Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Take Heed

Controller, take heed. Lest they speak of thee.

Please notice that nowhere in this article is a programmer, engineer or bureaucrat held at fault. But pilots are.

AP IMPACT: Automation in the air dulls pilot skill

”Spurred in part by federal regulations that require greater reliance on computerized flying, the airline industry is suffering from "automation addiction," said Rory Kay, an airline captain and co-chairman of a Federal Aviation Administration committee on pilot training. "We're seeing a new breed of accident with these state-of-the art planes."”

Now there’s a catchy phrase you ought to learn: “automation addiction”.

”A draft FAA study found pilots sometimes "abdicate too much responsibility to automated systems." Because these systems are so integrated in today's planes, one malfunctioning piece of equipment or a single bad computer instruction can suddenly cascade into a series of other failures, unnerving pilots who have been trained to rely on the equipment.”

How about controllers? Have you been trained to “rely on the equipment”?

”The startled captain, who hadn't noticed the plane had slowed too much,...”

Go ahead, substitute “controller” for “pilot”.

The startled controller, who hadn't noticed the plane had slowed too much,... Do you think I’m making this stuff up? I read this just yesterday in Bob Poole’s rag (#86).

”Sometimes called “subliminal control,” it relies on a ground-based computer calculating minor speed adjustments, aimed at avoiding predicted conflicts, and sending the suggested change directly to the pilot via a digital datalink.”

You’ll appreciate the pretext of that. He’ll put it on the web sooner or later.

”One of the concerns I’ve heard for many years is that the productivity of air traffic control has been unchanged for decades. Today’s controller is responsible for essentially the same maximum number of aircraft as a controller 20 or 30 years ago. A basic premise of NextGen and SESAR is to change that, by means of automation of routine separations, under which the controller would evolve into more of a traffic manager and conflict resolver. ”

Let’s back up a second and substitute “pilot” for “controller”.

One of the concerns I’ve heard for many years is that the productivity of pilots has been unchanged for decades. Today’s pilot is responsible for essentially the same maximum number of airplanes as a pilot of 20 or 30 years ago. Am I making my point here?

(If you don’t know of Mr. Poole, you can start here. He’s mentioned regularly at Get the Flick.)

Let’s get back to the AP article. In reviewing a Turkish Airlines accident...

”Dutch investigators described the flight's three pilots' "automation surprise" when they discovered the plane was about to stall. They hadn't been closely monitoring the airspeed.”

Another phrase to remember -- “automation surprise”. I bet I don’t have to explain that to controllers. In reviewing an Air France accident...

”The co-pilot at the controls struggled to save the plane, but because he kept pointing the plane's nose up, he actually caused the stall instead of preventing it, experts said. Despite the bad airspeed information, which lasted for less than a minute, there was nothing to prevent the plane from continuing to fly if the pilot had followed the correct procedure for such circumstances,...”

Did you catch that? The copilot is at fault because the automation screwed up and the system insists that he rely on the automation until he no longer has the skills or experience to respond properly. The software engineer isn’t at fault. The regulation writer isn’t at fault. The airline bean counter that insists on “productivity” (you know Bob Poole isn’t going to be blamed) isn’t at fault. It’s the pilot’s fault. Just like it will be the controller’s fault when ERAM fails.

Pay attention. Wake up. Your job is being automated as we speak. And controllers -- people with the best of intentions -- are helping to make it happen. Good intentions are not enough. Controllers must insist on safety first. It’s your job. Nobody said it would make you popular.

Don Brown
August 30, 2011

(Added for emphasis, once time allowed.)


bob said...

The Road to Hell is paved by Good Intentions, by typically very smart and nice people.

Why did Lufthansa A-310 have different software then anyone else, because of an incident/accident at Warsaw, the choice was change the software for us or take the airframes back. Airbus changed the software.

Air Traffic Mike said...

Bob, the road to Hell is also paved by idiots.

Like this "highly trained" Pinnacle Airlines crew.


Don, the dumbing down of both piloting and air traffic controlling is going to have severe consequences.

Both professions deserve better than that.