Do Computers Make Planes Less or More Safe?

"An Immense Workload"

Strong nerves, however, are all the more crucial when problems occur. Suddenly the two people in the cockpit are inundated with an abundance of control and warning messages that can hardly be processed. Granted, the system does arrange failures according to their urgency. For example, a faulty toilet flushing mechanism will appear at the bottom of the error menu. "In an extreme case, this requires pilots to understand the structure of a system that is hardly comprehensible," says Iberia pilot Hoyas. He cites the Air France Airbus crash as an example. "The error messages indicate an immense work load."

The operating manual does provide instructions on what to do in many cases of trouble. But how can someone repair a digital, multiple organ failure while under stress and flying through a storm at night? "And, in the end, the manufacturer says: 'Well, there were instructions for that,'" says Hoyas.

Another fatal problem, according to Hoyas, is that pilots increasingly lack the necessary training. "Some long-haul captains perform a handful of takeoffs and landings a month," says Hoyas. Once the computer is humming away, there is little left to do during the flight itself. The classic concept of flying, with a control column and thrust levers, is largely a thing of the past.

At the same time, young pilots are required to have less and less flying experience. The boom in discount airlines and the unbridled growth of aviation in Asia have led to training in the air being cut in half, from 300 to 150 hours.

And that number is expected to go down even farther. Under the new "Multi Crew Pilot License" system, pilot candidates will train in simulators more than in real life in the future. "Soon there will be co-pilots in the cockpit with only 70 hours of real flying experience," Hoyas says critically.

Faced with rising costs, airlines welcome the fact that the work of human personnel is gradually being delegated to computers in the cockpit. Even people at Airbus don't deny this. "Some companies justify reducing their training with the argument that they have purchased a modern aircraft with every conceivable form of safety technology," says an Airbus executive, although he denies the suggestion that Airbus uses this potential savings opportunity as a selling point.

The automation of aviation is moving relentlessly forward. Engineers are currently addressing what is perhaps the most dangerous phase of flight: the moment of touchdown, when people who are afraid of flying are already relaxing and, especially on charter flights, the passengers tend to break out in applause.

A new technology uses the exact position and topographic airport profile to measure whether the aircraft is gliding onto the runway correctly: not too high, not too low, not too soon, not too fast.

When the wheels have touched down, a second system controls the brake force, ensuring that the aircraft can turn off at the correct runway exit. Although the decision to abort a landing still rests with the pilot in the current configuration, "the system could already land the plane entirely on its own today," says Holger Duda of the DLR in Braunschweig.

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