Possible flaw in aircraft autopilot systems could be flight risk

Aug. 21, 2013 at 4:54 PM
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SANTA MONICA, Calif., Aug. 21 (UPI) -- A design flaw in aircraft autopilot systems can distract pilots during critical, high-workload events, creating unnecessary emergencies, U.S. researchers say.

Researchers at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society in Santa Monica, Calif., said analysis of recent high-profile plane crashes found sudden autopilot disconnection may have been a contributing factor.

They looked at the 2009 Colgan Air crash in Buffalo, N.Y., and the 2009 Air France crash off the coast of Brazil, focusing on how humans and machines communicate on the flight deck.

"The sudden disengagement of autopilot is analogous to a pilot suddenly throwing up his or her hands and blurting to the copilot, 'Your Plane!'" lead study author Eric E. Geiselman said.

While Federal Aviation Authority regulations require a visual and auditory warning to occur following autopilot shutoff, such warning should occur before -- not after -- autopilot is disengaged, the study authors said.

Autopilot systems should transfer controls to pilots following the same protocols crew members use, the researchers recommended -- with acknowledgment by the receiving pilot that he or she is assuming control.

Better design of automation technology on planes could prevent future accidents, they said.

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