The newest airliners, with the latest in automation aboard, are crashing under circumstances never anticipated. Clear days. Light winds. Experienced pilots. Why?
Some pilots are relying so much on automation, their hard-earned stick-and-rudder skills are diminishing. Sometimes the automation is too complex or confusing to be properly mastered. And sometimes the automation simply goes rogue.
Every instrument and switch in a modern jet cockpit is designed for effective interaction with its pilots. But in the real world humans, as well as the automation behind the switches, do not always react as anticipated.
The Dangers of Automation in Airliners goes into the cockpits of recent crashes and near-crashes, as pilots and automation battle for control of the plane. The book tells what happened aboard Air France 447 over the South Atlantic, Asiana 214 at San Francisco International, the two 737 MAX crashes, and others.
The 737 MAX was the newest iteration of a plane first flown in the mid-1960s. All 737s were designed to fly identically, except this latest version had engines so large, they could be dangerous in certain circumstances. Boeing had two choices: train pilots to recognize and react to those circumstances, or create a computer program to watch for them and react automatically. Boeing took the second path. But when the program ran into the unexpected, it cost pilots and passengers their lives.
The Dangers of Automation in Airliners covers the history of automation, from Lawrence Sperry's innovative gyrostabilizer, to the rudimentary autopilots of the 1930s, to today's sophisticated autoflight systems.
It also delves into the history of the airliner, from the first multi-engine passenger planes, to the Ford Trimotor and the ground-breaking Boeing 247, to the ongoing fight between Boeing and Airbus to create the latest market-dominating passenger jets.
With [Captain] Sullivan smoothly flying the Airbus A330 at cruise speed and altitude without help from the autopilot, things seemed under control.
Then suddenly and without warning, the A330’s huge elevators abruptly flexed downward into the slipstream, the tail rocketed upward, and the nose pitched down to an angle of 8.4° below the horizon. Accelerating earthward faster than the planet’s gravitational pull, everyone aboard instantly went beyond weightless, to negative g’s. Passengers wearing seatbelts felt blood rushing into their heads as their belts held them tightly. Those in the isles or not belted in were hurled into the cabin ceiling, all of them hitting it simultaneously with a tremendous BANG. More than one-third of the plane’s passengers and all the flight attendants were hurt in that instant, some of them seriously.
Sullivan’s reaction was instantaneous and automatic: he pulled back on the sidestick to arrest the descent. For nearly two seconds the plane didn’t respond. Then slowly it obeyed. Working skillfully and cautiously, in twenty-three seconds the captain had the nose back up to the horizon. The descent bottomed out 690 feet from where it started.
As Sullivan was gingerly guiding the plane back to 37,000 feet, [Second Officer] Hales turned on the Fasten Seat Belts sign and keyed the public address system. ‘All passengers and crew be seated and fasten seat belts immediately,’ he ordered.
Ninety seconds after the sudden pitch-down Sullivan had the jet back at its assigned altitude. With [First Officer] Lipsett still in the main cabin – the Customer Service Manager hadn’t gotten the chance to let him know he was wanted in the cockpit – Sullivan and Hales turned their attention to the ECAM, which they hoped would tell them why their jet had leapt out of their hands. ECAM had spat out four new messages ... The first two had checklists beneath them displaying required crew actions, which Sullivan and Hales executed quickly. The third was a repeat of the first, while the last had no action to go along with it. That took around one minute. Next the pilots queried the Lower ECAM screen, calling up diagrams and status reports on the plane’s electronic and hydraulic systems, hoping to be clued into the jet’s ailments.
Nothing was helping them understand what they were facing.
Then the plane came back at them.