Automation dependency

I’d encourage anyone with more than a passing interest in the events of AFR447 to take a look at the new Popular Mechanics piece making the rounds. If this is an accurate depiction of what happened on that flight deck, it is incredibly damning. This is rapidly becoming a turbofan-powered version of CJC3407, but arguably worse — Colgan, at least, had horrific working conditions with lousy pay, and exposed the regional airline system as a mostly dysfunctional mess. AFR447 is vastly worse in that three well-rested, very well-paid pilots flying a state-of-the-art aircraft essentially stalled all the way down to the ocean from 34,000′.

It’s not that simple, of course, and there’s loads of blame to go around; Learmount has been particularly good about this, noting that the pilots either didn’t understand, didn’t believe, or didn’t act on the information the flight data computers were feeding them. There are any number of reasons why. I am aware that the pitot probes were iced, and that the airspeed was unreliable, but one would think — hope! — that pilots could look at the other instruments and figure out what was going on, or at least figure out what the safest course of action was. That they couldn’t does not reflect well upon them or their training.

It’s difficult to see how the A330’s flight control systems made things safer. I was particularly struck by the part about how the left sidestick has no information on what the right sidestick is doing, and the motions required to fly with a sidestick aren’t nearly as dramatic as those needed to fly with a yoke or a center-mounted stick. (The article goes into some detail on this point; my executive summary is that if this had been almost any other airplane, someone would have looked at the PF’s controls and said, “Put the fucking nose down,” probably within about 10 seconds of evaluating the flight situation. Obviously, that didn’t happen.) Then again, given the confusion about normal and alternate law in Airbus land, and the uncertainty about what flight mode the aircraft was in, maybe this doesn’t matter — believing that normal law flight protection would keep the airplane above the stall, maybe other peoples’ actions wouldn’t have been much different. I don’t know.

I read the PM report shortly before I encountered this video:

… which I encourage you to watch in its entirety. Pilots will find it fascinating; anyone curious about human factors and automation will find it of value, too. But pay attention to the date on this video — it’s well into its awkward teenage years now, and everything is still true, and the accident record continues to bear this out. For reasons that are difficult to understand, pilots continue to fly perfectly serviceable airplanes into the ground under conditions where the autoflight systems have disengaged, and people die. I don’t know what we’re planning to do about this.