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.