Last October, a new Boeing 737 MAX 8, owned by Lion Air and flown by its pilots, crashed in Indonesia. At the time, the automated flight-control features were widely discussed, along with the abilities of the pilots to respond properly.
Even though 2018 was logged as the third-safest year in terms of airliner crashes, the crash brought to the forefront, once again, the interaction between human pilots and automatic controls in the commercial jets. And it, thus, magnifies the pressure on Boeing, Airbus and others to correctly “calibrate the right mix of computer automation and pilot control.” William Voss, former U.S. and international safety official, has said that, “The industry must figure out new ways to effectively develop flying skills and enhance training so pilots can better respond to emergencies.” Without exception, from takeoff to landing and in zero visibility weather, computers on board the commercial aircraft can operate the plane’s systems. And, they often do just that, with pilots on board to monitor the systems and prepare for anything unexpected, but typically spending only a few minutes during each trip actually flying the airplane. During the Lion Air flight of 11 minutes before crashing, its pilots struggled to counteract what they believed to be a malfunction of the new stall-prevention system which they determined to be pushing the nose down further than it should be. Investigators have since said that the aircraft wasn’t actually in danger of stalling from the nose-down position. However, the attempted corrections were apparently due to the lack of knowledge of the new system and have thus led to additional discussions of how to automate planes while at the same time equipping the pilots with the information needed to override systems if need be. Aircraft designers and training experts are looking into ways to ensure that future generations of pilots (who have been trained by touch-screen technology and led to believe that it is infallible) are, in addition, also highly trained in the essential hand-flying and decision-making skills which made the flying industry what it is today. And, the challenge is that the industry is estimating the global need for 750,000 new commercial pilots over the next two decades. Because planes today generally fly themselves for long periods of time, the pilots – unless trained to be ever-aware of system functions – can be lulled into just riding along, rather than actually being in command of piloting the plane. This vigilance is needed when the system’s displays show urgent warning sounds and messages. A plane’s crew – unless highly trained – can, in effect, trip over themselves trying to both control the plane and manage the flight system. Boeing has focused on giving crews the ability to override almost any automated system without disabling the underlying systems. But, then, there is always the possibility that the override will be incorrect. Thus, the need for a higher level of pilot training – An expanding industry opportunity for the immediate future.