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Automation In Aircraft: BOON OR BANE?

Air Marshal Salim Arshad FRAeS delivered the first Pakistan Division Flight Operations Group lecture of 2012 on July 15, 2012 at PIA Training Centre auditorium. The lecture was largely attended by members, airline pilots, other airline executives and students.

He argued that whilst it was believed for a long time that automation would improve the work load of cockpit crews, and bring about overall efficiency in pilots’ performance, which it did, some basic problems have risen and aggravated the situation. Aviation professionals feel that the problem is not necessarily with automation or new technologies. Rather, there is the need for better-designed systems that allow pilots to quickly comprehend what the on-board computers are doing at any given moment through meaningful systems integration. The problem that emerges with prolonged use of automated systems is that cockpit crews become overly dependent on them, leading to dulling of essential physical flying skills. This leaves them unprepared to take over in an emergency. It is now widely believed that pilot-training programmes have lagged well behind the rapid technological advances made in the field of aviation in the past 15 years. Modern simulators can replicate very closely the feel and handling of a particular aircraft under most conditions. However, these machines cannot mimic chaotic and unpredictable events, making these difficult to model. Nor do simulators create the fear and panic from knowing that one’s actions may lead to the death of hundreds of people. Developing an entirely new direction for pilot training isn’t going to be easy. In the interest of aircraft safety however, airlines need to invest in the right areas to avoid confusion in cockpits due to limitations in human comprehension when compared with modern technological advancements. Focus must remain on refreshing basic pilot skills, and updating knowledge about the equipment being operated on a regular basis. Airline pilots must periodically be checked for their flying proficiency accordingly. Meanwhile, regulators and airplane manufacturers must ensure that user-friendly systems are inducted. These should be optimized to meet the needs of pilots during worst case situations.

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