This piece was written before Trump grounded the 737 Max’s in America but most other countries had. Still, John Gapper’s arguments in favour of automation in aviation or ‘fly-by-wire” as it is called, make a lot of sense. His key argument rests on the overwhelming data that most aerial accidents have been attributed to pilot error. Indeed, he shows that fatal accidents have reduced from 11 in a million to 0.1 in the last six decades, thanks to technology. Whilst French investigators are checking out the blackboxes to ascertain the cause of the Ethiopian airlines crash, Gapper reckons the error could be similar to that of the Lion Air crash in Indonesia last October, where the system overrode the pilot causing the crash but the override was triggered by a faulty sensor. He goes on to point out that such very overrides have indeed prevented several potential crashes in the past. Ironically, the advent of technology has only reduced the alertness and skills of pilots (90% of flying time in America is on autopilot). Fearing a backlash on technology, he instead recommends improving on sensors and software fixes and pilot training than otherwise.

“….flying is far less dangerous than it was decades ago — the 11 fatal accidents per million flights in 1960 fell to around 0.1 in 2017, with only six fatal crashes and 19 deaths. The main contributor to this advance is technology, especially fly-by-wire software that responds to the pilots’ touch on the controls by adjusting the thrust, flaps and other surfaces to produce the desired outcome. This includes “flight envelope protection”, which means that if a pilot tries to turn the jet too sharply, or push up the nose and risk a catastrophic stall, the software can disobey in some modes.

As fly-by-wire aircraft have superseded earlier generations of autopilot, the number of crashes caused by pilot error (which is responsible for more than half of accidents) has fallen. Nearly half the commercial aircraft in service are now fourth generation jets, which have reduced “loss of control in flight” crashes such as the Lion Air case by 75 per cent, according to Airbus.

Technology has its drawbacks — the spread of fly-by-wire and use of autopilot means that some of the biggest dangers lie on the border between human and computer control. Pilots usually switch on autopilot shortly after take-off and do not fly manually until landing (the FAA estimates that autopilot is used for 90 per cent of flying time), which limits their experience.

The best known recent case of pilots being unable to cope without technology was the Air France flight 447 crash of an Airbus 330 over the Atlantic in 2009. Its autopilot disengaged in a storm because airspeed sensors were blocked and an inexperienced co-pilot put it into too steep a climb. While the control system warned loudly of the danger, it stalled and fell out of the sky.  The 737 Max 8 may have suffered the opposite problem — the pilots were flying both jets manually but part of the flight software is designed to override the aircraft’s tendency to pitch its nose up when climbing and turning. In the Lion Air case, a faulty sensor reading could have made the computers respond as if it was breaching its flight envelope, although it was not.

The 737 Max 8 crashes will turn out to have been avoidable if its software contributed to losses of control. But Boeing need not redesign its aircraft entirely, and curbing the involvement of computers in flight systems more generally makes little sense. The moral is that pilots should be sufficiently trained and practised to fly manually if required.

Given the choice of flying on an aircraft with pilots who are wholly in charge of the trip, or one on which software is able to countermand them if it senses an error, I would pick the latter. The 737 Max 8 accidents, tragic though they are, do not alter that.”

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