UND student pilots learn from accidents in aviation industry
GRAND FORKS — As Asiana Airlines Flight 214 approached the runway at San Francisco International Airport this past July, the pilots voiced concern that the aircraft was flying too slow but did nothing to about it until just before the aircraft hit the ground.
A National Transportation Safety Board hearing last week highlighted the pilots’ mistaken reliance on the autopilot to maintain their airspeed.
It’s an issue that’s been highlighted before in 2009, when Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed in Buffalo, N.Y., and Air France Flight 447 crashed in the Atlantic Ocean. In both cases, pilots’ misunderstanding of what they thought their aircraft would do and what the aircraft did contributed to disaster.
In the University of North Dakota’s aviation department, those crashes have only reinforced the need to teach student pilots how to safely use the powerful automation features of modern airliners.
“At UND, I think we do a really good job of forcing students not to rely on automation,” said Jim Higgins, an aviation professor and former commercial airline pilot. “We do a lot of failures.”
By this he meant students would use autopilot in simulators and be subjected to all kinds of autopilot errors so they can learn to avoid the errors or recover from an error.
“We’ve definitely increased learning about automation,” he said, using advice from people in the aviation industry. In fact, automation is so integrated into modern aircraft that students learn about them the first time they learn the layout of a cockpit, he said.
For UND and the aviation industry in general, learning from others’ mistakes is integral to the safety culture.
“Anytime there is a major aircraft accident, even some minor accidents, what we’ll do is we’ll take info that’s available and we’ll incorporate it into our curriculum and discuss it,” Higgins said.
Past aviation accidents have contributed to how UND now teaches pilots, according to Bruce Smith, dean of the School of Aerospace Sciences.
After American Eagle Flight 4184 crashed outside Chicago in 1994, in which ice on the wings caused the aircraft to behave erratically, Smith said UND added a course and several acrobatic planes to teach students how to recover from erratic flight.
The university also added a device that simulates disorientation because many accidents have been caused by pilots becoming convinced by their senses that they were flying normally when they were not, according to Smith.
He gave the 1999 accident that killed John F. Kennedy Jr. as an example. Kennedy’s aircraft dove into the water off the coast of Massachusetts after a series of erratic maneuvers that suggested he couldn’t tell what direction his plane was pointed.
But engineers who design autopilots are also learning from aviation accidents, Higgins said. “They take with them the collective wisdom of the last 100 years. We learn from all the tragic accidents.”
He said he understands the criticism that pilots rely too much on automation to the point that it’s affected their ability to fly the aircraft themselves. “There is some evidence that the art of flying an aircraft, the skills of flying an aircraft, that has eroded.”
But the safety record shows that automation is also making aircraft much safer because machines don’t make as many errors as people, he said. The last major crash involving a domestic airline was the Colgan Air crash in 2009, he said.
So, while UND is teaching students piloting skills, it’s also teaching them “autopiloting” skills.
Higgins said the error that often occurs with autopilots is “mode confusion,” in which pilots are unaware of what their autopilot will do. That’s what happened in the Asiana case, he said.
To counter that, UND teach students “mode awareness.” Pilots must constantly observe their aircraft’s display even when it’s on autopilot so that they understand what the autopilot is doing. As the Cold War saying goes, “trust but verify,” he said.
As automation technology improves and new generations of pilots join the workforce, he said attitudes toward the technology have changed also. Older pilots never quite trusted a machine to fly their planes and would often turn off their autopilots, he said, but students today are much more comfortable with the feature.
“I give it a lot of trust,” said Tyler Norton, a senior studying commercial aviation at UND. He compared the autopilot to cruise control, which, unlike a person, can keep a car going at almost exactly 70 mph no matter if the car is going up a hill or down one.
Besides, he said, accidents are often caused by an “error chain” rather than just one problem. The Colgan Air crash was also caused by pilot fatigue, he said, which led to federal rules on how many hours pilots can fly without rest.