The Automation Paradox

If there’s one aviation disaster that darkens my knickers more than most, it’s AirFrance 447 – the scheduled passenger flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1st, 2009. 

In a very simplified nutshell, this is what happened.

Approximately 2 hours after takeoff, AirFrance 447 entered a storm system that caused the instrumentation that measures the aircraft’s airspeed to ice over. 

As a result, a few things happened:

  • First, they lost their airspeed indications (rather, they became unreliable).
  • Second, the autopilot said, “Here you go,” and dropped out. 
  • Finally, several of the aircraft’s protections were lost, including the ability to prevent the plane from stalling (as this required accurate airspeed indications).

Now the pilot flying, who was clearly spooked at the time, reacted by pulling back on the sidestick, pitching the aircraft into a steep climb. 

(Many experts are unsure as to why he did this. It’s possible he was trying to fly above the weather or thought they were going too fast. At any rate – at high altitude and heavy weight – this isn’t advisable.)

This caused the airspeed to decay and the angle of attack (the wing’s angle relative to the airflow) to increase. 

Shortly afterward, the stall alarm went off. 

At this point, the crew recognised that they had lost their airspeed. Although the pilot flying had reacted incorrectly initially, this should have been enough to correct his mistake.

All he had to do was point the nose back down.

Instead, the pilot flying continued to pitch up – the exact opposite of what we are taught to do to recover from a stall in flight. 

Eventually, the plane did stall. 

Despite repeated stall warnings, neither pilot ever acknowledged or even mentioned this as a possibility. 

In the ensuing confusion, it seemed they stopped trusting the aircraft’s indications altogether. (Clearly unaware that stalling the plane was even possible.)

Yet, despite not knowing what was happening or why, the pilot flying continued to pull back on the sidestick. He did this almost continuously till impact. 

As Popular Mechanics explains, “The reason that AF447 crashed wasn’t because of weather, or any malfunction, nor even a complex chain of events, but a single & persistent mistake on the part of one of the pilots.” 

The Automation Paradox

“It requires much more training and experience, not less, to fly highly automated planes.”– Sully Sullenberg.

There are many lessons to come from this disaster, but the most pertinent one highlights the dangers of placing too much faith in automation. 

Because of the massive technological advances in aviation, the chances of a pilot encountering a crisis in flight have significantly reduced. However, over – for the same reason – it has meant that pilots are often less able to cope when an emergency does occur. 

Many experts in the field have dubbed this the automation paradox. The very thing that has significantly improved airline safety over the past 60 years has made us worse at flying an aircraft. 

The hard truth is this: that minor glitch – a temporary loss of airspeed indication – overwhelmed the pilots that day. If they had sat on their hands and done nothing, they would have all lived to fly another day. 

Now, I don’t tell you all of this to darken your knickers or to make you think worse of the exemplary professionals sitting at the front of your aeroplane. (There are several extenuating factors I haven’t mentioned here.)

But to highlight the dangers an overreliance on automation poses to you in everyday life. 

The automation paradox is a threat to all of us. 

I’m not just talking about your car’s inbuilt GPS or your smartphones (although they don’t help). More specifically, I’m referring to the mode under which most of us operate for the vast majority of our lives: on autopilot.

The Dangers of Living on Autopilot

Contrary to popular belief, living on autopilot isn’t a bad thing. We were designed to automate the majority of our actions. This is what allows us to walk down the street without having to think about it. This allows us to stare at our smartphones at the same time. That is, until we face-plant a lamppost!

This is when living on autopilot creates problems. When we get too comfortable doing so – when we hide behind it or operate on it without even realising we are. 

Have you ever started walking in the wrong direction – say towards work instead of the shops – out of habit? Only to wake up after a few minutes?

This is what I mean.

It’s not operating on autopilot that’s the problem, but losing awareness of when we are and, consequently, what our autopilot is doing and why.

Much is made about the dangers of the automation paradox in aviation for this reason. 

A pilot who places too much faith in automation is more liable to stop paying attention, failing to understand what the aircraft’s systems are doing and why. Or, crucially, how they should respond on the rare occasion that the aircraft’s systems do fail.

A technically proficient pilot, on the other hand, who is paying attention is better equipped to first recognise and then handle any non-normal scenario when they may be forced to (or should) take over manually. 

This is something we like to call having good situational awareness. 

The 3 Levels of Situational Awareness

There are 3 levels to situational awareness:

  • Level 1 is the perception of what is happening.
  • Level 2 is the understanding of what has been perceived. 
  • Level 3 is using that knowledge to think ahead.

Priority number one, therefore, is to pay attention – to keep scanning your instruments – to make sure the aircraft is flying at the speed, level, and direction you want. 

If you’re not paying attention it becomes more challenging to understand what is happening and why – let alone formulate a plan to deal with it. 

But perception alone isn’t enough. We also need understanding. We need to be technically proficient. We need to understand our ships intimately. 

One of the best ways to do this is to practice hand flying. To prepare for the worst by thinking ahead and having a plan in place. But also taking the time to reflect – to learn from your mistakes – to spot your weakness and understand your strengths. 

Basically, know thyself.

Of course, what I’m really talking about here is self-awareness. Carefully monitoring your impulses, reactions, thoughts, and emotions gives you the best chance to work with them more skilfully – to understand whether they’re grounded in reality or not (probably not).

If you’re overly reliant on your autopilot, on the other hand, you lose this awareness. When you fail to understand where your thoughts, reactions, or emotions are coming from, you’re more liable to let your autopilot take you on an inverted joyride till 5am on a Saturday morning… Or worse.

Perception + Understanding = Awareness. 

To return to the story of AF447, the pilots both perceived what had happened that day. Indeed, they accurately diagnosed the problem. But they never understood what that meant or how to respond.

The pilot flying reacted before he had a clear understanding of what was going on. Then both of them failed to understand the situation they had created for themselves. Despite never gaining clarity, the pilot flying kept pitching up in desperation. 

He kept beating his head against a brick wall.

This might be the most significant everyday issue we have. We act without awareness. We don’t sit on our hands long enough to gain the clarity we need before taking action. We don’t spend enough time living with the autopilot out – to understand how we should respond when faced with a challenging situation or emotion. 

To know that when we stall you must push the nose down.

We have a motto in aviation for this reason. It says, “Use it or lose it.” We say this because flying is a skill. And like any skill, it must be practiced to develop and maintain. 

Living on autopilot isn’t a big deal on most days when the weather is calm and visibility clear. But on a dark and stormy night, when the shit hits the fan blades, it isn’t your autopilot that will save you, but your ability to fly manually. 

How we do this, exactly. will be the subject of my upcoming series of posts.

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17 thoughts on “The Automation Paradox

  • Can’t help to be a tad concerned that the sudden rise in AI technology is fostering AP (automation paradox), encouraging many to engage the autopilot to navigate life’s storms AP2.

    Sure thankful I’m grew up in more ‘hands-on’ times, and am now on life’s final approach guided into HI (Heaven Intetgalactical) by my OFC (Omnipotent Flight Controller) 🛬😊

    Be blessed my friend

    Liked by 2 people

  • Automation, going on automatic pilot… our brains do that when we do or think something so frequently we can do it without thinking about it. These short-cuts are designed to save us time.

    Our brains develop layers and layers of neural pathways each time we redo actions and thoughts, which is why it is so difficult to change a habit.

    Just like fighting against autopilot doesn’t work in real life situations, within our brains, fighting against habits we want to change only make the paradoxically more ingrained because we are reinforcing the patterns.

    When we release our struggles and just gently start doing the new behavior, we start laying down a new network of neural pathways. this works for so many different types of thoughts and actions!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent point Tamara – and well explained. I tend to think in terms of replacing/changing habits instead of breaking them for that reason. Thank you for lending your thoughts 🙂🙏

      Liked by 1 person

      • Exactly! That’s why replacing habits works better than fighting against them! Letting go of the inner judgment when we mess up plays a big part in our success!

        Liked by 1 person

  • What a wonderful post, AP! I think I need to read it again for all the good information it contains. I know there are some changes I need to make. ❤

    I am a creature of habit. This helps me remember what I need to do…until it doesn't. Any change in routine may cause me to forget. For example, I always carry my medications with me, so that I will remember to take them with a restaurant meal. Of course, in the distracting surroundings and with the changed routine, I often forget. I now take the pillbox out as soon as I sit down and put it on the table in front of me so that I can't forget. Then I can focus on the menu and the conversation and have an enjoyable meal.

    Since we are driving less, I sold my car, and Robert and I are sharing his car. I sure miss my GPS! Robert just shakes his head in disbelief that I manage to get lost pretty frequently. It doesn't help that many street signs are still missing after Hurricane Ian over seven months ago. 🙂 My phone has GPS. I just need to learn how to use it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I tend to think we have an over reliance on GPS nowadays – the ability to navigate is important. (As a pilot I would believe that of course.) It’s another example of the automation paradox at world. If our phones dies, we don’t have GPS – have a mental picture in our head can help tremendously. Things like designing our environment so we leave cues around to help stay present and focused is an underrated strategy. Great point Cheryl. Thank you so much for you kind words/sharing your thoughts. I hope you’re doing well 🙂🙏

      Liked by 1 person

  • AP2, this is a brilliantly structured post, so well explained, such a critical message for us all, especially as so much in our lives becomes more and more automated. Those of us who started out without much if any automation have the advantage of understanding the “manual” underpinnings, but we won’t be around forever! I look forward to the following posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jane! Thank you so much. It’s up to us to figure out what kind of relationship to have with automation. Of course the skills we automate are the skills we lose. It’s like many people who have thriving social media lives online but are unable to hold a real conversation in actual life. No wonder rates of social anxiety and depression are up among teens. That’s the Automation paradox at play! Stay present Jane. Wishing you well 🙂🙏

      Liked by 1 person

  • I’m so glad I’m not boarding a flight as I read this cuz I’m a little spooked now. 😆 I wonder if this case ended up on that show MayDay which just spooks me.

    I absolutely agree with you that the biggest danger of automation is over dependence on them and less opportunities to gain experience in a crisis. And the same case can be made with the rise of artificial intelligence and the risk of brain atrophy when we outsource all our thinking to machines.

    The paradox of automation indeed!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s the danger we live in. Outsourcing some forms of thinking is fine – but when we stop actively practising those skills, we suffer as a result. We become less confident/overly reliant on the devices in our hands. You can see it happening in teens. The phone is used as a shield so they don’t have to converse. As a result rates of social anxiety have sky rocketed. That’s a good example fo the automation paradox at work. People with thriving social media lives who are unable to hold a real conversation in the actual world.

      Didn’t mean to spook you with the story Ab. Although this story doesn’t paint us in the best light, I believe pilots are some of the keenest professionals going. They take their craft seriously.

      Wishing you and yours well Ab!


  • A really good post because not only does it give us an understanding of something so tragic but it indicates where the human needs to be, the one to control the tools. The human mind must keep learning, training, expanding and above all understand the need to up their knowledge and not be reliant on a tool as anything other than an aide.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Brab. You summarised the main point very well here. It’s the skills we automate that we lose. It’s up to us to make a point of practicing the ones we really don’t want to. 🙏


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