Autopilots and Lawyers take Flying Time away from Pilots, Increase Stalls

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 3rd, 2013

Week in Review

Flying has never been safer.  Air craft incidents make the news because they are so rare.  Such as two planes clipping wings on the tarmac.  And any crash is on the news 24 hours a day.  Because they are so rare that statistically they just don’t happen.  But as rare as they are they still happen.  And planes fall out of the sky (see Crash investigator urges stall training for pilots by Bart Jansen posted 10/30/2013 on USA Today).

A federal crash investigator urged a conference of aviation safety officials Tuesday to better train pilots to avoid stubborn problems such as stalls.

Earl Weener, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, recalled four separate fatal crashes over the past two decades that he said involved stalls, with pilots basically pulling the plane’s nose up too much until the aircraft fell to the ground.

“The question in my mind is why did the crew continue to pull back on the elevator all the way to the ground,” Weener told about 300 people attending the Flight Safety Foundation’s International Aviation Safety Summit, rather than leveling off to regain power and speed.

Lack of training is feared to be one culprit…

A NASA study of voluntary reporting by pilots found stalls 28% of the time while cruising at high altitude, Weener said. And an airline database study by the International Air Transport Association found 27% of stalls occurred while cruising, he said.

But a survey found only 26% of airlines trained for high-altitude stalls – even though 71% of stalls occur when the autopilot is typically engaged, Weener said.

Lack of training?  With 71% of stalls happening while flying on autopilot try lack of flying.

Most accidents today are pilot error.  Is it because we have bad pilots?  No.  It’s because we’re not letting them fly.  In the risk-averse world we live in today we try to avoid all risk.  We have autopilot systems that are so sophisticated that they can fly a plane without a pilot aboard.  In our litigious society airlines feel machines will make fewer mistakes than people.  So they have the machines fly the plane most of the time.  While pilots monitor the systems.  Entering set-points into the flight computers.  While the computers fly the plane.  And when there is a problem pilots try to get the flight computers working.  Instead of taking the controls themselves.

Before pilots turned flying over to the machines they flew the planes.  They felt the planes.  They listened to the planes.  And flew by the seat of their pants.  If there was an odd vibration they felt it.  If there was an engine problem they heard it.  And if the plane stalled they felt it in the pit of their stomach.  And instinctively pushed forward on the column and applied full power. 

Today, because of lawyers, airlines want pilots to fix the autopilot.  Not take the controls.  So the machines can start flying again as soon as possible.  As they feel they are less likely to make a mistake than a pilot doing some real flying.  Unfortunately, a machine will only fly as well as a human can tell it to fly.  By entering those set-points.  And if the human makes a mistake at data entry the computer will assume that the human didn’t make a mistake.  And follow those instructions exactly.  Even if the plane flies into the ground.  Or stalls and falls out of the sky.

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