According to aviation experts, automation has dramatically improved safety over the last 30 years. But recent accidents, as the one with Saratov, point to increasing problems with lack of airmanship among the younger generation of pilots, argues Tom Dieusaert, Belgian journalist and writer. In his latest book “Computer Crashes: When airplane systems fail” Dieusaert argues that pilots are commonly blamed for tragedies like the Air France F447, but something more subtle – the plane’s computer software – is often overlooked. Interested? Order it now at

Most passengers don’t seem to realize it when they flying smoothly across the sky that the aircraft is basically is flying by itself. After departure, most pilots turn on the Automatic Pilot (AP) and they switch it off, right before landing. The interesting issue is that it’s not the pilots but the airlines who insist on flying on AP.

Stjepan Bedic (Safety Manager at Kermas Aviation): “In today’s world, the aviation has lost the good airmanship and common sense, which are the cornerstones of aviation. Safety management systems (SMS) was turned from a good thing into a bureaucratic mess. People who manage it forgot that the final goal is safety not SMS or statistics.”

Can you give an example? “You have a rule for so called stabilized approach. This means that on approach the aircraft has to be in landing configuration, with correct speed, and altitude at certain height above the ground, usually 1000. So airlines are monitoring all the flight parameters to ensure that the airplanes are always stabilized for landing.

On June 1, 2009, Air France flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) to Paris (France) suddenly entered an aerodynamic stall and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 passengers and crew onboard. Although the initial reports on the possible causes of the disaster evolved around the malfunction of the plane’s pitot tubes, the investigation concluded that the main reason for the tragedy was pilot mistake. Tom Dieusaert, a Belgian journalist and writer, does not believe it was quite so. In his new book “Computer crashes: When airplane systems fail” he argues that pilots are commonly blamed for tragedies like the Air France F447, but something more subtle – the plane’s computer software – is often overlooked. AeroTime had a chance to talk with Tom about his book, plane crashes and the computer systems that control modern airplanes. 

What’s the risk? “Basically, if you arrive to fast, or configure too late, it may result in a runway overrun and things like that.

So this is how it works: the Safety Manager realizes the company has 5% unstabilized approaches. Meaning: five out of hundred landings were not performed in compliance with the speed, altitude, rate of descent or some other parameter so they make a goal of reducing this to let’s say 2 %. They do this by training, but also by sending e-mails to pilots. Pilots get scared. They refuse to fly the airplane manually. They use the Auto Pilot all the way to 100 ft., because they are afraid, if they fly manually, maybe they have a rate of descent of 1200 feet per minute, and the limit imposed by SMS is 1000 ft.

So most pilots land on AP? “Most of the time they land themselves, but they switch off the autopilot just before landing, being afraid that if they fly the whole approach manually, they might exceed some parameter and get e-mail notifications etc. However, the parameters they exceed, in 99% of the time it’s not serious. It could be a rate of descent 1200 feet per minute instead of 900 feet per minute. Which does not affect safety in any way.”

So what’s the downside of this situation? “Now you have a situation where pilots fly a manual approach only two times per year, in a simulator. And the Safety Manager gets what he has aimed for, the rate of unstabilized approaches decreases to 2%. However, the goal of Safety Management is SAFETY, not percentage of unstabilized approaches.”

Stefano Furlanis, Captain with Ethiopian Airlines agrees with this assessment. Automation in itself is not the problem, but rather the overdependence on it.

Air France 447 and Air Asia Q8501 are clear cases where the crash was caused either by computer problems, or because of the interface between the onboard computers and the pilots. What should we do to avoid these accidents in the future?  

“Let me give you an example of how colleagues of mine were not able to do a visual approach. We were on a visual approach in Valencia Spain on a B737, when the First Officer turned on final 10.000 feet high and when he finally looked up, he asked me: “Where is the runway??” I said. “Below us.” “Do you think we have to Go Around??” “Well we are 7 miles on final 13.000 feet high... I think so”. He had followed blindly the Vertical Profile Deviation Indicator and turned on final without questioning of the validity of the display’s information… I told him to prepare for a Go-Around, I first advised the tower, then I told him to execute it, after pushing the Go-Around switches he basically froze. I had to clean up the aircraft myself and perform the checklist while he was staring at … I don’t know what and dead silent. Fortunately automatics were flying the aircraft. “

No experience with visual approach

Another example: “I was flying on a B777 to Male, Maldives with the First Officer as Pilot Flying. We are at some 25.000 ft. when we called Male Approach and we got cleared to a lower altitude and for a certain arrival procedure. We were off course with autopilot engaged and a fully computer managed descent both laterally and vertically (LNAV VNAV modes engaged). At this point Male Approach asked us if we’d like to perform a visual approach for that runway. I replied “Standby”, turn to the first officer and ask “Are you OK with it” “Yes off course,” he replied.

So I accepted the offer, feeling happy about it, because many airlines nowadays practically forbid visual approach. I was expecting a number of things like increase in speed, selection of a different mode like FLCH (Flight Level Change), deployment of Speed Brakes and a mini briefing on how he was going to manage the aircraft’s energy and path. Instead there was nothing and LNAV, VNAV still engaged. I figured out an ideal path to the threshold, 40 miles at most, factoring wind and deceleration. I would like to be now at 9000 ft. but we are at 23000 ft. The Flight Management Computer shows 80 miles to touch down. I see it coming. Still descending at 1200 ft./min. A/P, LNAV, VNAV, F/D, A/T ... all engaged… no reaction.

“Buddy I think we are coming in high,“ I say. “Why? I don’t think so” the First Officer replies. At this point he goes Heading Select and veers off the arrival track for a wide left base turn. “I don’t think we are going to make it” I say again. We are now I figure about 20 miles to go, clean and at some 18.000 ft. interesting to say the least. “Man you’re 12.000 ft. high”, “Why? I was on path all time long” he replies, so I lean over and with my fingers I kind of measured our “distance to go”. I can see his expression changing … I suggested: “How about an immediate right turn by 90 degrees?”, “Yes, yes” he replied. What happened? This pilot hadn’t flown a real visual approach in years!

“I guess he didn’t have that passion for flying that leads some aviators to never fully trust automation but to use old fashioned methods to determine their own situation regardless of what the screen says (distance, altitude, wind, speed, airport elevation, weight, configuration changes and last but not least: looking outside!). The pilot could not abandon automation. He could not figure it out by himself, turning on base 12.000 ft high, showing complete loss of awareness, both of aircraft and self.”

System operators, not pilots

So there are pilots out there who are not able to perform a visual approach? That’s kind of worrying. Who are to blame for this situation? Furlanis: “In first place the airlines. They have realized how cheaper and convenient it is to hire not somebody talented, but just somebody and give him or her a very quick and narrow Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)-training, based to create the ultimate SYSTEM OPERATOR which with a uniform on can well resemble a real pilot. Now this system operator will do just fine because airplanes fly themselves pretty good, the never (almost) break down, the reliability of the whole system is so amazing.”

 “There is a big plus: These individuals can be resourced in masses quickly, can be trained quickly since we are no longer requiring them to build some rare skills .. all they have to do is to read the book and apply the rules and much the little button. I know you focus on automation dependency but procedure dependency is dangerous as well. Especially when procedures are no longer written for safety but to enable monkeys to fly.” “You can recognize those pilots because they usually hang on S.O.P. as if beyond them there would be The Absolute Void. I’ve heard once a Captain telling me: “Keep the A/P engaged until on final, if you want to have fun flying go to the aeroclub.”

Barely a month ago, the press hailed the year of 2017 as the safest year in history for air passenger transportation. The aviation industry predicted a rosy picture of a future where there wouldn’t be any more aircraft accidents, basically because of the increasing automation, supposed to make commercial aviation more predictable and secure.

So what’s the solution? “We fly airplanes within their limits, within the manufacturer limits, within the certification limits, within the regulations limits, within the operator’s procedures… We never allow anything to happen. And that’s exactly how we end up ignoring the real aircraft’s limits and our own limits. We don’t even know how we personally would react to uncertainties. Everything unusual lays outside of a rock solid comfort zone. Everything is fine until the shit hits the fan. Allowing a small controllable situation to develop until a reasonable limit, was the way I was trained by the old generation of captains. And I feel blessed by it. Almost nobody anymore has turboprop experience, nobody flies anything light in their spare time.