DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Here's another question we're asking this morning - are commercial jetliners becoming too automated for today's pilots? This is an increasingly common concern following the crashes of two 737 Max airplanes caused in large part by Boeing's flawed design of a new automated flight control system. But investigators also found other contributing factors here, including faulty assumptions about how pilots would react and poor pilot training.
NPR's David Schaper looks at efforts to improve how pilots interact with automation.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: In the crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, an automated flight control system called MCAS did exactly what it was supposed to do. An angle-of-attack sensor indicated the planes were pitched too high, so it repeatedly pointed the noses down. But the sensors were wrong, and automation forced the planes into nosedives.
Investigators say the pilots fought the systems but didn't fully understand what was happening amid a confusing cacophony of warning alarms and alerts. They could not regain control, and the planes crashed, killing a total of 346 people.
CLINT BALOG: Automation is very much a double-edged sword.
SCHAPER: Clint Balog is a former test pilot an engineer who now teaches at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He says automation has undeniably made commercial aviation safer...
BALOG: But it also brings with it a lot of new issues that we've never faced in the cockpit before. And those issues are related not so much to the automation itself but to the human's interaction with automation.
SCHAPER: In the case of the 737 Max crashes, former National Transportation Safety Board chairman Christopher Hart puts it this way.
CHRISTOPHER HART: That means this is not just an airplane problem. This is an airplane/pilot problem.
SCHAPER: Hart recently headed a panel of international aviation safety experts to examine the design and certification processes of the 737 Max. And he warns that these kinds of automation problems will likely happen again.
HART: Because as automation becomes more and more complex, pilots are less likely to fully understand it and more likely to have problems. And not only that, they're more likely to encounter scenarios in real operations that they haven't seen even in the simulator, so they don't know how to respond.
THOMAS SHERRINGHAM: Parking brakes off. Got the lights up. Cabin's ready, and we're good for takeoff.
SCHAPER: Those complexities are on full display here, in this simulator of an Airbus A320 cockpit at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. Senior student Naveen Breen and instructor Thomas Sherringham go through the procedures to take off.
SHERRINGHAM: All right, V1, rotate. V2, positive climb. Gears up.
SCHAPER: Sherringham explains what's going on.
SHERRINGHAM: So right now, we just did a departure out of Denver. Fully automated, we engage the autopilot at 500 feet.
SCHAPER: He and Breen explain how smoothly the automation takes over and how the many screens and lights in front of them monitor speed, altitude, as well as all of the automated systems. Naveen Breen says you have to know exactly what the automation is doing and stay one step ahead of it.
NAVEEN BREEN: The Airbus is always trying to figure out what you want to do next, all right? And it's going to try and present you with that information constantly. And it can be incredibly helpful. It really helps reduce the workload on the pilot.
SCHAPER: Purdue aviation professor and pilot Mike Suckow says the pilot isn't really flying the plane so much as managing the systems that fly the plane.
MIKE SUCKOW: The pilot is now scaffolding. He needs airmanship, but he also needs a higher level of understanding the system. You know, it's a digital airplane. How you interface with it, how you communicate with it, how you change controls and all that stuff is a little bit different.
SCHAPER: Suckow says in that regard, the younger generation has an advantage.
SUCKOW: The students today that have been raised with the iPads and touch screens and automation are very fluent in transitioning into this airplane.
SCHAPER: But Suckow says they don't always understand the why of aeronautics and avionics, so training has to better incorporate the wisdom of previous generations with the technology of today.
SUCKOW: We have to move from the training environment of traditional pulleys and cables and stick and rudder to an automated airplane where it's fly by wire. And so that's a computer input or a code that's moving a controlled surface.
SCHAPER: A recent industry study found that three of the last four years have been the safest ever for air travel, but it also labels overreliance on aircraft automation systems as an emerging risk for pilots. That could lead to a loss of situational awareness and confusion.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MICA ENDSLEY: Automation confusion is a frequent challenge in aviation accidents, and it was a central problem on the Max 8.
SCHAPER: Mica Endsley is a former chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force. In recent congressional testimony, she told lawmakers that pilots must be better trained to be able to step in to fly the plane if automation fails. But even before that, she says, safety starts at the drawing board.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ENDSLEY: The first thing you want to do is design the system appropriately because you - it's very hard to train for bad designs.
SCHAPER: That means airplane designers need to better take into account human capabilities and limitations in how future pilots perceive, think, move and react because while pilots still play an essential role in commercial airline flight, complex airplane automation is here to stay.
David Schaper, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF HOLLOW CLOUDS' "CHERRY PIE JAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.