Air Transport World

Mastering autoflight. (automated aircraft) (Cockpit Concerns) (Cover Story)

Why are pilots having problems with automated aircraft? Why is hearing a pilot say: "What is it doing now?" or "why did it do that?" not uncommon? Are highly automated cockpits turning out to be too much of a challenge?

These questions are the subject of an international inquiry by U.S. and European authorities. But the opinions vary widely. Answers are complex, as are the questions. The focus of the probe has evolved from a feature called "autopilot," into the fully integrated autoflight system, a complex but integral part of the modern airliner. Autoflight demands a different skill level of pilots.

"[It] presents a major challenge to some pilots," says Richard Duxbury, a 27-year pilot who also is vice safety chairman for ALPA and chief accident investigator with Northwest Airlines .

"If the pilot doesn't like computers, he will not like flying these airplanes," said Duxbury, a Boeing 757 pilot training on the 747-400. "Automation works very well in normal circumstances but in abnormal situations or emergencies it requires more communication to make sure the other guy knows what's going on. Some pilots cannot check out on these aircraft, and some who do complete training return to their former aircraft later because they do not enjoy this type [of] flying," Duxbury claimed.

For some Northwest pilots, the 757 or 747-400 may be the first encounter with a highly automated aircraft and "the pilot must adjust to a glass cockpit, new symbology and computers. The A320 adds the sidestick controller and nonmoving throttles to the adjustment."

Duxbury said although he has flown the 757 for more than four years, his systems knowledge is not as high as on older aircraft and this caused "some discomfort. But I adjusted."

Earl Wiener, a human-factors expert and NASA researcher, understood Duxbury's adjustments. "The human being has long been a shock absorber for bad design. But sometimes, the human is pushed beyond limits and accidents or incidents happen."

A key autoflight problem is improper mode awareness," Wiener said, which occurs when the pilot selects the improper autopilot mode or chooses a mode and does not understand the implications for later flight. He noted that one accident in an Airbus aircraft occurred because of such confusion.

"In this case, after capturing the ILS, the autopilot must be disengaged with a switch. Merely adding pressure to the control column will not disengage it. …

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