Opinion

Autopilot: An Accident

BY MISHTI TOMAR, freshman

In the last few months, there have been two deadly plane crashes with the Boeing 737 MAX airplane, calling the reliability of these autopilot airplanes into question. 157 people were killed in the Boeing 737 MAX crash back in March, and another 189 people were killed in the crash in October 2018. Both airplanes run on autopilot, which requires a minimal amount of maneuvering. In the case of these autopilot airplanes, the autopilot only disconnects in cases of rough turbulence, meaning that computers are doing the job which pilots should be experts at. It is evident that pilots’ excessive dependence on automated systems endangers the safety of passengers. To be prepared for an emergency, pilots should be given more extensive training before flying in order to reduce their reliance on self-navigation systems.

The main issue stems from the fact that autopilot planes are flown completely by computers. This can cause the pilots to pay too little attention to the computer autopilot system under the assumption that the computer is doing its job. The Safety Alerts for Operators (SAFO) issued a statement regarding autopilots, stating that “continuous use of autoflight systems does not reinforce a pilot’s knowledge and skills in manual flight operations.” This raisesthe main concern regarding autopilot: pilots are not receiving the adequate training and are not utilizing their skills in-flight, which ultimately increases their dependence on autopilot and weakens their ability to fly without it. The frequent dependence on autopilot causes pilots to lose track of the circumstances during the flight. While the use of autopilot may reduce the stress on the pilot, pilot training must place more emphasis on understanding the necessary procedures in the event of an emergency in which the autopilot system does not sense changes correctly or cannot operate altogether. As described in The New York Times, in 2009, Air France 447 was flying over the Atlantic Ocean when its speed sensors filled with ice, causing it to stop sending information to the autopilot system and to switch control to the pilots. In the moment of high stress, the pilots became disoriented, accidentally steering the plane upward to dangerous heights and forgetting that the wing would aerodynamically stall with autopilot off, which caused them to crash into the ocean. Additionally, according to USA Today, pilots have been anonymously sending in any issues and concerns about the Boeing 737 MAX autopilot feature, but those concerns have unfortunately been disregarded. An Ethiopian Airlines pilot also requested for more formal training for the flight control features on the airline, stating that numerous employees of the airline have been sending in their own concerns regarding the reliability of the airplane’s mechanisms. Overdependence on autopilot leads to neglect toward technical malfunctions within the airplane, which furthermore results in the crashes.

Although flights functioning on autopilot do provide relief to pilots after strenuous hours of managing flights and allow for efficient operation of the plane, there is always the likelihood of a technical failure that pilots often neglect. While it is true that technology makes airplane operation more efficient and accurate, it is not entirely reliable—as seen with the Boeing MAX 737 plane. As a result, it is vital that pilots be adequately trained and instructed on the importance of in-flight controls and the correct procedure in the event of a system failure. They often assume everything is running smoothly; however, there may be a possibly fatal issue within the system. The CEO of Aerotech Research, Paul Robinson, mentioned to NBC that “automation is great but if there is a misunderstanding between the crew and the automation system, it can be dangerous.” The failure of the pilot to monitor and handle the automated airplane operation system can lead to hundreds of fatalities. If pilots are unaware of the protocol during an emergency in which the autopilot system has failed, then it can result in the death of hundreds of people. Pilots need to be constantly aware of any errors or changes in the autopilot system. If the pilots neglect to monitor the changes in the system throughout the flight, it may become too late for them to take appropriate action in an emergency. By addressing these key issues, the safety and reliability of autopilot would be restored, thus preventing future crashes from occurring.

ay by day, technology is advancing to make daily tasks more efficient and increase productivity. There is a dramatic increase in fast-paced computer systems and machines doing the hard work that was once considered laborious amongst regular people; however, there must also be a consciousness as to how safe and regulated these systems are. One fault can lead to hundreds of fatalities; therefore, companies that own Boeing 737 MAXs and other similar autopilot airplanes should hold stricter standards for their air crew to monitor the aircraft’s systems thoroughly. Autopilot is undoubtedly a new and extraordinary form of technology, but it still has a long way to go. In order to keep safety and security intact, autopilot airplanes require a balance between the use of automated systems and manual control.

Image Source: https://www.rd.com/advice/travel/how-airplane-autopilot-works/

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