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Automation of Planes Began 9 Years After the Wright Bros Took Flight—But Still Leads to Baffling Disasters

March 20, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

The first successful airplane pilot, Wilbur Wright, flew his 1903 craft by . “For example, if the pilot pulls back on his or her control stick, the fly-by-wire system will understand that the pilot wants to pitch the plane up, and then will do it at just the right angle and rate.”

In the late 1980s, Airbus fully introduced this technology for the first time on its A320 plane, also known as the “Electric Jet.” Other aircraft carriers like Boeing adopted these fly-by-wire systems in the 1990s. But in the 21st century, this technology drew scrutiny after a series of accidents in which automation was a factor.

In a 2009, an Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris mysteriously crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 people aboard. Air traffic controllers lost contact with the Airbus A330-200 plane in the middle of a thunderstorm, and investigators didn’t discover the plane’s black box records for over two years. They concluded the autopilot and fly-by-wire functions had malfunctioned and turned themselves off, and the pilots were unable to take over the plane manually.

Investigators look through debris from the mid-Atlantic crash of Air France flight 447 on July 24, 2009 at the CEAT aeronautical laboratory in Toulouse, France. The Air France flight from Rio to Paris came down during the night of May 31 to June 1, 2009 during a storm, with the loss of all 228 people on board.

Journalist and former pilot William Langewiesche later wrote in Vanity Fair that because flying a commercial plane had become such an automated process, the pilots on Flight 447 didn’t have the experience necessary to take over in emergency conditions.

“To put it briefly,” he wrote, “automation has made it more and more unlikely that ordinary airline pilots will ever have to face a raw crisis in flight—but also more and more unlikely that they will be able to cope with such a crisis if one arises.” This was a problem the Future Aviation Safety Team had been warning airlines about since at least 2004.

The Flight 447 crash prompted calls to retrain pilots on how to manually fly a plane, but a decade later, concerns about pilots not having enough experience to take over a plane manually persist. Investigators are still determining what caused the Lion Air Flight 610 crash in October 2018 that killed 189 people …read more


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