back to article Aircraft now so automated pilots have forgotten how to fly

The US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) is failing to ensure that American pilots can manually fly passenger jets if the automated systems controlling the aircraft fail, a report by the US Department of Transportation Inspector General has found. "While airlines have long used automation safely to improve efficiency and reduce …

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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Pilots?

    Many years ago a friend of mine who was a pilot for KLM flying 747s joked that soon there would only be a pilot and a dog in the cockpit. The pilot was there to keep the dog company, and the dog was there to bite the pilot if he touched anything.

    1. Dr Scrum Master

      Re: Pilots?

      Sounds like it's time to remove some gold braid from so-called pilots' uniforms.

      I expect more from someone with 4 stripes on their cuffs or epaulets.

      1. Danny 14 Silver badge

        Re: Pilots?

        perhaps he picked the wrong week to give up sniffing glue?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Pilots?

      I heard (probably from the same pilot) that the pilot was there to feed the dog. So he did have some purpose. The dog's function remained the same.

    3. Charlie Clark Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Pilots?

      Works for me. I'm happy to fly in a plane completely controlled by the computer. Or even the dog!

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Re: Pilots?

        In the cockpit, nobody knows that you are just a dog.

        Nobody.

    4. Hans 1 Silver badge

      Re: Pilots?

      > Was that van Zanten, may I ask ?

      1. TaabuTheCat

        Re: Pilots?

        Was that van Zanten, may I ask ?

        Nope. Klaas ...

    5. The Man Who Fell To Earth Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: Pilots?

      This same issue will occur on a massive scale when self driving cars become common. When situations arise where the legally required driver has to take over, they won't have the skills nor the awareness to do so.

      1. Preston Munchensonton
        Facepalm

        Re: Pilots?

        When situations arise where the legally required driver has to take over, they won't have the skills nor the awareness to do so.

        How would anyone tell the difference? We're already at this point.

      2. monkeyfish

        Re: Pilots?

        So what if people can't drive self driving cars? It'll just pull over and wait for someone who can. Whereas planes have a tendency to fall out of the sky at that point.

      3. DanceMan

        Re: drivers?

        Two weeks ago, on the Barnet Highway, a four lane divided road near Vancouver, I saw a Nissan 360 that was probably attempting to cross the road at a traffic light ahead of oncoming traffic do two slow spins before sliding off the road into a ditch about five or six feet below the road. Likely could not catch a slide in a rwd car. Excess of money over skill.

        Don't know if that car has an electronic stability control system.

        1. Robert Heffernan

          Re: drivers?

          @DanceMan It was probably off so the tool could do some circle work

      4. Rasslin ' in the mud

        Re: Pilots?

        My experience is too many people sitting at the wheel of a moving automobile already lack the skills and awareness to be in control of the vehicle. What makes you believe self-driving cars won't be an improvement?

    6. Primus Secundus Tertius Silver badge

      Re: Pilots?

      "The Dog and Pilot" would be a fine pub name.

    7. Sil

      Re: Pilots?

      More than 30 years ago, a school friend whose father was a pilot in a big international airline, told me that the mandatory exams that pilots had to undertake every few years, were a complete joke and that cheating was the norm.

      His father gave him the Playboys and other fancy magazines he had access to (can't remember if in planes or elsewhere), which he discretely sold at school, so he always had hadsome amounts of pocket money.

  2. JeffyPoooh Silver badge
    Pint

    The human pilots just do the easy bits...

    Yeah, taking off and landing. Leave the tricky cruise phase to the computers.

    But yes, there's an element of truth in the concern.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The human pilots just do the easy bits...

      "Yeah, taking off and landing."

      It would be interesting to know how many landings are fully automatic.The technology has existed for some time for situations like fog. Has taking off ever been fully automated - rather than just having technological "assists"?

      As the pyramid of technology advances - people in all walks of life become less able to do even the "simple" jobs that the technology has taken over. The IT industry is on an interesting cusp as people who joined the industry in the still-pioneering 1960/70s are now retiring. With them goes a lot of wide and deep knowledge about what the evolved technology does - and why.

      1. bazza Silver badge

        Re: The human pilots just do the easy bits...

        I think you'll find that most of the pioneers from the 1960s and 70s are already retired. A lot of them are dead and buried.

        Things are very thin in IT. How many people can design silicon chips? Hardly anyone. Even Intel struggle. A lot of their designs are Israeli, because that's where the guys who can do it live.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          bazza?

          What about ARM?

      2. Kobus Botes
        Boffin

        Re: ...how many landings are fully automatic...

        Years ago (more than ten, at least) I was on a flight to Cape Town, landing in driving rain with a gusting cross-wind, in deep dusk. Having experienced a couple, let's say, "interesting" landings, I paid particular attention to how the pilot was handling the plane. There were some very nervous passengers around me and flight attendants were going up and down the aisles reassuring people that they need not worry.

        In the event the landing was one of the smoothest I have experienced, as if there was no wind at all.

        I ws mightily impressed by his skill and passengers broke out in spontaneous applause and cheering all around me. When the noise abated, the pilot announced "Thank you for the applause, ladies and gentlemen, I appreciate it, but the credit must go to the plane, as it landed itself".

        The over-reliance on machines and loss of skills is a worrying factor to me. One can have a long discussion about self-drive cars, for instance (and whilst I very much prefer my car to be under my control (I do not like even ABS and traction control), I do appreciate the benefits that they bring), but I still feel that people want to compensate with automation for something that is largely a lack of proper training.

        (Drifting ever so slightly off-topic here). As far as self-drive cars are concerned, whilst my initial reaction was that it represent a huge mistake, upon reflection I came to the conclusion that there is at least one good case to be made for them, in the case of elderly people or people with physical (and even mental) disabilities who would gain independence without endangering themselves or other road users. And then there are people who should never be allowed near the controls of a car and who definitely need a vicious dog with them, as they have absolutely no clue about what they are or should be doing, who obliviously waft themselves along public roads daily. Self-drive cars should be compulsory for them.

        Mixing wet-ware and silicon-driven cars on the same roads, however, is a recipe for disaster as far as I am concerned. Ideally there should be seperate roadways for each mode of transport, but that is unfortunately completely out of the question.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: ...how many landings are fully automatic...

          "And then there are people who should never be allowed near the controls of a car and who definitely need a vicious dog with them, as they have absolutely no clue about what they are or should be doing, who obliviously waft themselves along public roads daily"

          Yes, it's always some other guy.

          In my experience, pretty much everybody should never be allowed near the controls of a car. Definitly including myself.

          1. boltar Silver badge

            Re: ...how many landings are fully automatic...

            "In my experience, pretty much everybody should never be allowed near the controls of a car. Definitly including myself."

            Given how many miles are driven every day the number of accidents are actually remarkably small. We humans are actually pretty good at driving, but take away that practice and then suddenly expect someone to take control of an automated car in an emergency at 70mph after maybe having not driven for 10 years IS a recipe for disater.

            1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

              Re: ...how many landings are fully automatic...

              "take control of an automated car in an emergency at 70mph after maybe having not driven for 10 years IS a recipe for disater."

              Many years I ago I was quite ill and did';t leave the house for nearly two weeks. It was quite an odd feeling getting back into the car which I would normally have driven at least 60 miles per day every day. I was VERY aware of what was going and felt a bit uncomfortable. I can't imagine what it would be like after a year or more suddenly having to take over in an emergency!

              Having said, we are already seeing it happening now. Cruise control, lane "nudging", automatic headlights (often dazzling in dull conditions or dusk when sidelight are all you need), automatic windscreen wipers etc. leading people, at times, to not take enough care or pay enough attention because the machine normally carries out those functions for them. Especially if they switch to a car without those features.

              I'm seeing a lot more cars (still only a few in reality, bit more than previous years) driving with "no" lights on because the dash is always lit up and the "daylight running lights" are almost like headlights from the drivers perspective (especially some of the LED ones) so they can easily forget to switch on if they don't have automatic ones.

              1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

                Re: ...how many landings are fully automatic... (@ John Brown)

                In general, I agree with what you are saying - about four years ago I was unable to drive for about three months. Getting back behind the wheel took a lot of readjustment.

                However, I have to take issue with one point : "... when sidelight are all you need ..." No, no, no, no, no!! Highway Code, Rule 226: "You MUST use headlights when visibility is seriously reduced, generally when you cannot see for more than 100 metres (328 feet)." The only exception, (which should have been got rid of years ago), is at night on a lit street: Rule 113: You MUST ... use headlights at night, except on a road which has lit street lighting. These roads are generally restricted to a speed limit of 30 mph (48 km/h) unless otherwise specified." Only then is driving on sidelights allowed.

                I drive with my headlights on all the time, even when I rent a car with daylight running lights - I want the back of the car lit up as well as the front.

                1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

                  Re: ...how many landings are fully automatic... (@ John Brown)

                  "However, I have to take issue with one point : "... when sidelight are all you need ..." No, no, no, no, no!! Highway Code, Rule 226: "You MUST use headlights when visibility is seriously reduced, generally when you cannot see for more than 100 metres (328 feet)."

                  I agree, but dawn/dusk, or just a dirty, dark cloudy winters days doesn't reduce visibility to less than a 100 metres but it does seem to trigger the auto headlight on sensor in the cars fitted with them. With normal human eyes adjusted to the lower light conditions, bright LED headlights and the newer high intensity lights can be dazzling in the rear view mirror. "Dazzling" is specifically mentioned in the Highway code as something you should avoid doing to other drivers, but auto on HID lights pretty much do that all the time.

            2. Anonymous Cow Herder

              Re: ...how many landings are fully automatic...

              Hit the nail on the head there, and it applies to aircraft as well.

              I think that pilots are fully capable of flying an aircraft unaided. The problem is that when there is a genuine problem which causes the autopilot to "give up", there is usually some missing information and the pilot is faced with guessing his (or her) way out of it. And usually with not much time.

              Its easy to criticize when things go tragically wrong, but give them a bit of credit.

              http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7832439.stm

        2. The Vociferous Time Waster

          Re: ...how many landings are fully automatic...

          Aren't the separate roads called railways?

          1. Kobus Botes

            Re: ...how many landings are fully automatic...

            @ Vociferous Time Waster

            Depends on where in the world you are. Here where I live lack of vision and political will has over many years (and different governments) led to a serious deterioration in railways. Building a viable, efficient and cost-effective (not necessarily profitable, but the subsidies would be orders of magnitude less than the cost to the economy as a whole of having to transport most goods and people by road) will now be an extremely expensive and hence unpopular option. It would also take much longer than any politician would care to plan for.

        3. breakfast

          Re: ...how many landings are fully automatic...

          "Mixing wet-ware and silicon-driven cars on the same roads, however, is a recipe for disaster as far as I am concerned. Ideally there should be seperate roadways for each mode of transport, but that is unfortunately completely out of the question."

          Your suggestion answers itself in the previous few paragraphs. People are bad enough on the ground, but automated systems can manage flight quite adequately.

          Self-driving flying cars it is. Problem solved.

        4. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: ...how many landings are fully automatic...

          I do not like even ABS and traction control

          Never had traction control, but I am convinced ABS contributed to an accident I once had.

          Driving down a local lane, I failed to stop before hitting the car in front. Under normal circumstances I would have stopped with plenty of clearance (wasn't driving that fast and quite far back), but in this case as I applied the brakes the car drove onto a patch of gravel / mud and instead of locking up and ploughing through the stuff to hit tarmac underneath, the ABS basically refused to let me brake at all. I've had better traction on ice. Fortunately, the car I hit was the wife's and damage was minimal (I said it was slow) so the insurance company wasn't involved.

          I'm also half-convinced that the ABS in "low end" cars isn't all we are lead to believe. The early ABS systems insisted on disc brakes on all four wheels because (apparently) drums couldn't operate quickly enough, yet now this isn't a problem. My suspicion is that what is actually happening is that ABS simply doesn't apply to the rear wheels of such cars. I'm also half-convinced that the brake modulation on these low-end cars is "all or nothing" rather than per-wheel. In the accident I mentioned, two wheels (one front, one rear) were still on tarmac and yet they appeared to add nothing to the braking effort.

          I've never been able to find out for sure though. Does anyone here know?

          1. wiggers

            Re: ...how many landings are fully automatic...

            If there is a considerable loss of resistance on one side of the car (both wheels on gravel) then I can imaging the total braking effort would be reduced. To maintain full effort on the tarmac side could result in a spin.

          2. Dabooka Silver badge

            Re: ...how many landings are fully automatic...

            You're probably correct.

            In most instances, manuals for cars suggest turning such driving aids off in trying to move in snow, mud etc.

          3. DanceMan

            Re: ...ABS...

            I had an 82 Colt (Mitsu Mirage) hatchback and it seemed to be all front brakes and no rear (front discs, rear drums). I even replaced the rear brake shoes thinking I might have glazed them. Made no difference. I later learned that discs and drums have different rates of application applied to braking force achieved. I've suspected that ABS might be able to correct for this but don't know -- hadn't thought of the drums not being able to react quickly enough for ABS. The ultimate problem with that Colt was no weight on the rears, but I haven't had a car with rear drums since and would avoid them.

            I'm on my third version of the same car model, two with ABS and one without. I'll take the ABS.

        5. JimC Silver badge

          Re: ...how many landings are fully automatic...

          Of course the people who really shoudn't be allowed anywhere near a manual car are the under 21s. However I wonder to what extent, if under 21s (far more dangerous than the elderly) were banned from driving the problem would go up the scale a bit.

          Sudden vision though, of a charge of "driving whilst under the influence of raging hormones"...

        6. eldakka Silver badge

          Re: ...how many landings are fully automatic...

          "in the case of elderly people or people with physical (and even mental) disabilities who would gain independence without endangering themselves or other road users."

          Umm, no.

          That's what:

          - buses/trains/public transport;

          - taxi's;

          - uber and other ride-share's;

          - friends/relatives;

          are for.

      3. Drs. Security

        Re: The human pilots just do the easy bits...

        So far as I know there is no fully automated take-off.

        As for fully automated landings there are however very strict rules before a airport, plane and crew are allowed to facilitate or execute a fully automated landing in fog or general bad visibility conditions. Under normal visibility landing is not automated, if one of the minimal two autopilots fails landing can not be fully automated etc.

        As for the comment by Airbus, interesting bit is that even if the pilot takes manual control it's still a computer (partially) flying the plane because of the fly-by-wire system, Boeing planes at least have a "very heavy" according to a airline captain (friend of mine) back-up cable system which fully works on manual aka crew power to move the control services.

        1. Gavin King
          Coat

          Re: The human pilots just do the easy bits...

          "which fully works on manual aka crew power to move the control services."

          The stewardesses on stationary bicycles? Or rowing machines?

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: The human pilots just do the easy bits...

          "even if the pilot takes manual control it's still a computer (partially) flying the plane because of the fly-by-wire system,"

          The engines on most modern passenger jets are computer controlled with no mechanical alternative.

          1. Voyna i Mor Silver badge

            Re: The human pilots just do the easy bits...

            "The engines on most modern passenger jets are computer controlled with no mechanical alternative."

            I hope all of them. A modern aircraft engine (and a modern car engine for that matter) is too complex to be controlled by mechanical systems.

            I certainly would not want to be riding the Velocette I had as a kid on modern roads, with its manual A/R to worry about as well as the gears and the throttle. In those days there was time to play with the lever safely in traffic. Not so nowadays.

            1. boltar Silver badge

              Re: The human pilots just do the easy bits...

              "I hope all of them. A modern aircraft engine (and a modern car engine for that matter) is too complex to be controlled by mechanical systems."

              Err, the electronics ARE the complexity, they're not a side effect of it! Fuel injection and ignition timing could still be done by mechanical systems if you're prepared for worse emissions and fuel economy.

              1. Vic

                Re: The human pilots just do the easy bits...

                Fuel injection and ignition timing could still be done by mechanical systems

                Gas turbines don't tend to have breaker ignitions...

                Vic.

                1. boltar Silver badge

                  Re: The human pilots just do the easy bits...

                  "Gas turbines don't tend to have breaker ignitions..."

                  Gas turbines are even simpler than piston engines. They barely need any systems at all - just a starter system, igniter and fuel flow control.

                  1. Anonymous Coward
                    Anonymous Coward

                    Re: The human pilots just do the easy bits...

                    "[gas turbines] barely need any systems at all - just a starter system, igniter and fuel flow control."

                    That's not far wrong, if you go back to Whittle's days.

                    We're not in Whittle's days any more, as the nice people in Derby would be only too pleased to explain.

                    Modern RR big jets have lots of precision engineering, and tight tolerances on that precision engineering allow the engines to work efficiently and (ideally) safely. Probably the same with the competition's big jets too (GE etc).

                    Even in the 1980s, digital "performance trimming" systems were being used on production RB211 s to optimise fuel flow rates in conjunction with a clockwork (ok, hydromechanical) primary fuel flow controller (whose failure modes and effects were widely known and largely predictable).

                    Nowadays the fuel flow control is driven by computer(s): a full authority digital engine control system. The fuel flow control output (which is really the only significant control output, there's lots of others but mostly they're "just" sequencers and interlocks, etc) is derived from input air temperature and pressure, engine speed, and throttle lever angle, and maybe a few other odds and ends.

                    They could go back to clockwork, but there would be a *massive* reduction in efficiency. The reduction is bigger than you might initially expect because clockwork is less accurate than electronics, which means an electronically controlled one can be driven much closer to the engine's ultimate mechanical (shaft RPM) and thermal (blade temperature etc) limits, whereas a clockwork one requires much more generous safety margins.

                    1. boltar Silver badge

                      Re: The human pilots just do the easy bits...

                      "They could go back to clockwork, but there would be a *massive* reduction in efficiency."

                      ITYF thats what I said in my original post. The point was you don't need the electronics, they're useful but not absolutely essential.

                  2. Vic

                    Re: The human pilots just do the easy bits...

                    Gas turbines are even simpler than piston engines. They barely need any systems at all - just a starter system, igniter and fuel flow control.

                    Errr - you might want to take a look at a functioning jet engine.

                    Although they're theoretically very simple, getting one to work involves a fair bit of complexity.

                    Vic.

                    1. boltar Silver badge

                      Re: The human pilots just do the easy bits...

                      "Errr - you might want to take a look at a functioning jet engine."

                      "Although they're theoretically very simple, getting one to work involves a fair bit of complexity."

                      The complexity is in the construction, not the operation.

                      1. Anonymous Coward
                        Anonymous Coward

                        Re: The human pilots just do the easy bits...

                        "The complexity is in the construction, not the operation."

                        There certainly is complexity in the construction; e.g. single crystal turbine blades operating in exhaust gases hot enough to melt the blades, which therefore need internal cooling to keep things working (this is one reason not to fly through volcano ash clouds, whatever Ryanair might tell you).

                        I don't know if you are familiar with what goes into the operation of a modern engine controller (FADEC). I used to know some people that understood some of that stuff.

                        The stuff that goes into a modern FADEC is not just about normal operation, it's also about problem prevention (e.g. preventing an engine surge) and trouble recovery (e.g. excess water ingestion).

                        And then there are a zillion and one interlocks (a readily understandable one might be the one that prevents reverse thrust being operated during flight). And there are (often) ancillary functions such as bleed air and anti-icing that affect engine behaviour.

                        Then there's all the in-flight diagnostics and fault codes for when things don't behave as expected, and the self test functions so that aircraft don't dispatch when stuff is broken, and that ensure smooth changeover from master system to slave system in the event of a control system (or sensor, or actuator) fault.

                        How much of that was there in Whittle's day? Very little. But without it, a modern engine wouldn't exist.

                        It's complicated.

                      2. Vic

                        Re: The human pilots just do the easy bits...

                        The complexity is in the construction, not the operation.

                        Not for a liquid-fuelled jet, it isn't. Fuel flow is a critical operation - too fast and you overheat the turbine, too slow and you flame out.

                        Take a look at the Hunter turbine failures for what happens if you over-fuel. They were notorious for it.

                        Temperature is critical for the safe operation of a gas turbine engine - if it gets too hot, it can fail in seconds. That's why early transport aircraft carried a Flight Engineer, whose main job was to keep the engines at optimum temperature. Modern FADEC systems have largely replaced that job, but temperature monitoring is still a major part of the flight crew's job.

                        Vic.

                        1. Anonymous Coward
                          Anonymous Coward

                          Re: The human pilots just do the easy bits...

                          "Temperature is critical for the safe operation of a gas turbine engine - if it gets too hot, it can fail in seconds"

                          Same goes for shaft RPM, except the timescales to failure are potentially even shorter so there's little point crew monitoring it, only an engine-mounted system can realistically do that (e.g. in the unlikely but not impossible case of a shaft break between turbine and compressor, the turbine overspeeds very very rapidly). See e,g.

                          https://www.atsb.gov.au/publications/investigation_reports/2010/aair/ao-2010-089/si-02.aspx

                          "The airworthiness directive required all Trent 900 engines to be modified within 10 flight cycles."

                          In days gone by, for reasons of resilience and compute power the overspeed protection was sometimes in a different box from the engine control FADEC (e.g. some Trent engines). Nowadays there's a good chance it's part of the FADEC box.

                          Either way, if an overspeed ultimately leads to an uncontained failure (QF32 was an uncontained failure) the consequences may well be quite drastic.

                          Not sure where this "it's not very complex" is coming from.

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