We need to talk about how we are using automation

Automation is great, but…

You might have seen Captain Warren Vanderburgh’s presentation ‘Children of the Magenta’. It is worth a watch, but it is also a little out of date. So we thought we would update some of the key points about automation.

Good and Bad

  • Benefits
    Automation increases pilot capacity by looking after tasks like repetitive monitoring, manoeuvring the airplane, and assisting in workload management.
    Automation provides levels of redundancy and protections for us.
    It can make operations a lot safer, more effective and more efficient.
    Simplifies processes and procedures, and prioritises.
    The accident rates have significantly dropped for Generation 3 and 4 aircraft – an average of 0.16 (hull loss) and 0.05 (fatal) accidents over 10 years for Gen4, and 0.51/0.14 for Gen3.
  • Risks
    Complacency – letting the automation fly for you, rather than managing it – takes you out of the loop and leads to loss of SA and a decline in cognitive skills.
    Over-Reliance – assuming it will get you out of trouble – leads to issues when it doesn’t do what it should/what you need it to.
    Skill fade – both of the above can lead to a loss in basic handling, knowledge and overall awareness.
    Lack of Understanding – complex automation systems can lead to a lack of understanding or misuse of systems.
    Fixation on utilising the automation can have the potential to overcomplicate situations, or remove focus from the more critical tasks.
    Surprise and startle events can be dealt with less effectively because of the requirement to intervene ‘into the loop’.
    Rubbish in, rubbish out

How to handle it

  • Understand Automation Philosophy
    The best Automation philosophy we have heard is the “Use Appropriate Levels for the Situation”. What does this mean? Well, automation is great but only if you use it right.

    Flying out of an extremely busy airport will congested airspace? Use the autopilot to reduce your workload, increase your capacity, and enable better listening and visual watch for traffic.

    The automation is in, but the speed appears unreliable? Continuing to attempt to use the autopilot when the information is unreliable will likely lead to a more serious situation.
  • Understand the Levels of Automation available
    At the highest level, the automation is effectively managing the flight profile for us. The autopilot and autothrust manage the speed and physical manoeuvres, while the flight management computer provides management of the profile (modes such as VNAV/LNAV).
    The pilot role is to MONITOR to ensure the aircraft is managing it as expected and wanted.

    The next level down still has automation engaged, but in more basic modes which required a higher level of management from the pilot side, and still require high levels of monitoring. Modes such as vertical speed, heading which require manipulation by the pilot (reduced FMC management).

    The lowest level is where most automation has been removed and the pilot is directly controlling the trajectory and profiles of the aircraft through manual handling.

    If the aircraft is not doing what you expect, revert to a lower level of automation. Consider what is appropriate though. Disconnecting everything might not be necessary (or the best choice!)

    Aircraft fails to intercept the localiser? Disconnecting all automation and resorting to raw data, visual approach will be a huge increase in workload and may not be necessary. It also removes protections.

    Flying into busy airspace where rapid changes to flight path or runway may take place? Over utilisation of the FMC might lead to task saturation. Keeping it simple may help.

  • Practice, when appropriate
    Ensure you maintain good handling skills and are able to intervene and take control when required. This will ensure better capacity and workload management, and will help to reduce the negative effect of startle/surprise to a degree.
  • Understand the aircraft
    Continue to brief what you expect the aircraft to do, and to monitor it is doing it while flying. Review systems and their functions.
  • SOPs
    SOPs are guidelines which enable you to fly in a standard way, and allow the other pilot to know what to expect.


Click on the buttons below to link to the thing.

Youtube video of ‘Children of the Magenta‘ presentation.

EASA’s ‘Bridging Design and Training Principles‘ guidance.

Aviation Safety Magazine Automaton Complacency‘ article.

FAA Advisory Circular on Automation dependancy and training/procedures.

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