Journalist and private pilot William Langeweische writes in Vanity Fair last month that the Air France 447 crash may have more to do with automation than previously thought:
The problem is that beneath the surface simplicity of glass cockpits, and the ease of fly-by-wire control, the designs are in fact bewilderingly baroque—all the more so because most functions lie beyond view. Pilots can get confused to an extent they never would have in more basic airplanes. When I mentioned the inherent complexity to Delmar Fadden, a former chief of cockpit technology at Boeing, he emphatically denied that it posed a problem, as did the engineers I spoke to at Airbus. Airplane manufacturers cannot admit to serious issues with their machines, because of the liability involved, but I did not doubt their sincerity. Fadden did say that once capabilities are added to an aircraft system, particularly to the flight-management computer, because of certification requirements they become impossibly expensive to remove. And yes, if neither removed nor used, they lurk in the depths unseen. But that was as far as he would go.
Sarter has written extensively about “automation surprises,” often related to control modes that the pilot does not fully understand or that the airplane may have switched into autonomously, perhaps with an annunciation but without the pilot’s awareness. Such surprises certainly added to the confusion aboard Air France 447. One of the more common questions asked in cockpits today is “What’s it doing now?” Robert’s “We don’t understand anything!” was an extreme version of the same. Sarter said, “We now have this systemic problem with complexity, and it does not involve just one manufacturer. I could easily list 10 or more incidents from either manufacturer where the problem was related to automation and confusion. Complexity means you have a large number of subcomponents and they interact in sometimes unexpected ways. Pilots don’t know, because they haven’t experienced the fringe conditions that are built into the system. I was once in a room with five engineers who had been involved in building a particular airplane, and I started asking, ‘Well, how does this or that work?’ And they could not agree on the answers. So I was thinking, If these five engineers cannot agree, the poor pilot, if he ever encounters that particular situation . . . well, good luck.”
Airline pilot Patrick Smith, while acknowledging Langeweische's skills as a writer and his previously excellent reporting on aviation, calls B.S.:
I’m not arguing that pilots’ hands-on flying skill have probably become degraded over the years. But this is because a newer set of skills is required to master the job. A high level of competence is demanded in both skill sets, but it’s unfair, and wrong, to contend this newer set is somehow less important or less valuable than the other.
Neither is it anything easy to learn or master. The most frustrating take-away from the Vanity Fair story is that unless and until something goes wrong, flying modern planes is essentially effortless and without much challenge. The author’s point about the erosion of hands-on airmanship is a useful conversation. However, his contention that piloting jetliners is somehow easy, and his at-times cartoonish descriptions of what the job actually entails, is where the article falls apart (and pisses me off).
Professionals of all kinds will often describe a particular task as “easy.” What they mean, more correctly, is that it’s often routine; they are used to it. That’s not the same thing as easy. Try to imagine how much work — technologically, logistically, and so on — goes into getting a widebody jetliner with hundreds of people on it from one continent to another? It can be very routine, but nothing about it is easy.
Lawsuits are still ongoing.