The Paradox of Automation, a Compelling Video


The investigation of the July 6 crash of an Asiana 777 at San Francisco International Airport is still in the early stages, but already it has the aviation world talking once again about issues around cockpit automation and pilots' airmanship skills.

There is no doubt that automation, overall, has been a boon to aviation safety. Still, going back at least to the 1980s, there have been concerns that pilots can sometimes be distracted by sophisticated automated systems. They can end up focusing on them at the expense of situational awareness or the basics of flying -- occasionally with tragic results.

If you care about these issues -- and you should whether you're in the cockpit or just ride in the back -- there are a few things online I would recommend you check out, including an especially good video of a veteran pilot's lecture on automation and safety.

But first, in case you have not been following it, how does Asiana Flight 214 figure in the discussion? It's always a bad idea to jump to conclusions about crashes. They almost always involve several factors and strings of events. But based on what the NTSB has said publicly, we know some significant things about this crash already.

First, within the last 2 min. 30 sec. of the flight, the crew made multiple inputs to both the autopilot and the autothrottle. So  the crew was definitely giving the automated systems some attention.

Second, we know the 777-200ER's airspeed was allowed to slip well below the target speed for landing of 137 kt. In fact, the aircraft slowed almost to an aerodynamic stall. Maintaining sufficient airspeed when landing is one of those basics every pilot learns early in training.

We also know the weather at SFO was good the afternoon of July 6. We don't know yet whether everything on the Boeing 777 was working properly. And we don't know whether there might have been other issues or special circumstances. But, as an editorial in Aviation Week & Space Technology says, "there is no excuse for landing short on a calm, clear day in a fully functioning jetliner."

So, if this particular airplane was in fact sound, how could a crew with thousands of hours of experience end up crashing on landing?

John Croft and Guy Norris have an interesting report in the same issue of Aviation Week as the one with the editorial that goes into how the automated modes work on the 777, particularly in relation to the autothrottle. The machine rules for this interaction were not obvious.

If automation -- and the crew's handling of automated systems -- turns out to be a significant factor in the Asiana accident, it won't be the first time. A site that explores flight deck automation issues lists 19 accidents since 1979 in which they were a factor.

A pioneer in trying to raise pilot awareness about problems with automation was Capt. Warren VanderBaugh at American Airlines Flight Academy. One lecture he gave has become a cult classic. It's known as the "children of the magenta" lecture. And it's as relevant today as it was in 1996, when he gave it. The video is about 25 min. long and well worth your time. It's both educational and entertaining.

What makes VanderBurgh's talk brilliant in my view is that he puts his finger on a paradox about automation. Here it is: Normally, automation reduces pilot workload. But in some situations, automation increases workload.

If that sounds counterintuitive to you, join the club. But pilots who ignore this paradox do so at their own -- and their passengers’ -- peril. You’ll be a believer when you hear VanderBurgh.

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