Skip to main content

Pilots, not computers, should fly planes

By Robert P. Mark
updated 1:06 PM EST, Wed December 11, 2013
In this handout photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 sits just off the runway at San Francisco International Airport on Sunday, July 7. The Boeing 777 coming from Seoul, South Korea, crashed on landing on Saturday, July 6. Three passengers, all girls, died as a result of the first notable U.S. air crash in four years. In this handout photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 sits just off the runway at San Francisco International Airport on Sunday, July 7. The Boeing 777 coming from Seoul, South Korea, crashed on landing on Saturday, July 6. Three passengers, all girls, died as a result of the first notable U.S. air crash in four years.
HIDE CAPTION
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
Plane crash-lands in San Francisco
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • This week, public hearings take place on the crash of an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777
  • Robert Mark: Have pilots become too dependent on computer systems to fly planes?
  • He says it's a serious problem when pilots get overwhelmed by technology
  • Mark: We need better cockpit designs and train pilots more on hands-on flying

Editor's note: Robert P. Mark is a pilot, award-winning journalist and publisher of Jetwhine.com, a website about the aviation industry. He's been teaching people to fly since 1974. He also teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and is author of the upcoming book, "Loss of Control."

(CNN) -- As the National Transportation Safety Board begins public hearings on Wednesday into the crash of an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 in San Francisco in July, one question is certain to keep popping up: Have pilots become too dependent on computer systems to fly their airplanes?

The simple answer is yes.

When pilots become confused or overwhelmed by technology that was supposed to make their jobs easier or when they find themselves unable to regain control of their aircraft when a component in the computer system fails, the aviation industry needs to seriously assess the problem.

Robert P. Mark
Robert P. Mark

Modern airliners use computers to handle just about every function imaginable -- from starting the engines and monitoring the cabin environment for the right temperature and pressure balance to handling the complex navigation necessary to fly an airplane safely between South Korea and San Francisco.

Shaking free of any of the technology anywhere along the way is very difficult because so many of the aircraft's systems depend upon each other to work together.

An airliner's automation today can handle almost all of a pilot's duties more smoothly and with better precision than any human. Computers have become so tightly integrated into the operation of an airliner, however, that the real problem is trying to carve out a few tasks the pilots can still call their own. One of the last completely human tasks is landing the airplane.

With computers being tasked to perform so much of the work on each and every flight, pilots find their jobs have changed dramatically. Whereas once they were captains of the sky able to manipulate the flight controls to maneuver a 500,000-pound airplane through stormy skies and still plunk 300 people down at the destination safely, they now find themselves to be mere system monitors.

New details emerge in plane crash
A closer look at plane's evacuation

Today, pilots program the computers before takeoff, making sure all the panel lights are green and then watch as the computers fly the aircraft most of the way.

Is it any wonder that with so little practice actually manually handling the aircraft's flight controls and making many of the critical decisions that are now handed off to the computers that the pilots often find their minds wandering?

We shouldn't be surprised that this happens. We all grow easily bored when we're forced to watch someone, or something, perform a task for hours on end, especially when we've been told that the computer pilot in this case probably flies better than we do anyway, at least most of the time.

Consider Asiana 214's arrival at San Francisco.

Facts uncovered during the initial investigation pointed to the pilot's failure to notice that a critical system called the auto-throttles was accidentally turned off. Auto-throttles let the computers control how much power the aircraft's engines produce to maintain a given airspeed. With the auto-throttle switched off, the pilots thought the computers were controlling power and airspeed, when in actuality, the computers were on standby. Basically, it means that no one was actually controlling the aircraft's altitude at that time.

Without enough engine power, the aircraft's speed dropped too low to allow it to continue flying and it struck a dike just short of the runway, ripping away the landing gear. Three people died while over 180 people were injured.

During the final few seconds of the approach to San Francisco, the pilots simply sat in the cockpit, apparently mesmerized by the view of the bay, assuming the computer was flying.

The big question of course is why didn't they notice the computers were on standby?

With the recent release of a study, "Operational Use of Flight Path Management Systems," the aviation industry has begun to identify weaknesses in our aviation safety system, including potential problems in human-computer interactions.

The report recommends improving pilot training to include more hands-on flying practice and more intensive classroom study about technology's shortcomings. It also calls for better cockpit designs that reduce potentially confusing messages, and up-to-date training to keep federal regulators ahead of the technology curve.

The study has been turned over to the FAA, but no timeline or next steps in the process have been outlined. Without a defined plan of action soon, we may see another crash on the horizon before too long.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert P. Mark.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 8:15 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT