AirAsia flight QZ8501 crash: Airlines had been warned about over-reliance on automation 16 months ago

Report from US safety regulators expressed 'concerns about degradation of pilot knowledge and skills'

Simon Calder@SimonCalder
Wednesday 31 December 2014 17:31
Highly automated: An Airbus A320 passenger aircraft
Highly automated: An Airbus A320 passenger aircraft

At the end of a year in which public attention was gripped by air disasters, the first bodies of victims of Sunday’s AirAsia crash arrived back in the Indonesian city of Surabaya.

The victims - one male, one female - were unloaded in numbered coffins from an Air Force transport plane in a sombre ceremony on the airport apron.

Three days earlier they had boarded flight QZ8501 at Surabaya, destination Singapore. Forty-two minutes into the flight, the Airbus A320 crashed into the Java Sea south-west of Borneo, killing all 162 passengers and crew.

As safety officials investigate how and why the pilots lost control of the jet, it has emerged that airlines were warned about over-reliance on automation 16 months ago. A report from US safety regulators expressed “concerns about degradation of pilot knowledge and skills” because modern aircraft are so technologically advanced.

The loss of Air France flight 447 five years ago, in which 228 people died, was due to pilot errors when equipment malfunctioned in stormy equatorial skies. Investigators in Indonesia will consider the possibility of inappropriate pilot responses among possible causes of the AirAsia crash.

The FAA’s Flight Deck Automation Working Group warned in September 2013 of “a perceived erosion in basic knowledge required to manage the flight path” and called for pilots to practice flying manual during normal passenger operations.

Pilot and co-pilot of the Indonesian air force keep a look out during search and rescue operations for the missing AirAsia flight QZ8501

The group, comprising safety officials, aircraft manufacturers and airline executives, emphasised the extremely safe nature of 21st-century aviation - with the Flight Management System (FMS) an essential component. But the report warned that the dependence on automation could erode basic flying competence:

“Use of automated systems has not replaced the need for basic knowledge and skills, including hand flying, instrument cross-check, system knowledge and maintaining situation awareness and aircraft state awareness”.

The report said that long-term over-reliance on technology “may atrophy the skills needed to anticipate, monitor and react”. It called for “procedures that enable the practice, development and retention of manual flying skills”.

Airlines should encourage pilots to rely less on on-board computers - and tell them to switch from automated flight management to manual control during passenger flights: “Pilots should have opportunities to practice manual flight operations when appropriate.”

Sketchy data about the flight from radar will be augmented when the aircraft’s cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder - the “black boxes” - are recovered and interrogated. A specially equipped Singaporean search vessel, MV Swift Rescue, is due to reach the crash site at 2pm local time on New Year’s Day to look for the recorders.

A coffin of a victim of AirAsia flight QZ8501 is transferred from a local hospital in Pangkalan Bun, the town with the nearest airstrip to the crash site of AirAsia flight QZ8501, in Central Kalimantan

The operation to recover bodies and debris was hampered on New Year’s Eve by high winds and rain. Meanwhile, speculation in South-East Asia has taken a macabre turn, focusing on the state of the bodies. There have been contradictory reports about whether one passenger was wearing a life jacket, and assertions that some victims appeared to be holding hands. But an aviation expert said little could be deduced from the dead passengers and crew.

“The state of bodies will tell us only that there was an impact, and we know that already,” said David Learmount, Operations and Safety Editor for Flightglobal. “The boxes will tell us the truth.”

Key recommendations from the FAA’s Flight Deck Automation Working Group

* The vulnerability in manual flight operations is a critical area that must be addressed

* Procedures that enable the practice, development and retention of manual flying skills are necessary

* Pilots must be prepared for dealing with the unexpected

* Focus on flight-path management, rather than automated systems.

* Airlines must identify appropriate opportunities for manual flight operations.

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