Autopilots 'turn crew into machine-minders and threaten safety'

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The Independent Online

"Autopilot" is a word from aviation that has entered common usage, but the increasing use of computers on aircraft is potentially dangerous, according to pilots.

Senior aircrew believe that the growing reliance on electronics has reduced pilots to "machine minders'' with a decreasing ability to fly the planes manually.

Manufacturers are being warned that the principal cause of passenger deaths - "controlled flight into terrain", where the aircraft is deliberately aimed at the ground - is being caused by the domination of computers.

Malcolm Scott, a senior British Airways pilot, warned that in an emergency flight crew could be misled in to shutting down the wrong engine.

Writing in The Log, the journal of the British Airline Pilots' Association (Bapa), he says that Ecam, an electronic aid to decision making, can actually give the wrong advice.

He gives the example of a bird-strike encountered just after take-off by an Airbus A320. "One engine indicates an engine fire that is delivering full power, while the other engine has failed ... The Ecam prioritises the fire and instructs the crew to shut down the only engine delivering thrust. To follow the Ecam would result in the certain loss of the aircraft,'' Mr Scott writes.

He said that he had demonstrated the scenario on a simulator, but the senior training captain concerned was convinced that Ecam must be right and must be followed.

Mr Scott argued that in the late Nineties the industry was facing a crossroads - the pilots could either be progressively "designed out'' of the system or aircraft engineers could ensure that the captain's role was strengthened. Mr Scott believes the aviation industry has "more or less abandoned'' the era of the pilot.

He said his employer was increasingly discouraging manual flying on its Airbus fleet. "This has led to a de-skilled workforce with a consequent rise in manual flying errors,'' he writes. Mr Scott believes that the trend will lead to fully automated airliners. A transition phase would be a fully automatic aircraft with one human "systems monitor'' on board.

He called for better training so that instead of instructing pilots to follow computers blindly, they would be educated about their fallibility. "We need to develop procedures that take advantage of human strength while being tolerant of human weaknesses,'' he writes.

Mervyn Granshaw, chairman of the association and a working pilot, said that the industry had been warned about the concerns on the flight deck. "It might be time to get a grip on the situation, although it might be too late,'' he said. He believes that Airbus had gone further in reducing the input of pilots than Boeing.

"The great thing about computers is that they can process that amount of data and give you answers, but they are not perfect. There are scenarios that have not been thought about. It's not because we as pilots are special or precious, but that the human intellect has something to contribute."