MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
In modern airplanes, all sorts of things are controlled by automation systems. And that's helped to make air travel safer and more energy efficient. But new research shows those same automation systems can lead to pilot errors. These problems happen without passengers knowing and they often go unreported.
As NPR's Robert Benincasa reports, they raise important safety concerns for pilots and for airlines.
ROBERT BENINCASA: I'm trying to get a feel for how modern automated aircraft work. So it's time to climb into the cockpit.
TOM PETERSON: That's the co-pilot's seat.
PETERSON: We can go ahead and have you sit up there. Just watch your head. There's switches and knobs that can hurt.
BENINCASA: I'm joining flight instructor Tom Peterson inside a simulated Canadair regional jet. We're at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Soon after takeoff, our computer-screen windshield fills with clouds and Peterson shows me how the flight automation works. He needs to turn the plane but he doesn't grab for the flight yoke, that large column-mounted steering wheel in front of him. Instead, he programs a new heading into the flight computer. To do that, he spins a small, gray knob that looks like the tuning dial on your radio.
PETERSON: What I can do is roll this...
(SOUNDBITE OF CLICKING)
PETERSON: ...to set it to a specific heading, or basically tell the autopilot, OK, follow that heading.
BENINCASA: He presses a button to select the new heading and the plane turns.
As I quickly find out on our simulated 90-mile flight, computers now do much of the work pilots used to - things like guiding the plane and controlling its speed and altitude. Today's pilots spend a good deal of their time as programmers and observers. Mostly, that works out just fine. But a study group with Federal Aviation Administration, industry and research members will issue a report this spring. It'll say that automation can lead to certain safety threats.
Among the issues, a reduction in pilots' manual flying skills, possibly coming from an over-reliance on the systems and pilots not knowing enough about them. That second problem figured into nearly half the accidents the group studied.
As Peterson sets the automation system on something called a mode control panel, he's working to avoid a persistent problem for pilots: losing track of how the systems are programmed.
PETERSON: The lights up here basically are telling me that that's what I wish for. I've turned that on. I've said, OK, this is what I would like you to do. Over here on this screen it's showing me what it is going to do. Quite often I teach my students, this is what you wish for; this is what you've got. You throw a switch, that's fiction. Look at the screen, that's fact.
BENINCASA: What you want versus what you get from a computer is something most of us can relate to. Software doesn't always perform as we expect, and computers sometimes fail.
Pat Veillette knows this all too well. He's a busy business jet pilot. And he told me about a memorable descent into Salt Lake City in November.
PAT VEILLETTE: It was a fairly busy time of the day. A lot of other airliners were arriving at the same time, which means that air traffic control needed each of us on very specific routes at specific altitudes, very specific air speeds, in order to maintain this smooth flow of traffic.
BENINCASA: So, air traffic control told him to fly a particular course. He and the other pilot flying the jet set the flight automation system to do it.
VEILLETTE: What I anticipated the aircraft to do was to continue this descent. Well, instead, the aircraft immediately pitched up, very abruptly and much to my surprise. And both of us reached for the yoke, going, what's it doing? And there's that shock of, why did it do that, what's it going to do next?
BENINCASA: It's happened to other pilots, too. NPR analyzed nearly 2,500 alerts issued to aviators by a NASA safety program. We found dozens of stories warning of systems that didn't work as pilots expected. How common are automation problems? The study group looked at thousands of normal flights and found manual flying errors in one out of four of them. An FAA official on the committee called problems programming the systems, quote, "fairly common."
But the vast majority of the time, pilots correct the problems and passengers never know it. One way they fix things is by turning automation systems off and flying by hand. That's what Pat Veillette did when he took back control of his airplane. But ask him why it happened.
VEILLETTE: You know, I still don't understand and that's the scary part. Seven years of graduate school in engineering and I can't tell you why that automation did that. And the sad fact is, I still don't know how to prevent that in the future.
BENINCASA: One thing he does suggest is a greater focus on automation in flight simulator training so pilots know how to recognize problems and intervene.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLIGHT SIMULATOR)
BENINCASA: Back inside Embry-Riddle's flight trainer, we've got clearance to land.
Computer Voice: Forty, 30, 20, 10...
(SOUNDBITE OF FLIGHT SIMULATOR)
BENINCASA: Peterson's flying the landing manually, as test pilots have always done.
Robert Benincasa, NPR News.
NORRIS: For expanded coverage of flight automation, as well as a collection of local air safety investigations by NPR collaborators, visit our website NPR.org.