My research is about how pilot skill degradation is a real issue in todays industry. In cockpits of modern aircraft today. Computers have taken over all the system operations and functions from what used to be mechanical systems. You see, pilots back in the day had a whole lot more hands on experience with aircraft systems than hands off. Today, with the push of a few buttons the aircraft can practically get from A to B by itself. Highly sophisticated tech but, it comes with a cost. Pilots are losing their skills because of what I call, “button flying.” I’m a pilot myself, from my point of view.
I believe this to be something that can be a problem if you let it. I fly GA aircraft which means I can basically do what I want hands on, hands off, of which I prefer hands on. Especially if I must pay for the hours of flight time of which I use. Airlines however, rather or furthermore recommend that the autopilot do most of the flying. Reasoning for this is passenger comfort. Computers can keep the airliner steadier than a human can this true. However, passenger comfort shouldn’t be a higher priority than pilot skill at all. Computers do fail or have glitches. When they do, pilot error most times is the root cause of accidents. Again, this is because pilot skills have degraded a fair amount.
Today, everyone flies to get from point A to B. It is the quickest, and today the safest way to get where you want to go. But, as with most ways to travel safety is always at the forefront. Whether you travel by bus, plane, train, or ship. My story will focus mostly about pilots losing the fight to the autopilot system and airline accidents such as an Air France flight that was lost in the Atlantic due to a recoverable situation that the pilots mishandled. These types of accidents happen more often than they should. My discussion will also be about automation and the effect it has on pilots today compared to when this system was first introduced. This has been a growing matter since the innovation of automation or autopilot. What was invented to assist and help pilots. Has now taking over the aircraft and does most of the flying which degrades the skills of the aviator. The relevance of this topic should concern the flying public. Which in my view should be most of the world? If you plan to fly, already do fly, you should be aware of the danger. So, lets dig in shall we!!
What is automation in aircraft? Back in the day of aviation were pilots had to manually steer and maneuver the aircraft for long distances and periods of time in a safe manner. The continuous focus led to fatigue pilots became tired, so the autopilot was an assistant in these matters. As aircraft gained the ability to travel further across nations and overseas, permitting flights to fly for many hours. An autopilots purpose is to act in some ways like a pilot and assumes tasks of the pilot and remove some of the work load encountered on long haul flights. The definition of an autopilot is a mechanism that steers a plane soley by itself, without a person.
An autopilot is meant to relieve pilot from stress as previously stated. The present-day autopilot can even land an airplane without any input from the pilot. An airplane moves about three axes that is X, Y and Z or lateral axis, longitudinal axis and vertical axis. There are three basic control surface which can be operated from the cockpit by the pilot to move the airplane about these axes. Roll is controlled by moving the aileron, pitch is controlled by moving the elevator and yaw is controlled by moving the Rudder.
Now that we know the basics of airplane controls, let me tell you that in the autopilot system these control surfaces can also be moved by electrical actuators mechanically coupled to the control rods connecting the pilot’s input to the control surface. The system has many sensors fitted to pick up any movements about the three axes. They give these inputs in the form of electrical signals to a computer. The computer decides which control surface will be moved, how much to correct this disturbance, and it sends the signal to the appropriate electrical actuator. The control surface moves and the airplane return’s back to its original attitude. Autopilots in today’s modern aircraft move about three-axis which are the y, x, and vertical axis. The phases of flight an aircraft goes through during a flight are taxi, takeoff, climb, cruise, descent, approach, and landing. Autopilots exist that automate all these flight phases except taxi and takeoff.
An autopilot-controlled landing on a runway and controlling the aircraft on rollout is known as a CAT III b landing or Autoland. “Yes” they can land themselves!! Today, autopilots use high tech software to control the aircraft. This software through a series of ground based systems and satellites in space interprets data and determines the current position of the plane, and then onboard flight management computers receives this information and guides the aircraft accordingly. Many autopilot systems also have power control systems that controls throttles to manage the airspeed.
The first aircraft autopilot was developed by Sperry Corporation in 1912. The autopilot connected a gyroscopic heading indicator and attitude indicator to hydraulically operated elevators and rudder. It permitted the aircraft to fly straight and level on a compass course without a pilot’s attention, greatly reducing the pilot’s workload. It was demonstrated it in 1914 at an aviation safety contest held in Paris. Autopilots do not replace human operators, but instead they assist them in controlling the aircraft. This allows them to focus on other areas of operations such as monitoring the trajectory, weather and systems.
“The two grandstands between Pont Bezons and Pont Argenteuil were packed with spectators. On that glorious sunny June 18, 1914, there were 57 specially equipped planes competing, with Lawrence Sperry listed last on the program. Entries featured such improvements in aircraft technology as magnetos, self-starters, carburetors and other innovations. Sperry’s entry was the sole participant equipped with a gyroscopic stabilizer apparatus, designed to improve stability and control”(Scheck, 2017).
Pilots’ “feelings” aren’t easily divided by when the autopilot was invented. Since airplanes last a long, long time, there are many airplanes used today that have no autopilots at all. Many pilots today have not flown with an autopilot, and all have trained without their use. Much of instrument training, for example, is focused on handling distractions such as finding information on charts, tuning radios, or changing flight plans without losing control of the aircraft. Flight instructors and examiners forbid use of autopilots, under the impression that hand-flying was the only way to ensure a safe arrival.
So, the way pilots felt before autopilots is different from how they feel now they can perform tasks more precisely, and more safely with autopilots than without. Recently, improved autopilot capability, increased airspace complexity, traffic and an explosion in cockpit information have combined to force a review of these old attitudes.
The autopilot today of huge aircraft reads its location and the aircraft’s attitude, altitude, airspeed and all sorts of information from an inertial guidance system or (IGS). An inertial guidance system does over time develop errors. To counteract this issue IGS have error reduction systems. These systems rotate once a minute so that any errors that exist are removed. Aircraft that fly specific airways that require very strict guidelines when it comes to errors are monitored to make sure a certain amount of errors exist in order to fly those routes. The lengthier the flight, the greater the chance there is for errors to exist within the system. Aids which are used to correct an aircraft’s position are DME, and GPS.
A choice between the autopilot and manual flying is the control flying wheel (CWS). Even though it is less used today on modern airliners, CWS is still an option on many aircraft today. In CWS mode, the pilot controls the autopilot through inputs on the control column. The movements which are read by the CWS to a determined heading and attitude, are the transferred to the autopilot which will then hold the aircraft until told to do otherwise. This gives stability in the pitch and roll axis. The hardware of an autopilot varies but it is manufactured with redundancies and high reliability in the event of system error or failure of a component or part. For example, the Rockwell Collins AFDS-770 Autopilot Flight Director System used on the Boeing 777 uses triplicated FCP-2002 microprocessors which have been formally verified and are fabricated in a radiation-resistant process.
Significant relationships are identified between pilots with very recent flying experience and their manual control strategy compared to the use of the autopilot constantly. Results are as followed:
Autopilot reliance which is the root issue has been thought of as an occurrence of pilots who most of the time fly with the autopilot system engaged. Are only confident in their skills and abilities to maneuver or control the path or route of flight of the aircraft using all functions of the system, “HUGE PROBLEM”. Two issues exist from automation dependency:
Here’s a few instances were automation was the leading factor in accidents. Pilots are so used to using automation technology in the cockpit. Experts are worried that some of them lack the skills to manually fly planes. That concern was summarized by the inspector general at the U.S. Department of Transportation, who took the Federal Aviation Administration to task this month, saying the agency does not know how many pilots can take the controls if their electronic systems go dark.
While airlines have long used automation safely to improve efficiency and reduce pilot workload, several recent accidents, including the July 2013 crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214, have shown that pilots who typically fly with automation can make errors when confronted with an unexpected event or transitioning to manual flying. Automation systems in modern aircraft are helping to make air travel safer and more energy efficient than ever. But those same systems can challenge and even confuse the pilots whom passengers rely on to get them to their destination safely. An NPR investigation examined preliminary findings from a study group report in which Federal Aviation Administration, industry and research members warn of problems with the systems.
Also, in collaboration with a group of reporters around the country, NPR analyzed records from a NASA safety watchdog program. A variety of automation-related problems appeared among safety alerts issued by NASA over the past decade. “The Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco International Airport was the result of its crew’s over reliance on automated systems within the plane, among other possible factors such as crew fatigue, the National Transportation Safety Board said, ‘The flight crew over-relied on automated systems that they did not fully understand,’ acting NTSB chairman Christopher Hart said in a meeting discussing Asiana Airlines Flight 214. As a result, they flew the aircraft too low and too slow and collided with the seawall at the end of the runway”(Whitnall, 2014).
“This is one accident of many that has taken lives over a system that pilots don’t fully understand and should. Here’s another one, The FAA issued an emergency airworthiness directive to airlines operating the new Boeing 737 MAX, calling on them to better instruct pilots on how to deal with a potential faulty reading from The directive follows the discovery that the sensor was malfunctioning on a Lion Air 737 MAX that plunged into the sea off Indonesia on Oct. 29, killing all 189 aboard”(Ellis-Peterson, 2018). The accident and the FAA warning, which comes after Boeing issued a similar bulletin, may be less an indication that there’s anything wrong with the new version of Boeing’s top-selling plane than a sign of how increasingly automated flight systems are eroding pilot skills, says Keith Mackey, a Florida-based safety consultant who’s a former airline pilot and accident investigator.
In conclusion, man will continue to travel the skies to get to family, friends, destinations and all different kinds of places for different reasons. Everyday, airplanes take the skies and land without incidence. Flying is still the safest way to travel without a doubt. For an accident to occur it takes a chain of events. If a link is removed from that chain, we will keep flying safe. The goal is to make the skies we fly through much safer for our own good. If we as a people, don’t keep safety in mind who will. Automation is here to stay, and it is not going away, again it’s a great tool if used correctly. But, making the threat it causes go away if misused, should be our number one goal. You just never know what could be accomplished as a group when safety is put at the forefront. Therefore, it is imperative that people don’t sleep on this topic and keep writing about it and doing something about.
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