Craplex Cockpit Computers 7 -- Unsafe At Any Speed

06/29/2010 11:00 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

British FAA: Cockpit Computers Unfit For Human Consumption

Sir Arthur C. Clarke warned us in 1968

The phone conversations between literary agent Sam Fleishman and myself continue around themes in my forthcoming Murder By Computer. Sam: "You're saying that pilots have lost control to computers?"

John: "Not me; the British FAA are saying this. They looked back to the genesis of computerized cockpits and found that Airbus and Boeing sold airlines that computers would reduce pilot workload and allow us to focus attention on 'more important parts' of flying. They remind me of this pitchman."

John: "Cockpit computers were oversold and understudied. Allow pilots to 'focus on more important parts of flying?' The Brits find the opposite -- pilots don't understand the Computer well enough to control the plane's flight path."

Sam: "Really?"

John: "Our British friends find that even when pilots see the Computer making a mistake? They sit there, watch it mess up, reluctant to intervene, then take over manually and hand-fly only after they're in deep trouble. The Dutch NTSB bravely finds that's what happened in February 2009."

John: "Here's your culprit."

Sam: "You must write about that. What's next?"

John: "The British document that pilots can't fly without the Computer's help."

Sam: "So who's in charge . . . the Computer?"

John: "The Brits add that when the Computer fails catastrophically . . . pilots don't see it. Or if they see the computer crashing, they misdiagnose the problem, then do the wrong thing as the situation gets worse. Like 'pilots' at this computer-controlled candy factory."

Sam: "I get it. How long have we known about these issues?"

John: "The 1996 FAA Report on Automation warned that plane crashes have come from the Computer hiding a problem, then suddenly disengaging into cascading failures across multiple computers that accelerate out of control, confusing pilots, and denying them a chance to prevent a crash."

Sam: "An eerie harbinger of last year's Air France 447 disaster."

Sam: "What happened to that '96 report?"

John: "The government has top men working on it."

Sam: "Scary; do any industry execs agree that computers confuse pilots?"

John: "Airbus VP Captain Jacques Drappier admitted at an international conference last September that pilots are so addicted to the computer that they've forgotten how to fly."

Sam: "Anyone else?"

John: "The Cali crash airline's training VP testified to identical words way back in '96."

Sam: "Computers have caused plane crashes since '96?"

John: "While the Brits document that airline executives offer pilots this kind of help."

John: "Let me show you the navigation display that pilots around the globe use every day."

John: "Not much different from 1969 Pong."

Sam: "Oh . . . my . . . gawd."

John: "Those aren't maps; this is a map."

Sam: "This is nuts; what do you think should happen?"

John: "Steve Jobs showed us in 1984."

To be continued

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