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No longer plane simple

15 March 2019

Just about every country in the developed world has now grounded the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft, after two crashes that have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people.

Some are saying that there is insufficient evidence to prove that both crashes have a related cause but when so many lives are at stake, authorities tend to take a rather conservative line.

The jury is still out -- but the media seems to have made up *its* mind that there is a common cause and therefore, that's the story we're reading.

It is interesting to note that until recently, there was a huge difference between the Boeing control model and the Airbus one. Boeing used to trust the pilot and Airbus used to trust the computer(s). That,unfortunately for the passengers on at least on Max 8 aircraft, has changed.

It seems that Boeing has also decided to place its trust in computers and software rather than the wetware onboard.

If you look solely at the crash statistics, that's probably a sensible and sane thing to do. "Human factors" represent the single largest cause of aviation crashes, by a huge margin. Mechanical (or other) failures are far less common and therefore it would seem to make sense to rely more on the plane's automated flight-safety systems than on "some guy" (regardless of how well trained, qualified and experienced he is) behind the controls.

Now I would say that in "simple systems", this bias towards mechanics over man is probably not unreasonable. However, once we start getting into systems as incredibly complex as those used in a modern hi-tech airliner, one has to start questioning such a decision.

There are probably many millions of lines of code in those computer systems and, as we all know, a single error in any one of those instructions could kill all those onboard -- unless there's a quick, simple and foolproof way for the wetware to over-ride the computers.

Perhaps the bottom line should be that computers only care that they have followed the instructions given to them and made decisions based on the data available. Pilots however, care about the survival of themselves and their passengers. This means that a computer system, no matter how carefully built, programmed or maintained, won't lose a minute's sleep if its erroneous decision causes a plane to slam into a mountain-side. The wetware however, would be more than a little concerned and would do everything in its power to avoid such a catastrophe.

Sure, there are the occasional rogue pilots who may decide to commit suicide and take the passengers with them -- but their detection and elimination is a totally different issue.

The problem we now appear to be having is that whereas Boeing used to make it easy to flip the computer out of the circuit and take manual control, they've now added layers of complexity and obfuscation to this process. Yes, it is still possible for a pilot to over-ride the errant control inputs of the computer but it's not just a case of pressing the big red button labeled "Emergency". It's a multi-stage process which requires determination and *time* on the part of the pilot(s).

And this appears to be where things have gone awfully wrong.

Reading a check-list and performing a carefully sequenced set of perhaps non-intuitive actions to disconnect the autopilot is not something easily performed when your aircraft is rising and falling like a wild bronco and while you are attempting to mitigate the effects of those errant inputs. In the case of the Lion Air flight, it seems that the pilots also didn't even have the essential step-by-step procedure available to them due to a lack of documentation.

If the latest crash is down to the same cause then one can only assume that the pilots of that flight were also struggling to firstly identify the problem and then to instigate the manual-take-over procedures -- but ultimately ran out of altitude and time in which to do so.

So where to from here?

Well in what some have taken to be an admission of guilt, Boeing have already been actively re-writing that part of the code so as to make a transition from auto to manual flight much simpler (back to the old-way I guess). In the meantime, those Max 8 aircraft will sit on the ground.

With so much of our modern air-transport technology now reliant on what must be billions of lines of computer code in total, I wonder if we are not going to see more software errors causing deaths -- as wetware gets pushed further onto the sidelines.

Will the introduction of AI systems (where we simulate wetware with code) be even worse? Perhaps the worst of both computer and human traits all rolled into one?

You tell me.

Which flight control model would you rather have in the aircraft that hoists you 11Km into the air at several hundred Km/h? The Airbus model or the (previous) Boeing model?

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