Asiana 214: NTSB looking at 'automation complacency'

July 11, 2013 6:23:15 PM PDT
As reported, when Asiana Flight 214 approached SFO on Saturday, it was low and very slow -- 103 knots when it should have been flying at 137. The NTSB continues to investigate how that could happen, especially in "automated cockpits."

Among the revelations emerging from the aftermath of Asiana 214 are perceptions that do not match reality -- especially in terms of what airline pilots do to control a plane in a cockpit. "There have been a lot of questions about auto-pilot, auto-throttle, some of the auto-flight regimes in the aircraft," NTSB spokesperson Deborah Hersman said Thursday.

Specifically, how could an airliner miss a runway with three trained professionals managing its systems and supposedly in control? This is where the phrase "automation complacency" enters the picture.

"Automation complacency is basically where they are letting the plane fly itself and they're just losing track of where it is," explained Jim Gray of Oakland Flyers. Gray trains commercial pilots. It's a progression that, for all of them, begins with seat-of-the pants hand-flying and then evolves as the planes and their systems become more complicated.

By the time they command an airliner like a Boeing 777, much of the flying is actually hands-off. "So, they're basically putting in the computer the entire route and that factors in the winds, what the fuel burn is, everything in the whole route," Gray said.

Asked what the difference is between flying and computer programming, Gray said, "Not that much difference, oddly enough."

If you were to be a fly on the wall of a modern cockpit, you would see more dial turning than hands on the yoke or throttle. These days, it's possible to pre-program an entire flight and even a landing, if necessary in bad weather, as auto-piloting and auto-throttling computer systems talk to each other electronically.

One lingering question surrounding Asiana 214 is when did the crew take over by hand and how did those systems put them "so far behind the plane," as pilots like to say. "We need to understand what those modes were, if they were commanded by the pilots, if they were activated inadvertently, and if the pilots understood what the mode was doing," Hersman said.

Also, were the pilots so reliant on failed automation that it diminished their skills to save the landing by hand? "They were certainly behind the airplane and they were complacent on correcting what was going on," Gray said. Gray's is not an official ruling, but it is an educated opinion from someone who trains pilots to avoid disasters like this.


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