William Langewiesche, former commercial pilot and long-time (and award-winning) journalist, has covered the art of flight and the aviation industry for many years. In early October, Langewiesche published an in-depth piece in Vanity Fair about the crash of Air France Flight 447.
Flight 447, as Langewiesche writes, ended the lives of more than 200 people. It came about from "a series of small errors," despite the fact that the airplane was state-of-the-art.
The Crash of Flight 447: How Did This Happen?
"To the question of why," Langewiesche writes, "the facile answer - that [the pilots] happened to be three unusually incompetent men - has been widely dismissed. Other answers are more speculative, because the pilots can no longer explain themselves and had slid into a state of frantic incoherence before they died. But their incoherence tells us a lot. It seems to have been rooted in the very advances in piloting and aircraft design that have improved airline safety over the past 40 years. To put it briefly, 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."
It's worth reading Langewiesche's piece for yourself, "The Human Factor," in the October 2014 issue of Vanity Fair, in which he describes a nightmare that appears to be more and more common in today's brand of aviation: the fact that commercial airliners fly themselves, which tends to leave pilots sorely lacking traditional "stick-and-rudder" experience.
This gets us to the "human factor," which happens to be the title of Langewiesche's piece, a phrase that finds expression in the aviation industry.
In general, the discipline of human factors involves the goal of improving the interaction between people and the things they use through good design. This includes between pilots and cockpits. Simply put, the easier it is for a pilot to control the airplane (think straightforward controls and displays that limit confusion), the less likely the possibility of grievous pilot error.
But as our computers have vastly improved, and in our "quest for safety," as Langewiesche writes, the interaction between a pilot and a computer-controlled airplane tends to dissociate the human in the cockpit from the physical act of flying a machine.
Automated Cockpits, Driverless Cars
In a sense, the story of Flight 447 is an echo of a much broader trend. This is that computers have become so pervasive that airplanes fly themselves. Just a few decades from now, we're likely to be riding around in the progeny of Google's driverless Prius, which has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles without a computer-related accident (Google pins two accidents on operator - i.e., human - error).
But as we move toward more and more autonomy - with our commercial airliners, our military drones, our cars - it's worth asking, in light of tragic events like Flight 447, how much control we want to give up.