Last week we spoke about the Perfect Storm, the possible direction the aviation industry can take towards single pilot and/or a fully automatic cockpit. In my view, there were three contributors to the Perfect Storm: Financial, Technological and Pilot Shortage; each has its own reason for recognition. The pilot shortage is an absolute; it’s hard to change the circumstances behind that fact; the airlines are trying to reverse it. Financial is dependent on the airlines’ and manufacturers’ investment power.
Technology, however, is without limit; it is uncontrollable. Each industry’s technology affects many others, by contributing, sometimes unintentionally, to another’s, e.g. navigational technologies in aviation can directly affect advances in maritime and highway navigational technologies.
But can an aircraft’s computer figure out when something happens illogically? The chances are zero that actual commercial pilots are writing all the programming code to teach the aircraft’s computer how to fly. So where does the aircraft get its ‘experience’ from?
An accident I investigated occurred because the elevator trim was rigged backwards; the pilots flew the aircraft into the ocean, unable to figure out why the trim was reversing. They were acting logically to what they perceived was the problem; if they had more altitude and time, they might have survived. Ten years later two Cessna pilots, faced with identical circumstances, saved themselves by learning from the accident pilots’ mistake; they flew out of the pending crash by flying illogically to what was normal. Can a computer be taught to deny its programming and save the aircraft? Can the automatic piloting systems be properly programmed for all scenarios by non-pilots to operate in a pilot reliant world?
What about the maintenance (MX) side of technologies? Technologies of a new age airliner are decided by engineers – not mechanics. One does not picture rooms of mechanics writing code for airliner computers, impressing their troubleshooting experiences into the programming? Engineers are not mechanics; their understanding of the aircraft is limited to what goes into its design, but know little of how the aircraft acts after it leaves the ‘showroom floor’.
Furthermore, how susceptible are the aircraft’s technologies to outside interference? With storms on our own Sun capable of disrupting satellites in orbit around our Earth, are computer piloted aircraft less vulnerable to a phenomenon like a solar flare? What about an intentional electro-magnetic pulse? One must remember, as was tragically learned with Germanwings 9525, the cockpit is meant to be impenetrable. If there is a single pilot, his/her hands would be full with gaining control of the aircraft … from the aircraft itself; troubleshooting what could be an excessive number of system problems, while trying to find an airport to land. And who would the single pilot turn to anyway? There is no other pilot. If the aircraft is fully automated, then what can be done to save the passengers or civilians below?
And speaking of impenetrable cockpit doors; we are still in the wake of 9/11; the U.S. is still exposed to terrorism on a global scale. The biggest concern may be susceptibility to terrorist attack, not only on the airliner, but the air traffic system itself. How horrific would it be, a terrorist organization hacking into the air traffic system and crashing dozens of airliners full of people into anything they want?
Is it the plot of a bad ‘B’ movie or are we setting ourselves up for disaster? We need to slow down and consider the consequences of totally surrendering our control to the technology. Perhaps we are walking ourselves, with eyes wide open, likes lambs to the slaughter.