It’s easy to overlook the amount of physical and mental work humans no longer have to do thanks to computers. Computers can now drive vehicles and, when the bugs are ironed out, will, no doubt, make driving safer. For decades, air travel has become safer because of the increased use of computers. Pilots just input the flight plan and other data then sit back to let the computer fly the plane. In short, human beings’ lives have improved significantly thanks to computers. Most people, however, are unaware of the insidious dangers behind this over-dependence on technology.
The media rarely highlights it, preferring to concentrate on the more sensational subject of technology’s threat to jobs. Yet the big threat is not that some humans will lose their jobs, but that even those who keep their jobs will lose many of the mental and physical skills they previously required because technology will do most of the difficult work.
This computer dependency has serious implications for the airline industry. In their daily work, pilots of big passenger jets have few opportunities to keep their basic flying skills sharp because computers do most of the work for them. As a result, and because serious computer malfunctions are so rare, they have virtually no practical experience of handling emergencies. In fact, aircrews have so much faith in onboard computer systems that when they malfunction, pilots sometimes refuse to believe that it’s happening.
In June 2009, on Air France flight 447
on route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris that self-deception led to catastrophe. At 35,000 feet over the South Atlantic, one of the plane’s external airspeed sensors, called pitot tubes, iced up and stopped sending valid speed data to the aircraft’s flight computer. It is normal in such a situation for the autopilot to disengage and hand control over to the crew. Though this problem doesn’t happen often, it is not a critical problem for experienced pilots. The captain was the most experienced pilot on board flight 447, but at the time of the incident he was taking a nap and was not in the cockpit.
Without the computer in full control, the plane began to rock from left to right due to turbulence. Neither of the two co-pilots fully understood what was happening. The one at the controls erroneously believed the plane was losing altitude, so he pulled back on the stick causing the plane to climb steeply. The system shouted the warning “STALL, STALL, STALL,” yet the co-pilot continued to pull back on the control. Investigators are not sure why he persisted but think he believed mistakenly that the computer was still in control and, so, would never allow the aircraft to stall regardless of the warning. The computer, however, had relinquished control to the co-pilot, who had no practical experience of flying the aircraft in such circumstances. As the plane climbed steeply and rapidly, it lost airspeed and stalled.
After stalling, it started to fall towards the sea. By this point, the captain had returned to the cockpit. Though slightly dazed after his nap, he realized what was happening, took over the controls, and attempted to execute a standard anti-stall maneuver. Unfortunately, he was too late. The plane had plummeted too far. It hit the water at nearly 300 mph and the 228 people on board died instantly.
The icing up of a pitot tube doesn’t happen often on commercial airlines, but it does happen, and how to deal with it should be well known to all pilots. Crash investigation experts believe that the experienced captain of this Airbus could have easily resolved the issue and saved the aircraft had he been at the controls when the problem began.
The captain was 58, his two colleagues 37 and 32 respectively. All had been trained and certified to fly this plane, but the captain had a vital asset his colleagues lacked. Unlike them, he had thousands of hours experience flying older commercial planes, many of which were not computer controlled. So, unlike on the Airbus, where the computer looks after most inflight events and the pilot rarely intervenes, he had to constantly monitor the older planes’ progress and attitude, and make regular mid-course adjustments when necessary. In other words, he had to directly fly the planes and, when unexpected things happened, he sensed them immediately and responded instinctively. In modern aircraft, when unexpected things happen, the computer usually makes the necessary adjustments, and the pilot is often not aware that it has done so.
Computer controlled aircraft are examples of technology performing tasks that previously needed human brainpower. By ceding more and more decision making to machines, we risk losing skills that our brains had previously mastered. That means that, when the machines go wrong, we may not be able to respond quickly enough, or indeed, respond at all. On an aircraft, that can be catastrophic.