04/11/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Craplex Cockpit Computers 2 -- Unsafe At Any Speed

Dedicated to the fifty souls lost in the Buffalo crash and their families who mourn.

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

Sam: Not that I doubt you, John, but I need to see hard proof that the FAA or Congress didn't follow up on that 1996 FAA Report On Automation.

John: How do you prove that someone didn't do something? But something is either true or false; it can't be both. Either the Feds implemented their '96 report, overhauled cockpit computers and things got better. Or they didn't, problems festered and more died. That's where we are with their '96 report and a 2005 British CAA investigation.

Sam: Not sure I follow.

John: Imagine that in '96 your wife found a nude pic of your girlfriend in your wallet. You tore the photo up and swore it was over; she forgave you. That pic is the '96 report. Ten years later, she finds a new nude -- this 2005 British report -- of the same woman.

Sam: She'd take a nine-iron to my windshield.

John: That's the impact of this British report. The Brits reviewed international studies back to '96, then conducted their own review of 230 incidents and crash...

Sam: Two hundred and thirty? Surely you exaggerate.

John: Two hundred and thirty is the tip of the iceberg; thousands hide in secure databases. Anyway, the Brits conclude that there's been no progress since '96.

Sam: How can that be?


John: Let's start at the top of the Brit's food chain -- government regulators like our FAA -- the aviation jungle's King Kong. Then we'll work down though egocentric airplane designers, cheap-ass airline executives, Gestapo check pilots, then down to cockpit computers unfit for human consumption.

Sam: That might take several columns.

John: Uh-huh. For starters, the Brits blame world governments for not updating World War Two design regulations that allow manufacturers to build machines that pilots can't control. They also blame governments for not updating pilot licensing rules since the DC-3 was the top airliner -- that don't prepare pilots to fly computerized cockpits.

Sam: Doesn't sound good.

John: I'm emailing you a video of last February's Buffalo crash. The pilots had the plane on autopilot, but had to operate the throttles manually ...

Sam: What's the big deal about manual throttles? You pilots just want more gizmos?

John: Would you buy a 2010 car with power steering, but 1950's manual brakes?

Sam: Absolutely not; power steering and power brakes belong paired togeth . . . oh.

John: That '96 FAA report documented that half-auto/half-manual designs -- called mixed-mode flying -- like in the Buffalo crash confuse pilots. This is on page 35 of their report: 'Possible hazards of mixed-mode flying are that it leads to unintended changes, inappropriate pitch or thrust responses, mask trends in the plane's flight path, or make it hard to discern who -- or what -- is controlling the plane.'

Sam: They forecast the Buffalo disaster way back in '96?

John: Absolutely; when the Buffalo pilots forgot to manually add power after level-off, the speed got slow, the autopilot kicked off, and a horse-and-buggy stick-pusher abruptly shoved the nose at the ground so the wing could gain speed. The scary warnings confused the pilot, who then thought the autopilot had gone nuts, so he knee-jerked the wrong response, yanked the controls back, making them lose even more speed . . . you'll see.

Sam: Horrid. What would've happened had the Feds paid attention to their own '96 half-auto/half-manual warning and mandated modern autothrottles instead of this World War Two stick-pusher?

John: Autothrottles they mandate for big jets would've sensed the speed getting too slow and automatically added thrust to prevent the plane from stalling; Buffalo never happens.

Sam: A smoking gun; how much would modern autothrottles have cost the airline?

John: $95,000 per plane.

Sam: Are you kidding me! Quick figuring -- 95K would've cost each passenger twenty-five cents amortized across four years. On an airline that charged me fifteen bucks to check my bag? The Feds knew about this half auto/half manual danger way back in '96, yet did nothing! This would be like letting car makers build vehicles without air bags.

John: Sad, huh? A 2005 Flight Safety Foundation study documents three Buffalo-like crashes where pilots messed up responding to these killer stick-pushers -- 134 died.

Sam: This 1950's 'safety' system is murdering people? Oh, gawd.

John: In two crashes, the NTSB blamed the French FAA and ours for ever certifying these deadly devices. I know of three more stick-pusher murders. Yale's Charles Perrow calls crashes like Buffalo 'inevitable.'

Sam: That's a smoking shoulder-fired missile. Checking my notes . . . we're back to the British finding about DC-3 regs that 'don't prepare pilots to fly computerized cockpits' coupled with that '96 worry that half-auto/half-manual designs 'confuse pilots' and make it 'hard to discern who or what is controlling the plane.' I get it, John.

John: Check out this clip of what the Buffalo pilots saw when all hell broke loose.

Sam: Lambs at slaughter.

John: Next time I'll show you how the pilots could've looked right at those displays, yet not seen that the plane was dangerously slowing down. And when NASA gave pilots the Buffalo stick-pusher event in a simulator? Most spun in and crashed.

Sam: A nuclear stink-bomb.

John: I'll hang up so you can watch this AP clip in silence.

"The vulnerabilities we identified have the potential to lead to more accidents."
-- 1996 FAA Report On Automation

"The FAA fixed flaws the accident made obvious, but made clear that some problems are not likely to be fixed for years, if at all." -- The New York Times, January 31, 2010

Next: British CAA Exposes Egocentric Cockpit Computer Designers

Read all John Halliday's columns here: