News / USA

Former Air Safety Official Suggests Better Plane Automation

FILE - National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman speaks to the media during a break in an investigative hearing on the crash landing of Asiana Airlines Flight 214, in Washington, D.C., December 2013.FILE - National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman speaks to the media during a break in an investigative hearing on the crash landing of Asiana Airlines Flight 214, in Washington, D.C., December 2013.
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FILE - National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman speaks to the media during a break in an investigative hearing on the crash landing of Asiana Airlines Flight 214, in Washington, D.C., December 2013.
FILE - National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman speaks to the media during a break in an investigative hearing on the crash landing of Asiana Airlines Flight 214, in Washington, D.C., December 2013.

Earlier this week, the NTSB -- the National Transportation Safety Board --  determined the cause and subsequent safety regulations from last year’s fatal Asiana crash. The Boeing 777 aircraft crashed on landing at the San Francisco airport, killing three and injuring nearly 200. The former NTSB chairman, who was in charge of the investigation, says the report could change the design of future airplanes.  

The National Transportation Safety Board report says the flight crew mismanaged the Asiana plane’s descent and did not monitor airspeed, causing the 777 to crash. Deborah Hersman was the head of the NTSB at the time of the crash and was the voice of the agency, briefing the public on the investigation.

She is now President and CEO of the National Safety Council. Hersman said she knew from her first week at the scene of the crash that the pilots did not understand what was going on with the aircraft's automated systems and did not know how to intervene to regain control of the plane.

“This crew was extremely experienced. They had a lot of hours, but they just didn’t have the ability to understand what was happening in the critical few seconds before the crash," said Hersman. "It wasn’t just one person in the cockpit that didn’t understand. There were three experienced people in the cockpit that didn’t understand what was going on.”

Hersman said the pilots’ confusion could be traced to airplane manuals and simulator training. She said her investigators found instructors who also were unclear about how the 777’s auto throttles perform in different modes. The Asiana pilots disabled the auto throttles, but expected them to maintain speed. They didn't and the plane crashed.
 
Hersman said the industry needs to make sure pilots understand the automated systems as well as the engineers who designed them, and that could mean a change in how airplanes are built.

“It starts with a good design to make sure you keep the human being in the loop, that the design is human-centered," she said. "And then, it goes through to the process of what is the manufacturer communicating to the operator, what is the operator communicating to its pilots.”

The 777 was introduced to commercial aviation nearly 20 years ago -- the Asiana accident is its first fatal crash. Boeing manufactures the 777 and writes the flight manual, with the airline's input. Boeing disagrees with the NTSB finding that its automation systems contributed to the crash. It says it worked with pilots, unions, and safety agencies to design the systems and says any changes to the design will be reviewed with care.

The pilots who spoke with VOA are split. Some say they, too, find the auto throttle modes complex. Others side with Boeing and say it is up to the individual pilot to study the manuals and to totally understand the airplane and its systems before ever carrying hundreds of people on board.  

 

 


Carolyn Presutti

Carolyn Presutti is an Emmy and Silver World Medal award winning television correspondent who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters.   She has also won numerous Associated Press awards and a Clarion for her coverage of The Syrian Medical Crisis, Haiti, The Boston Marathon Bombing, Presidential Politics, The Southern Economy, and The 9/11 Bombing Anniversary.  In 2013, Carolyn aired exclusive stories on the Asiana plane crash and was named VOA’s chief reporter with Google Glass.

You can follow Carolyn on Twitter at CarolynVOA, on Google Plus and Facebook.

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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: RR
June 29, 2014 8:28 PM
I spent 12 years flying the 777. Hersman is exactly right.

by: Charles Janeke from: Los Angeles
June 28, 2014 7:32 AM
ASIANA / AUTOPILOT / AUTOTHROTTLES: The pilots who spoke with VOA are split. Some say they, too, find the auto throttle modes complex. Others side with Boeing and say it is up to the individual pilot to study the manuals and to totally understand the airplane and its systems before ever carrying hundreds of people on board.

Manuals generally are over complex. Manuals are generated by manual pro’s and not driver friendly OR street wise. The observation that some pilots agree and some disagree on the 777 auto throttle protocol underscores the generalized manual disparity. Because of the invariable disparity under conditions of duress the auto-pilot / auto-throttle must therefore remain in control of basic flight dynamics notwithstanding being disconnected. The issue hence is basic flight dynamics (viz. speed and altitude; ditto slow AND high-speed stalls) protocol which both pilot and programmer does not appear to understand. The 2009 Air France and ASIANA serves as illustration. Which brings us to the core issue; auto-pilot and auto-throttle standards and independent auto-pilot and auto-throttle manual and crew certification and training. Ditto a mandatory 1h annual take/pass exam for pilots and flight engineers to remain on top of auto-pilot / auto-throttle disparities and (speed-altitude) flight dynamics management.

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