Do Computers Make Planes Less or More Safe?

The current automatic landing approach system, on the other hand, requires more concentration from pilots than manual landing. Although the pilot is simply sitting next to the computer and monitoring it as it does its work, this is actually more taxing than manual flying.

What was once a dream job is losing the glamour of days gone by. Instead of heroes of the air, pilots become controllers of electronic equipment. Ironically, the engineers fail to recognize a pilot's ability to prevent errors from occurring in the first place.

It is rare nowadays for a human pilot to be able to demonstrate his superiority, as was recently the case with Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who executed a masterful water landing of his Airbus A320 on New York's Hudson River.

But once the pilot has lost control of the computer, he becomes as helpless as an ordinary PC user whose computer has just crashed. After the sudden nosedive of the Qantas plane, the mystified pilots called their technical center several times on their satellite phone to ask the maintenance personnel to explain what was happening to their aircraft.

But the calls were as frustrating as a call to a typical computer hotline. The technicians in Sydney were also unable to make sense of the error messages that the plane's computer had radioed to the center. At one point the technicians advised the pilots to simply shut off the third flight computer. But this did not stop the error messages from scrolling down the monitors.

Instead, the pilots were left on their own to battle the confusion of beeps and warning messages that had become so numerous in the cockpit that the flight recorder could not even record them all.

The last warnings did not disappear until the aircraft had landed, at 1:50 p.m., and the power supply had been shut off. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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