Safer Air Travel: A Modest Proposal

Recently our modern autos are getting really smart, if one can say a computer is smart. Some have features that take over if they detect unsafe operation. Take mine for example. It has a system that keeps track of whether safety envelopes are being exceeded during a turn and intercedes with throttle control and differential braking. In other words it tries to prevent me from driving so fast or recklessly that I drive off the road during a turn. Other cars have systems and sensors that completely prevent head-on collisions or backing into traffic.

Which gets me to my question. Why can’t commercial aircraft have similar systems that would prevent the kind of disaster we just saw in the downed Lufthansa flight? In effect, it should be impossible just to fly a plane into the ground.

maneuversetIn fact, modern commercial aircraft already have the necessary system in place. It is called the Flight Envelope Protection System. But it has two flaws, although both are easily remedied. First, it only works while the plane is under automated control — not the same thing as automated pilot, by the way. However that actually is the normal case. Going full manual is very hazardous and almost impossible on some planes. Few pilots can do it and probably it should only be allowed under very restricted circumstances. The second flaw seems a bit odd to me. The system can protect against airframe and plot limitations (g-forces), aerodynamic limitations (stall and spin), and terrain threats. For some reason that final capability is not presently employed. A flight envelope is now allowed to intersect the current terrain as long as other parameters are within limits, such as speed, angle of attack, descent angle, etc. This is crazy and should be fixed now!

An argument against this type of automation is that we need to give pilots full freedom to exercise their expertise. But this misunderstands reality. As many recent events have shown, pilots often no longer know how to fly their complex machines without automation. There are even efforts afoot to resume the kind of hands-on unassisted training that was once standard. A recent crash that occurred because the airport’s landing assist system was offline is evidence of this reality. The pilots simply didn’t know how to land unassisted. Aircraft systems will undoubtedly get even more complex over time. Enshrining the old “seat of the pants” methods is fruitless and dangerous.