The Price of Automating Aviation

Listen to this episode

S1: This past summer John Ostrow went on a test flight. He writes about aviation. So this isn’t entirely unusual. He used to cover it for the Wall Street Journal and now runs a Web site called the air current. But the technology that he was testing that’s the amazing part. He was in a small private plane a Piper M 600 flying at about 3000 feet. And he was with the company Garmin.

S2: It makes G.P.S. systems they say they press the button and the button on the dashboard is emergency auto land you press the button and it starts talking to you. It says emergency auto land activated. Please remain seated.

S3: We’re landing at the nearest airport in the airplane takes over it will fly you to the nearest airport.

S4: It will fly around whether it will put the flaps down. It will lower the landing gear it will go into a holding pattern to descend if it needs to. It will find effectively a G.P.S. approach to fly the airplane right to the runway. So I’m sitting in this airplane we’re coming down through the clouds pop out underneath the clouds and we land right on the center line of the of of the runway it all just happens not a single interaction from from here.

S1: How did you feel relying on a computer to do all of that.

S5: Well that’s that’s the craziest part of it. It it felt totally it felt unremarkable. It it literally felt like it was just it just did everything it was.

S1: It was amazing in how unremarkable it was what John experienced was kind of gee whiz futuristic almost Jetsons like technology and seeing that on a big scale is years away. Still automation is a part of every flight you take today. There’s no question that it’s made us vastly safer but it’s also introduced new layers of complexity in how we design planes train pilots and react when something goes wrong. You’ve probably heard about the problems with the Boeing 737 MAX two crashes killed 346 people grounded the plane worldwide and put the company’s CEO in front of Congress this week.

S6: Before we start today I’d like to speak directly to the families of the victims who are here with us on behalf of myself and the Boeing Company we are sorry deeply and truly sorry but it’s not just the max today on the show.

S7: Automation in the air both its promise and its price. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to what next TBD a show about technology power and how the future will be determined. Stay with us.

S1: So let’s say you’re a person who gets on a plane I don’t know. Once twice a year when that plane is flying what does a person doing and what’s a computer doing.

S5: So contrary to popular belief there actually. You know you said oh well the airplane can fly itself modern airliners the ones that that we get on every single day large commercial aircraft do not fly themselves. So every single takeoff that is done anywhere on earth is not done by a computer.

S2: It’s done with human hands. It’s done with crew making decisions about what is going on with the aircraft that given moment and flying the airplane at the same time that crew gets a lot of help from what John calls augmentation.

S1: It’s not full automation like that self landing plane. It’s more like a digital nudge.

S2: If you’re driving a car there’s kind of an expectation that if you’re on a highway you’re not going to be in you know going 110 miles an hour on the shoulder of the highway. The expectation is you’re going to be in your lane and you be driving at a safe speed and you’re going to be abiding by the rules of the road. So they designed systems that effectively protect the airplane and the pilot from getting too far outside of what’s known as the envelope the normal operating envelope of flying the airplane.

S1: So we’re talking not too high not too fast not banking dramatically all those kind of things.

S5: Precisely precisely. So you know there’s all these different augmentations that that are that are taking place that we don’t see but have demonstrably made flying considerably safer despite the undeniable increase in safety created by automation and augmentation.

S8: There are exceptions most notably right now the crashes of two Boeing 737 maxes and a piece of software called the cast that played a key role in both accidents.

S9: New evidence today from the flight recorder of an Indonesian jetliner that crashed last month reveals the pilots battle to save the plane.

S10: A 737 MAX 8 according to the plane’s flight data recorder a new anti stall system known as M cars kept automatically pushing the nose of the plane down.

S1: That last thing the reporter mentioned the impasse that came up a lot in Congress this week. What’s the impasse. This is the thing that has come up in the hearings. People are talking about it in the crash. It’s on scary I think to people who don’t know what it is.

S2: Class is the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system.

S1: When Boeing built the max it basically used the same body as an old 737 but added big new fuel efficient engines. But the big engines made the plane fly differently.

S2: So what Boeing found was that these bigger engines they actually nudged up the nose just a little bit more so when the nose was pointed high in the air what’s known as a high angle of attack you’re slowing down you’re slowing down there’s a risk of stalling.

S1: So Boeing put a computerized system in place the impasse to make the Max feel the same to pilots who flew the older 737 and correct for this high angle of attack a sensor that monitors the angle was now responsible for automatically correcting it when there was a risk of stalling by pushing the nose of the plane down.

S5: So flash forward to October of twenty eighteen Lion Air 610 is taking off out of Jakarta. The sensor that it was tied to was faulty and mis calibrated this activated the MTA system in normal flight. That’s the old the the MTA system did not fail. I think that’s really important to remember the MTA system actually performed exactly as it was designed. But with the failed sensor it was getting bad data. It said that the nose is too high. So it kept pushing pushing the nose down and it wasn’t until the that the control was actually handed off to the co-pilot to try and resolve what was going on that the that the airplane ultimately lost control and crashed killed all the folks on board.

S1: Committee on Transportation Infrastructure will come to order this week Boeing CEO Dennis Muhlenberg went in front of Senate and House committees to answer questions about the company’s role in the crashes.

S11: We’re here today because 346 people sons daughters fathers mothers died on two max aircraft within a five month period.

S1: Congress focused on evidence that Boeing knew about problems in the M caste system and didn’t act.

S12: How did you not in February sent out a nine alarm fire to say we need to figure out exactly what happened.

S13: What does accountability mean. Are you taking a cut in pay. Are you working for free from now want to cure this problem. These people’s relatives are not coming back. They’re gone. Your salaries are not about the money for me. That’s not why are you giving up any money.

S1: Congressman when you or I watched these hearings we see a CEO trying to explain what went wrong. But when John watches them he sees something else an echo down to some of the smallest detail of a crash that happened 40 years ago. You wrote this story on your site about a crash in 1979 that has some strong parallels to what is happening with the 737 Max. Can you tell me about that. What happened. So

S2: in 1979 the McDonald It DC 10 was taking off from Chicago O’Hare Airport on its way to L.A. when the airplane sheared off the the engine separated.

S14: There was a break in that what’s called the the engine pylon. The crew ultimately loses control of the aircraft because when the engines separated it actually disabled the hydraulics and on the leading edge of the wing. So essentially one side of the airplane was developing more lift than the other.

S15: So the airplane rolled to the left and the crew lost control. The airplane stalled and all aboard were killed at the time. It was the worst aviation aviation accident in U.S. history.

S16: John says of course the loss of the engine contributed to the crash but it wasn’t the central reason for it.

S5: There were indications in place that could have warned the pilots of the problem and allowed them to react that indication was never activated nor was the stall warning system activated. And in those days there was only one on the aircraft a second system the second redundant system was not installed because it was actually an additional cost option on the airplane.

S2: You know we see this playing out again with what what’s going on with Boeing in the 737 MAX around you know optional safety features that are available for added cost that you know when you take a really hard look at it. Probably would have contributed to helping avert these crashes potentially back in the in 79. There were the blue ribbon panels and reviews that were convened that effectively concluded the exact same thing as the panels that were convened in 2019. You know it’s there’s that there wasn’t enough oversight on the FAA. The FAA wasn’t able to communicate effectively with the manufacturer the FAA didn’t have the expertise. And that ultimately the manufacturers were overwhelming those delegated to actually do certification work. So you know again these are the same patterns that are there repeating you can take the verbiage even that that all of the reviews were were producing in 79 80 and put them in 2019 and they read identically.

S1: Now he says it’s not just the fallout from the Boeing in DC 10 disasters that connects them. It’s happened in the cockpit in those crucial moments before each crash. When we think about aviation safety right now how should we be thinking about automation and where that runs up against humans and how we make decisions.

S2: I think we’ve reached to some degree the limit of the ability for humans to interact with technology in a way that reflects our own ability to react and adapt to a situation when you bought your car your knowledge of the features of your car are effectively driven almost entirely by what the dealer told you. The features of the car in it doesn’t it doesn’t necessarily give you a good picture of what’s going on with your automobile especially when you add all these new lane assist and an adaptive cruise control and all these different features that people are accepting say Oh hey great I’ve all got this all this additional augmentation automation in my in my vehicle. And what happens when this is the same in aviation by the way. What happens when the driver or the pilot has to take over very very quickly when this automation fails and that’s a really human behavior that’s called the startle factor and that is what we’ve seen over and over again certainly in aviation when that happens that’s when that’s been the source of a lot of different accidents very very large accidents. This is a remarkably safe system but the crashes that we have seen in recent years have really focused on what happens when automation stops and humans begin in terms of how to actually operate without the automation. If you try to hold in your mind the idea of.

S1: The Garmin system landing a plane on its own and something like the Max crashes it seems like this collision between lots of automation and technology and yet a place where you want the best trained pilots who can deal with a complete loss of technology.

S2: Now you know that’s the thing about the Mac situation is that what you ultimately had was was a pilot who was dealing with an automation philosophy that on the one hand was rooted in 1967. So literally you know when the airplane was first first certified and also additions and augmentations that have been made throughout the life of the airplane over 40 years. So literally you have a pilot who’s whose brain is literally split trying to understand all of the different alerts and problems that are not well communicated while dealing with this extra layer of automation. And I think what it tells us about the philosophy you approach when you come to this new level of automation is that you have to look at it from a clean sheet of paper to some extent and there’s going to be a limitation for how much you can incrementally add automation on an existing system because eventually it’s not the same system anymore.

S17: From from where you started and if you’re asking a pilot for example to have one foot in 1967 and another foot in 2019 it’s not going to work.

S18: John Ostrow thank you so much. Thanks for having me. John Auster our is editor in chief of the current. Okay. That’s our show. What next DVD is produced by Ethan Brooks and hosted by me Lizzie O’Leary. It’s part of the larger what next family. Mary Harris will be talking impeachment later today. So keep an eye out for that episode in your feed TBD is also part of Future Tense a partnership of Slate Arizona State University and New America. Thanks for listening. Talk to you next week.