Sunday, June 28, 2009

Rebooting at 30,000 Feet

Accident expert Charles B. Perrow writes in Sunday's Washington Post about what may turn out to be the common element in the recent Air France Flight 44 and D.C. Metro crashes: computer system/sensor failures....

"The ultimate question in these tragedies is: Can we really trust computers as much as we trust ourselves? For some things, perhaps not. But if we want to travel faster and in more comfort, we have to let ever more computerization into our lives. And that means that we have to focus more on the humans who interact with the computers."

Reporters Andy Pasztor and Daniel Michaels look at how that human-computer interdependence plays out in the cockpits of modern airliners in Saturday's Wall Street Journal:

"Unlike jetliners built in previous decades -- which required pilots to frequently manipulate controls and often manually fly the planes for long stretches -- newer computer-centric aircraft such as the A330 and Boeing's 777 are designed to operate almost entirely on automated systems. From choosing engine settings and routes to smoothing out the ride during turbulence and landing in low visibility, pilots essentially monitor instruments and seldom interfere with computerized commands. So when those electronic brains begin to act weirdly at 35,000 feet, the latest crop of aviators may be less comfortable stepping in and grabbing control of the airplane.

"Airlines typically use simulators to train cockpit crews for such events, but a pilot may only hone skills to deal with major computer problems every few years. Pilots hardly ever experience multiple computer failures in real-world conditions."

And when it comes to the systems that send data to the instruments on which pilots depend, "never has 'garbage in-garbage out' carried such dire consequences," as InformationWeek senior editor Paul McDougall observed shortly after the Air France crash:

"The issue is particularly keen now as the aviation industry's true stick-and-rudder men--fliers, like US Airways' Sully Sullenberger, who cut their teeth in the pre-digital era and who can sometimes still bring a wounded plane down safely through a combination of testicular fortitude and instinct--are hitting retirement age in increasing numbers.

"Many of today's younger jet jockeys haven never flown a plane without help from a computer.

"It's one thing if Gmail goes down for a couple of hours. It's something wholly different if the software and chips designed to keep a 200 ton tin can straight-and-level as it hurtles along at 500 MPH can't be trusted."

(Image from iStockPhoto: A Fabio Pignata photograph of an Airbus A330 cockpit during a night landing.)

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