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.
You can find more of AP2’s writing here at: https://wiseandshinezine.com
You can also find him on Medium at: https://anxiouspilot2.medium.com
You can also email him directly at: email@example.com