The Dangers of Aviation Automation: Rust!

Why “fat, dumb and happy” is a bad formula for safe flying; turn off “the magic” occasionally!

We all enjoy the benefits of technological tools while flying. This can be a full up autopilot coupled to a navigation system, or just the wonder of a fully loaded iPad providing nav, weather and traffic over the ADS-B network. The paradox of automation is that as these wonderful systems do all the work, our piloting abilities inevitably erode. My weekly personal wake-up call is getting out of the Pilatus PC-12NG I fly daily and into my 1947 Champ (nothing automatic there!) 

Our charter company policy in the Pilatus is to allow the automatic system to do almost all of the flying; pilots inevitably get rustier! The complexity and reliability of modern aircraft automation has made these systems opaque to the pilot, and taken pilots completely out of the operational loop (pilots are seen as a “source of error”). But automation also inevitably fails and throws control back into the hands of the pilot(s). The poster child for the perils of automation dependence is the Air France 447 accident where three tired and rusty pilots flew a perfectly good Airbus 330 into a full stall and into the ocean.

There are three basic interrelated problems with automation operating a machine in the place of humans (and this pertains also to nuclear reactors and self-driving cars). First, automated system mask incompetence in the operator; they make operations easy and fool the pilot into a false sense of capability and induce complacency. Second, as mentioned, automation continually makes us less skillful by removing the need and opportunity for practice. Third, automation “tunes out” minor irregularities in the operating machine, masking these anomalies until the point of failure (or disconnect) when the problem is larger and the challenge greater (as in airframe/prop ice accumulating). These are all nicely cataloged in “Crash” a longer article by Tim Harford. The antidote is obviously more hand flying and a humble attitude toward personal piloting skills. I prefer to fly the plane and use the automated system as the back-up or “relief pilot”.

There is another more subtle implication of automation identified by the decision researcher Gary Klein. Not only is manual skill and control being erased by automation, our cognitive decision-making abilities are increasingly replaced by computer algorithms. In the face of automation we stop analyzing, working the brain and trying to get better! This is a problem with all forms of diagnosis and decision. A savvy technician will very adamantly avoid any suggestion of what a solution might be to avoid tainting their diagnostic skills. These experts only want to hear the symptoms; “please don’t tell me what you *think* it is!” Veteran meteorologists are the same way. They sometimes can generate a much more accurate forecast *without* the automated assistance (but this requires a highly-skilled thinker). The automated system performs better than the beginners every time. But you never get good if you don’t do the work; another harmful paradox.

So how do we gain and retain human excellence in operational and cognitive challenges? The answer is simple: practice more hand flying, calculating and just plain thinking. We all can be lazy, but it is essential to get out there and do the real work, make some mistakes and fix them. Practice is the only answer to keeping your edge; grab that yoke, make the decision, work the calculation or operation and use the automation as a back-up. Once you have the manual skills back, work the interface with your automation so that is also smooth and familiar. You will stay sharper and be ready when the “magic” inevitably fails!

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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

One thought on “The Dangers of Aviation Automation: Rust!”

  1. That usual NOTAM foretelling of possible GPS signal loss finally hit me last week as I crossed the Southern California desert between Bartow and Needles. First all of the GPS information on the G1000 turned yellow in warning mode and the course deviation indicator got replaced by a “DR’ dead-reckoning indication. After several minutes everything went blank and I was left with only VOR navigation. It would have been less stressful had I practiced this earlier and not while on an IFR flight clearance.

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