Wednesday, August 31, 2011

More on recent airline disasters

A couple of weeks ago I published an article on 'The Tragedy of Air France Flight 447', conveying (in a video report) the views of David Learmount that today's pilots are simply not trained to react to such emergencies in an appropriate fashion.

Now comes further confirmation of Mr. Learmount's perspective from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Pilots’ “automation addiction” has eroded their flying skills to the point that they sometimes don’t know how to recover from stalls and other mid-flight problems, say pilots and safety officials. The weakened skills have contributed to hundreds of deaths in airline crashes in the last five years.

Some 51 “loss of control” accidents occurred in which planes stalled in flight or got into unusual positions from which pilots were unable to recover, making it the most common type of airline accident, according to the International Air Transport Association.

“We’re seeing a new breed of accident with these state-of-the art planes,” said Rory Kay, an airline captain and co-chair of a Federal Aviation Administration advisory committee on pilot training. “We’re forgetting how to fly.”

Opportunities for airline pilots to maintain their flying proficiency by manually flying planes are increasingly limited, the FAA committee recently warned. Airlines and regulators discourage or even prohibit pilots from turning off the autopilot and flying planes themselves, the committee said.

. . .

Safety experts say they’re seeing cases in which pilots who are suddenly confronted with a loss of computerized flight controls don’t appear to know how to respond immediately, or they make errors — sometimes fatally so.

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.

. . .

The ability of pilots to respond to the unexpected loss or malfunction of automated aircraft systems “is the big issue that we can no longer hide from in aviation,” said Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va. “We’ve been very slow to recognize the consequence of it and deal with it.”

. . .

Airlines will have to rethink their operations fundamentally if they’re going to give pilots realistic opportunities to keep their flying skills honed, said Voss, the flight safety expert.

There's more at the link.

It's interesting that Mr. Learmount blamed regulatory agencies (such as the FAA) for mandating outdated training standards for commercial pilots, whereas the FAA and other regulatory agencies appear to be blaming the airlines and/or training establishments. I daresay this exercise in blame-shifting and finger-pointing is inevitable in our litigious society. Nevertheless, whoever's ultimately responsible, one hopes that the problem(s) will be resolved sooner rather than later. Until they are, everyone who sets foot on a commercial airliner is at unnecessarily greater risk . . . and that's not acceptable.



Comrade Misfit said...

You might want to read Capt. Dave's take on it in his blog Flight Level 390. He has a lot of time in Airbuses. ("Airbi"?)

Rev. Paul said...

In this age, it's hard not to blame increasingly intrusive gov't regulations. They're not allowed to turn off the auto-pilot, yet it's the employer's fault.

One of these things is not like the other.

Ian said...

This is not an entirely new problem. Some considerable years ago a test flight put a DC-8 -- long before glass cockpits -- into an unintentional stall -- and held it there until they ran out of altitude and airspeed simultaneously. The problem? They had been taught to "power out" of a stall for minimum altitude loss -- but they couldn't at altitude, and then got behind the power curve. Uncannily similar to the Airbus accident, complete with cockpit confusion, but without the computers to add to the mess.

The newer automation -- glass cockpits and computers -- does add to safety, most of the time. But when the magic stops working... the folks in the front office had better have a good many hours of solid stick and rudder. Which, increasingly, they do not.

Real scary...