REVIEW: THE DANGERS OF AUTOMATION IN AIRLINERS: Accidents Waiting to Happen by Jack J. Hersch
You may want to strap in for this. Pilot and aviation enthusiast Jack Hersch brings you aboard the cockpits of doomed jumbo jets, including the Boeing 737 MAX, the Airbus A330 lost over the South Atlantic, and the Bombardier Q400 that stalled over Buffalo, in his expert analysis, THE DANGERS OF AUTOMATION IN AIRLINERS: Accidents Waiting to Happen (Air World: October 30, 2020).
Hersch examines how automation in aviation can be a lifesaver, expertly guiding a plane and its passengers through stormy weather to a safe landing. Or it can be a killer, responsible for crashing an aircraft and killing all on board because of faulty programming.
Lawrence Sperry invented the autopilot just 10 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903. But progress was slow for the next three decades. Then came the end of the Second World War and the jet age. That’s when the real trouble began.
Aviation automation has been pushed to its limits, and pilots increasingly relying on it. Autopilot, auto-throttle, auto-land, flight management systems, air data systems, inertial guidance systems: All these systems are only as good as their inputs which, incredibly, can go rogue. Even the automation itself is subject to unpredictable failure. How can automation possibly account for every eventuality?
And what of the pilots? Trained to fly with their hands on the throttle and yoke, and feet on the rudder pedals, aviation began as a hands-on skill. Then they reached the pinnacle of their careers – airline pilot – and suddenly they were going hours without touching the controls other than for a few minutes on takeoff and landing. Does their reliance on automation allow their skills to erode? And is traditional flight training sufficient to meet the demands of today’s planes? The future of safe air travel depends on the answers to these questions. THE DANGERS OF AUTOMATION IN AIRLINERS charts a course to safer skies.
So apparently I am still unable to stop myself from reading books about planes, flying, and planes in trouble while flying. In this book, Mr. Hersch details the wonders of aviation automation and how it has made the pilot’s life much easier and flying much safer. Safer, that is, when it works and when dependence on it it hasn’t made the pilot’s perishable flying skills rust from lack of use. Sigh …
First off there is a short history of airplanes and how they slowly acquired all the gizmos and gadgets that fill modern cockpits and tell the flight crew the vital things they need to know such as airspeed, altitude, attitude, among many, many others. I didn’t know a lot of this information so it was interesting but experienced pilots may feel otherwise.
Then Hersch began using past crashes as examples of what can go wrong and why. Some of these flights are more well known such as QF 72, Air France 447 and US Airways 1549, while others such as Turkish Airways 1951 and QF 32 are less so. He saves the most time and effort to explain why Boeing built the 737- MAX, the skinflint and (frankly) inexcusable reason it didn’t tell pilots or airlines about the computer automation that was installed in them, and the horrific results for Lion Air 601 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.
But automation alone isn’t the cause of the problems. Pilot overreliance on automation to the point of losing critical flying skills bears some blame as well. Lots of studies have and are being done on how pilots interact with and respond to automation when it’s working and when it stops working. A sad thing seen again and again is that with all the warnings, bells, and messages that computer programs – via the electronic surfaces of a plane – can deluge pilots with during an emergency, often those programs fail to tell the pilots what’s actually wrong.
Automation is here to stay. It can help us or kill us. Unlike a factory foreman on the ground running an assembly line, the pilot of a plane flying at 500+ mph and 35,000 feet in the air can’t just shut down an Airbus or Boeing plane to figure out what’s wrong. Flying is safer than driving a car but it’s still got a ways to go. B