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Home > Flying the Plane > Human versus Technology
Human versus Technology
Flying - Flying the Plane
Saturday, 16 July 2011 16:06

Plane crash...computers can fly

Dear Captain Lim,

As an airplane enthusiast, I must say this website is fantastic, so thank you very much!

Over the past number of decades, advancements in technology have allowed companies like Boeing and Airbus to produce top of the range, 'better than ever' airliners.

However, do you think that these new technologies also have their own achilles' heel? The reason why I am asking you this question is because there have been numerous instances in recent aviation history of conflict situations between pilots and their instruments which have resulted in catastrophes or, if not, very near catastrophes.

There seems to be a trust issue involved. For example, some pilots have been let down by technologies which were supposed to help them. While we would all like foolproof technology in airplanes, we all know that technology can sometimes fail - the same way as our cameras, mp3 players, phones, laptops etc.

The more important and worrying issue, however, is that there are more occasions where pilots falsely believed that their instruments were feeding them incorrect information. Ignoring this correct data has been a factor in a number of aviation incidents.

I was wondering what your overall view on the topic is? Many thanks.


Hi Kilian,

When the state-of-the-art fly-by-wire Airbus 320 first came out, I believe it was touted as an ‘uncrashable’ plane due to the many protections. That was true only when the protections were available. Anyway, it suffered a crash initially but most of the problems were rectified in subsequent planes.

As you rightly said, there is no foolproof technology in airplanes - the pilot is still the master. That is the reason why pilots are constantly being checked and trained to recognize automation failures and take over as they are the last link in the prevention of accidents.

Yes, there has been over-reliance on computers at times. I have even mentioned in the past that pilotless planes in the future are possible because of automation but do passengers feel comfortable about it? Nevertheless, advanced automation and artificial intelligence in the future will likely make flying as if you are on driverless train rides in air terminals or in the high speed lifts.

Pilots must have good reasons to ignore correct data from the computers. But human do make mistakes sometimes under pressure. This is the reason why there is need for more stringent training.

An example I can think of is the Air Transat A330 that crash landed at the Azores in the Pacific Ocean in 2001. The A330 had developed a fuel leak and the pilots had noticed a fuel imbalance between the fuel tanks and attempted to remedy this by opening a cross-feed valve between the tanks. This caused fuel from the operational tank to be wasted through the leak in the engine on the other side. This caused both the engine to fail due to fuel starvation

A cockpit warning system warned the crew of low oil temperature and high oil pressure on the right engine caused by the low fuel state but the captain suspected these warnings were computer bugs which fact were correct. The crew stated that they continued to believe that the low quantity indications were also caused by some type of computer error and continued with this belief up to and beyond the flameout of the right engine.

So this is a case of ignoring correct information from the computer. Overall, I do trust computers with some knowledge behind the system.

PS. To check for any latest updates or postings, you can follow my new Twitter at @CaptKHLim

Air Transat Accident of an Airbus 330


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