this was a good thing because the copilot is the guy who runs the box. All I had to do was watch the autopilot do it’s thing and takeover when the evaluator told me to. No problem, if there’s one thing I can do is hand fly an airplane.

We were doing a simulated single engine ILS approach and as expected we were still in the clouds when we arrived at the minimum descent altitude. Can’t see the ground, gotta go around. I applied full power and hit the go around button on the throttles which makes the command bars set you up for a climbing attitude up and away from the runway. Now flying the command bars is super easy. There are two purple bars on the screen in front of you (HSI) and all you do is put the two yellow bars that represent the nose of your aircraft, right under the purple ones. Easy. So easy that when hand flying and approach in the clouds it seems like cheating. Just follow the bars. On a missed approach you hit the go around button, follow the bars to get away from the runway and then ask your copilot to “Nav you up” which means hit the Navigation button which will direct you the next point in the missed approach procedure. Just follow the command bars and you’ve got nothing to worry about.

So when I told my instructor/copilot to “Nav me up” I was surprised to see the command bars direct a descending turn to the left instead of up and right. Like a good pilot I followed the command bars but asked the instructor “Is this right?” The instructor, who had his head down entering something in the box, just said “Yep, just follow the bars.” At this point I was in trouble because I’d let two things happen. Number one: I’d let the fact that my copilot was an instructor who flew in this simulator every day give me a false sense of security. I assumed that he could do no wrong. And two: I’d stopped being the pilot in command and become an autopilot made of meat, just blindly following the command bars so that when the command bars pointed down into the dirt I followed. For about two seconds until the pilot finally showed up. “That’s not right.” I said as I finally did the right thing as pulled up and away from the ground. The instructor started to disagree when he finally looked up just as Bitching Betty started singing. TERRAIN!…..TERRAIN!…..PULL UP!…..PULL UP! That’s not something a pilot want to hear, even in the simulator. The instructor said something along the lines of “Oops!” and frantically put the correct (I hoped) info into the box.

The point of the story is that all the best technology in the world is only as good as what’s being put into it. If it receives faulty data it gives faulty results weather from the human working the box or a broken sensor. Garbage in, garbage out. Imagine if I had been flying a real jet instead of a full motion simulator. And Imagine if I’d engaged the autopilot immediately after initiating the go around instead of hand flying it. Would I have been as diligent in monitoring the flight instruments? Or would I have in a sense “sat back” ? comfortable that the autopilot “had it” At that point I might even have looked down to watch what my copilot was doing on the box as the jet plunged at eh ground at over 200 knots. It was a good lesson for me. One that I’d learned before but am forced to relearn every few years. Even though the pilot you’re flying with is WAY more experienced than you they can still be wrong!

But it’s a whole other story when you can’t disconnect the autopilot, or don’t remember how. I can’t think of anything more terrifying than being at the controls of an airplane that won’t respond to your commands because it thinks it knows how to fly better than you.

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