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Last week, Harry Nelson, former Vice President of Airbus flight test department, warned about pilots relying too much on automation, and that airlines need to better train their flight crews who may have become complacent and may not be capable of adequately manually flying the aircraft should automation fail.

The crash of Asiana Airlines flight 214 in San Francisco in 2013 was a clear example of a flight crew that lost competence through over-reliance on automation.  Asiana’s standard procedures for a pilot are to switch on autopilot shortly after takeoff, and utilize the auto landing systems coupled to airport instrument landing systems at airports for landings.  The day of the crash, the ILS was under repair at SFO, but since the weather was clear, visual landings could easily be undertaken.  Every other flight that day had no problems, but the Asiana crew, less accustomed to manually landing the aircraft, miscalculated their approach and crashed near the end of the runway, resulting in a three fatalities, multiple injuries, and a written off aircraft, all due to a lack of experience in basic flying skills.

Automation and Flying Skills

The A320 was designed, from its outset, differently from the Boeing 737, and presented an advance in cockpit automation.  With fly-by-wire controls, Airbus could introduce software to preclude certain “edge of the envelope” situations from occurring, easing the burden for flight training, as the aircraft was easier to fly – assuming all of the automation systems continue to operate properly.  But that doesn’t always happen.

Four months ago, a Lufthansa A321 rapidly descended without command from cruise altitude at 4,000 feet per minute until pilots could re-gain control on the aircraft. EASA, the European equivalent to the FAA, issued an Airworthiness Directive to modify the aircraft flight manual, as it traced the fault to two angle of attack sensors that failed, resulting in the “alpha protection” software for the airplane coming into play.  “Alpha protection” software is built into every Airbus aircraft to prevent the aircraft from exceeding its performance limits in angle of attack, and kicks in automatically when those limits are reached.

The larger question is whether simply changing the flight manual, rather than the “alpha protection” software itself, was the most appropriate response to the situation of a potential sensor failure.

Could the crash earlier this year of an Air Asia A320 in Indonesia after an apparent attempt to climb during a thunderstorm  also relate to software?  The relevant facts are still not in, and we may never know.  With an increase in angle of attack and a potential aerodynamic stall as the result of a climb in turbulent weather, one would expect the “alpha protection” software to kick-in if an aerodynamic stall was imminent.  The aircraft did crash, and while we don’t yet know why, we do know that the margin for error at cruise speeds at high altitude are quite thin, and even thinner during turbulence.

A computer controlling an aircraft is only as good as the data it receives, and as the sensor failures on the Lufthansa aircraft illustrated that the old computer adage “garbage-in, garbage-out” still applies.  In that case, the garbage in was a sensor reading too high an angle of attack, which resulted in the computer pointing the aircraft nose down into a dive several times a normal rate of descent.  The experience of that flight crew enabled them to overcome the software commanded descent and re-gain control of the aircraft.  But as we’ve seen with the Asiana crash in San Francisco, not all crews are adept in manually flying an aircraft.

The aircraft industry has moved to fly-by-wire and computer controls, because they are lighter in weight and equally as effective as mechanical devices.  They may even be, from a maintenance standpoint, superior, in that electrical components rarely wear out, while mechanical components do.  These components have become dependable and reliable.

The issue that comes into play is what happens when something goes wrong.  The A320 began life on the wrong foot, as its software caused a crash of a prototype at an air show in Habsheim France before the aircraft entered service. The first version of the “alpha protection” software meant to prevent crashes assumed the low pass of the aircraft (under 50 ft. on the radar altimeter) signaled an attempted landing and brought the aircraft down into a forest, despite the pilot’s efforts not to land during the demonstration.  While this flaw was clearly fixed before the aircraft was certified, it illustrated the dangers of overly-ambitious software to protect against an inattentive pilot.

When everything is working correctly, it is easy for an aircraft to fly on an automated basis.  But the reason we have two highly trained individuals in the front seats is to utilize their judgment and experience to offer the best chance at recovering from a potentially life threatening situation when something goes wrong.  And, unfortunately, things do go wrong, albeit quite rarely.  But when they do there is little room for error or vacillation in decision-making.

Several years ago Air France flight AF447 had a pitot tube freeze at altitude in a thunderstorm in the South Atlantic off the coast of Brazil that caused the airspeed indicator to report erratic speeds.  An autopilot and the Airbus “alpha protection” software would react to that data as it was programmed to do, likely pushing the aircraft nose down if the speed read too low, or pulling the nose up if the speed read too high.  But at cruise altitudes in turbulent weather, it doesn’t take much of a correction to put an airplane in jeopardy, and into an aerodynamic stall that could result in the loss of control of the aircraft.  In this case, the pilots did not react in time, likely mesmerized by the myriad of warning messages appearing from the automated systems failing, failed to push the nose down and manually fly the aircraft, and the aircraft was lost.

The question that must be asked is whether there should be a kill switch for the “alpha protection” system to enable the pilots to directly fly the airplane in a direct “analog to digital” mode, with the aircraft reacting directly to how the pilots operate their controls.  Both Boeing, in its 777 and 787, and Bombardier in its CSeries provide that option for their fly-by-wire systems.  Airbus does not, and uses the same “alpha protection” across all its product lines as the standard operating mode.  The choice fundamentally comes down to who do you trust – the pilot or the computer.

As an experienced pilot with aerobatic training, I fully understand the limitations of airplane performance and edge of the envelope maneuvers.  I took a course in aerobatics to learn how to control an aircraft in any attitude, and learn how to safely get out of trouble in the event of an unusual situation.  As a result, I understand that in certain situations, such as an aerobatic tail slide, crossing controls in ways one would never contemplate in normal flight are required to maintain control of an aircraft in an unusual attitude.  In an emergency, if similar maneuvers were needed, they would likely be over-ridden by computers in an Airbus, but likely allowed in a Boeing or Bombardier in “manual” mode.

The “alpha protection” system is a nice idea.  But truly effective and intelligent software would be continually evaluating multiple pieces of data to determine whether it might be receiving false data from a faulty sensor prior to plunging an aircraft downward into a nose dive.  If one is flying straight and level, at the same speed and altitude and throttle setting, yet the sensor shows a change in angle of attack, the result would mathematically and physically impossible, and needs to be checked.  An upward change in angle of attack would have the aircraft climbing, and speed dropping unless additional throttle was added.  One would think that advanced software would continually check the logic of multiple readings to ensure that sensors and instruments were consistent with each other and the laws of physics, and alert the pilot when an anomaly occurs.  But apparently, there is a shortcoming in Airbus’ decision logic within the software itself, as demonstrated by the recent Airworthiness Directive that warned pilots of the issue in the manual, but did not address the fundamental problem in the coding.

Compounding the issue today are cyber-security issues that transcend logic flaws, and could open the aircraft to malware or malicious attacks. Physical as well as software protections are needed.  The ideal answer to the problem may require a redesign and new software standards for avionics, flight management systems, and fly-by-wire controls. To effectively accomplish that, we’ll need physical separation of sat-com links with physical as well as software firewalls, and likely a next generation computer language that can be firmly secured against attack, can leverage advanced communication technologies, is productive to program with, and can incorporates advanced decision-logic and intelligence that can detect data or communication faults prior to issuing commands to aircraft systems.  Such technology is within reach today, and the industry needs a massive upgrade of its capabilities to design more effective aircraft control systems and avionics, and mitigate risks.

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