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How Much Does Autopilot Govern Flying Aircraft?

How Much Does Autopilot Govern Flying Aircraft?

Autopilot is a system designed to allow the flight of an aircraft without hands on control. But how much are pilots really relying on this?

Written by Carl Rackman

Several years ago, I was on a long flight going East. We were flying what was called a ‘heavy’ (or augmented) crew; Two co-pilots and a Captain. As the ‘heavy’ co-pilot, I would occupy the jump seat for taxi and takeoff, then return to the rest area for a break before coming back to sit in for each pilot in turn as they took their respective breaks. When the last break was over, I would resume my place in the jump seat for approach and landing.

On long flights, the breaks could last over three hours. It was a nice way to go to work!

I was returning from my break walking up the right-hand aisle when I saw the Captain walking towards me on his way to the first-class toilet (not all aircraft have the luxury of a dedicated toilet for the flight crew!).

At this point, the operating First Officer was still in the flight deck flying the aircraft. But the passengers began to look worried. Both pilots were in the cabin. Who was flying the plane?

The misunderstanding was quickly averted by explaining the presence of the other pilot still on the flight deck. I couldn’t resist saying his name was “Otto Pilot”, and nobody seemed worried. Their trust was in the powers of the autopilot.

To the travelling public, and society “on autopilot” is an expression of acceptance that truly independent AI has been amongst us for decades in the form of intelligent robotic aircraft. All the pilot does, says the popular lore, is push the button and the plane flies itself. If somebody says “Sorry, I was on autopilot” they mean they were carrying out some habitual or practised action that did not require their full attention.

The perception is clear that ‘autopilot’ is a magical computerised process that takes all the thought process from the human, and delegates it to a machine.

As pilots, we are up against a monolithic set of myths and cultural perceptions about flying. There is no connection between autopilot and human pilot in public awareness.

In all my years of welcoming visitors to the flight deck, the same three things always crop up in the initial exchanges; “Wow it’s small in here!”, “Do you know what all these buttons do?” and “How much do you fly, or is it always on autopilot?”

The point is, autopilot is a tool. It’s like using Siri instead of making a web search yourself.

Flying manually occupies vast amounts of a pilot’s attention. The brain is consumed with coordination, reducing the capacity available for perception and cognition. Thinking ahead is demanded from just a sliver of available capacity. Using autopilot takes the coordination chunk away from the pilot, leaving that big chunk of capacity available for thinking ahead, which is so critical to safe operation. The pilot is still flying the aircraft, they’re just using the low-capacity autopilot command console, instead of the high capacity ‘stick and rudder’.

When I began commercial airline flying in 2002, the old salts were already decrying the degradation of stick and rudder skills among the new arrivals. By the time I finished in 2016, the new generation of airliners like the A380 and 787 were causing raised eyebrows at the type of pilot who didn’t “get” automation and information management. The stick and rudder aficionados were now those who lacked the requisite skills.

“Adapt or die” is an evolutionary concept, but in the flying world, it is literally true. The number of fatal accidents in commercial aviation has dropped dramatically since the 1970s. Per million flights, the number is now less than a quarter what it was in 1978.

“Tombstone Tech”, the engineering and electronic advances that have derived from fatal accident investigations, continue to save lives every day. Stick shakers, TCAS, and GPWS have all been introduced and refined, reducing the occurrence of accidents.

But the percentage of accidents attributable to various causes has remained static. Around 60-70% of fatal accidents since 1946 are attributable to human error. Though CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain) tops the list (in the ongoing conflict between mountains and aircraft, the aircraft has yet to win), Loss Of Control is establishing itself as a solid second place, while Maintenance Issues has been pushed to third.

In a study of 2015 accident statistics by leading manufacturer Boeing, Loss Of Control was the highest single cause of fatal accidents.

Loss of control in the public imagination conjures up thoughts of old war movies, with pilots desperately trying to pull the aircraft out of a dive while it spirals into the ground. In today’s reality, it is a cognitive problem with automation. In almost every case, the autoflight system was behaving as it was programmed to do, whether in a primary of degraded mode. The problem arose from the pilot’s incorrect recognition of the situation, making an inappropriate response which led to loss of control.

Today’s airline pilots are products of 21st Century airline training culture. Process-based, well-versed in automation, rigorously trained in CRM and problem-solving management. In all these cases, handing over control is a recommended practice. Relieved of the burden of flying the aircraft, the brain has time and space to think and work the problem, generating options and solutions and having the time to organise people both on board, and on the ground to increase the chances of a successful conclusion.

Tomorrow’s pilots will have been raised on electronic communications, immersive video games and social media. Aircraft Automation, and the way it communicates with humans, may well make flying even safer as the next tech-savvy generation of pilots move up to take their jobs.

But that’s not the whole problem. Mechanical and electronic systems can fail, sometimes spectacularly, as Captain Richard de Crespigny of QANTAS found on an early training flight in the A380. Only the flight crew’s managed, team-based approach led to such a successful conclusion to a very complex and threatening situation.

Likewise, when multiple birdstrikes snuffed out both Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s A319 engines, it needed a confident handling pilot to land a crippled aircraft on a river, and walk away without getting his feet wet.

Automation is here to stay, and aircraft will only become more automated. But don’t neglect the stick and rudder skills. If an aircraft has a physical interface, pilots will need to know how to fly!

Statistics About Autopilot


• Loss Of Control In Flight (LOC-I) accidents are nearly always catastrophic; 97% of all LOC-I incidents resulted in fatalities to passengers and/or crew.

• LOC-I is now the leading cause of fatal accident after improvements in CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain) and System/Component Failure.

• 34% of these LOC-I accidents were attributed to flight control/automation issues, with 5% of this being automation.

• 26% were due to incorrectly following or applying standard operating procedures.

Notable Accidents In The Past Ten Years Directly Attributable To Flight Crew Confusion, And Unfamiliarity With Autoflight Modes And Known Issues

• AF447, Air France A330 – crashed into the Atlantic east of Brazil on 1 June 2009. 228 fatalities, no survivors.

• OZ214, Asiana Airlines Boeing 777-200ER - crashed on landing at San Francisco International on 6 July 2013. 3 fatalities, 304 survivors.

• CJC3407, Colgan Air Bombardier Q400 - crashed during approach at Buffalo, NY on 12 Feb 2009. 50 fatalities, no survivors.

• TK1951, Turkish Airlines Boeing 737-800 - crashed short of the runway at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport on 25 Feb 2009. 9 fatalities, 126 survivors.

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