04/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Craplex Cockpit Computers 3 -- Unsafe At Any Speed

British CAA Exposes Egocentric Cockpit Computer Designers

Wanna know why I write this column? So your family is never in scenes like these.

The phone conversations between literary agent Sam Fleishman and myself continue.

Sam: "Why lead with that tear-jerker?"

John: "Because accident reports dehumanize victims in government doublespeak."

Sam: " But last time you said that we'd discuss what the British CAA documents say about egocentric cockpit computer designers."

John: "Right; the Brits blame Boeing and Airbus engineers for designing cockpit computers they like, not what pilots need. They label designer's computers 'cumbersome and complicated' and find that pilots have to learn Farsi to talk to the Computer."

Sam: "Anything else?"

John: "The Brits are just getting cranked up. They say the root problem was that Designers thought that the Computer would replace pilots and since pilots were the ones making all the errors, there'd be fewer crashes once humans were removed from the system."

Sam: "They want to get rid of pilots? How crazy is that?"

John: "The CAA writes that Boeing and Airbus sold airlines on the concept that computerized cockpits would reduce pilot workload and error, but their computers actually increase workload and have had the paradoxical effect of increasing pilot error."

Sam: "In effect you are saying they've swapped-out pilot error for Designer error."

John: "Yep; the CAA documents that cockpit computers are so overly craplex, that the teeniest error can jeopardize a flight, tumbling pilots into a mental squirrel cage they never recover from."

Sam: "Why don't Designers take outside advice?"

John: "Ego, arrogance, turf. A 2006 U.S. DOT report states that Designers view outside computer experts like MIT's Doctor Nancy Leveson and University of London's Doctor Lisanne Bainbridge as nagging 'naysayers.' The CAA documents that Designers begrudgingly invite outside experts in long after designs are in hardened concrete."

Sam: "They resent outsiders?"

John: "Yep, and it's not as though Designers don't need outside help. British author Trevor Kletz writes that Designers have trouble working with other people; they resent being watched or critiqued. And Doctor Leveson explains that they underestimate software's complexity and overestimate the effectiveness of software testing, so their overconfidence encourages them to give final authority for the plane and passengers to the Computer over the pilots."

Sam: "How long have you known about this complexity issue? Since the '96 FAA Report On Automation?"

John: "I'm emailing the 747-400's craplex primary display they feature on page 45 . . . the pilot's window into what the Computer is doing."


Sam: "How can you guys tell what's going on?"

John: "Watch this fun clip of a 777 taking off, climbing to 35,000 feet, descending, then landing. See if you can tell -- have your volume up.

Sam: "I can't tell heads or tails. Can you guys?"

John: "Ohio State University's Nadine Sarter and University of Illinois' Chris Wickens wanted to know, so invited expert 747-400 pilots into a simulator, then tracked where they looked. Shockingly, though the pilots looked right at this screen, they couldn't tell what the Computer was doing."

Sam: "You're saying that pilots all over the world look at these displays every day, think they know what the Computer is doing, but don't know that they don't know? How can pilots be in command? Do the Ohio researchers report what is wrong?"

John: "Yeah; the displays are too craplex. Those Buffalo pilots could've looked right at their screens, but not seen their plane slowing to a stall. Take a look."

Sam: "What does the Ohio research tells us about Air France 447 falling into the ocean from the Atlantic night sky last June?"

John: "That the pilots could've looked right at their crashing displays, yet not be able to intervene and save the aircraft. Renowned aviation attorney Gerald Sterns says that what happened was 'unexpected and not related to ordinary operation of the aircraft. The families are in line for compensation under the Montreal Conventions.'"

Sam: "You're saying that some faceless designer might have caused these deaths?"

John: "Not me - the scientists. Doctor Leveson explains that the Airbus displays on Air France 447 are even more confusing than Boeing's. She adds that Designers almost never learn the principles of safe design, so create software that doesn't include basic safety principles the textbooks are lousy with -- leading to Yale's Charles Perrow's 'inevitable' crashes."

Sam: "In effect you are saying that designers have built machines that human beings can't control."

John: "Right, but Doctor Leveson says that's never stopped accident boards from blaming pilots."

Sam: "As in the Buffalo disaster."

John: "Here's a visual metaphor showing how the Computer can surprise and overwhelm pilots."

To be continued

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