Richard Schaden
Founder, Beyond the Edge

The Dangers of Autopilot

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Airplane crashes often arise from the pilot’s lack of control over the vessel.

Richard Schaden

Beyond the Edge founder Richard Schaden is an aeronautical engineer and highly experienced trial lawyer. With over 40 years of successful litigation, Schaden has won 50 multimillion-dollar courtroom verdicts and hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements for his clients, along with the respect of both the legal and technological communities.

Before his career as an aviation attorney, Schaden worked for the Boeing Airplane Company as a flight test engineer. He has conducted extensive engineering flight tests on several general aviation aircraft, including the Boeing 707, 727, B-52, and C-135. During his employment with Boeing, Mr. Schaden attended graduate school for mechanical engineering and nuclear physics.

Schaden currently holds the highest FAA license possible - Air Transport Pilot. Every year he completes advanced recurrent jet pilot training for the firm's aircraft.


Question: What is the history of plane crashes, and how has the industry evolved over time? 

Richard Schaden: Well, one very interesting way to look at what happened in a plane crash, why the plan crashed, is to follow the history of the National Transportation Safety Board. That board, governmental body, has been assigned the responsibility to investigate, along with plan crashes, all types of transportation crashes.  I understand that from the prospective of plane crashes because I worked on it for many years.  The National Transportation Safety Board investigative team usually ends up being a team made up of the airplane manufacturer, the engine manufacturer, the avionics manufacturer, and sometimes the operators.  In case of an airline, the airlines are fairly involved.  There is never anybody on that team that represents the passengers, the people, or the pilots other than in the context of the pilots for the airlines and being employees of the airlines. 

So, to an extent, they’re looking at the accident investigation as preparing to defend themselves should a claim be made against them.  So, the investigation is kind of like the fox watching the chickens.  Right from the beginning, it’s bent in the direction to take the blame or the cause off of the manufacturer of the engine, the airplane, the avionics, or in the case, maybe of the air traffic controllers.  In that sense, the FAA is always part of the investigative team, the Federal Aviation Administration.  So often you’ll read a National Transportation Safety Board Report as to the cause of an accident.  And when you investigate the facts and that’s what we do from a technical standpoint.  We do a lot of our technical work and accident investigation work; we find that it’s night and day.  I mean, what you read in the NTSB report and what really happened are so different. 

I’d hasten to add that usually airplane crashes are a cause of a combination of things.  There are many things that go into why the airplane crashed and it may be the crew, in part.  It may be what I call “designed induced” pilot error.  In other words, the design was such that it begged for the pilot to make a mistake.  And that’s not a good design.  Sometimes it’s a combination of the crew acting in an incorrect way under much pressure to a simple malfunction, a broken bulb, a loose part, a leaky fuel system, or something of that nature.  More often than not, it’s a combination of things, it isn’t any one thing. 

Unfortunately, in the system, the cause of the crash is not usually dealing with really why the airplane crashed, it’s just dealing with what are the economic interests?  For example, the insurance industry.  There are only a handful of insurance carriers who represent the big players like the major air carriers, the Boeing Airplane company, those kinds of entities.  So for example, let’s assume we have a large insurance company who carries the insurance for the air carrier, like American Airlines, or United Airlines.  And they also carry the insurance for the manufacturer of the airplane, like Boeing.  They have to look at what the risk is from the day the airplane crashed. There may be 300 people were killed, or 150 people were killed; a lot of issues.  They may have sold off a large portion of their risk for an air carrier.  Let’s say 90% to some foreign insurance market, like Lloyd’s or some French market, or combination thereof.  And they may have only held on to 10% of the risk, but in the case of the manufacturer, they may have held on to 50% of the risk and sold off 50%.  So, they know from day one at the time the plan crashes, where their biggest risk is.  They’re better off having it being an air carrier problem then it being an airplane because they’ve sold off most of the risk for the carrier and they’re only holding a small percentage of it.  So, there’s a motivation right from the beginning to make sure that the people who on the investigative team are those who are going to protect their financial interests. 

The FAA may be looking at themselves as a target from the standpoint of air traffic control or certification of an aircraft, or something of that nature.  They’ve got that interest to protect.  So, it’s a very complex process.  In general aviation, small aircraft, which we do a lot of and have done a lot of over the years, it’s fairly simple because we have an engine manufacturer, an airplane manufacturer and we have somebody from the NTSB who is much less schooled in the aeronautics, in the power plant than the manufacturers who are on the team helping them.  So, the result is usually driven by the manufacturer of the airplane, or the manufacturer of the engine. 

When you get to air carriers, it gets a little more complicated and the NTSB gets much more involved from a technical point of view.  They have a good metallurgical lab, for example.  And they’re metallurgical people will look at metallurgical parts.  But again, the result is substantially driven by the manufacturer of the airplane and the air carrier. 

Question: Is this a system that is disposed to maximal safety?

Richard Schaden: I don’t think that the NTSB does the correct job in protecting the passenger.  There are so many issues. For example, if you take a Boeing airplane like the model 737, that’s kind of the workhorse of the world industry.  I mean, they only have one competition and that’s Airbus, and for the NTSB to come out and say that’s a defective airplane is almost an impossible thing because it destroys the balance of trade.  For example, there are huge issues at stake.  So, they come up with some mealy-mouthed cause for the accident that tends to blame it on the crew to make people believe that the airplane is fine; we just had a bad egg flying it at the time.  I’ve seen many examples of that.  They do work with the FAA and make recommendations with the FAS, quietly, after all the claims are settled and after it’s out of the public eye to try to fix some of the problems.  But at the stage of the investigation and at the stage of the accident report, it usually isn’t driven directly in the direction of trying to make the plane safer or aviation safer. 

Now I would add that I think aviation has gotten much safer in the last 30 years that I’ve been doing the business, especially in the air carrier business.  I don’t think in general aviation it’s gotten much safer.  But in the air carrier business, I think there are a lot of things that have gone in the right direction.  One, crew training is much better than it ever was.  The one single thing that that makes it much better is the simulators are so much better.  I mean, I go to school today, these days, twice a year for a week.  I’m in flying a simulator for one of the two jets that I generally fly.  The training I used to have, back 15, 20 years ago, compared to what I have today, was lame.  The training is very good today.  And it trains to the least common denominator. 

The one thing that has advanced a lot in aviation are avionics.  Electronics and flight management systems and navigation systems, like GPS, satellite-based navigations systems.  Those things have provided such much better situation awareness to crews.  They know where they are better than they ever did.  When I started flying freight, there was a young man out of Detroit for the automotive industry; we didn’t know where we were most of the time.  We were kind of pointing and one direction hoping we would find something on the ground that would tell us where we were, or some radio signal.  I remember flying into Detroit oftentimes looking for WJR, which was 760 hz radio station for music and morning talk show.  And I was so glad to get my needle pointing in that direction knowing – I mean, today we know where we are within feet, within a few feet all the time.  We’ve got displays, computer displays in front of us that show the airplane, and show where its relative position is and what its situation is in all degrees of freedom.  So, the view from the cockpit is so good now that you, I often tell people you only really need one pilot in the dog.  You need the pilot to feed the dog, the pilot to bite the pilot if he touches anything because everything works pretty well by itself. 

But on the other hand, that switch to automation where you have to monitor that very carefully and oftentimes the automation does something that you don’t think it should do, or something it shouldn’t do.  And what’s the answer to that usually?  Reboot.  Well, if you’re three miles from touchdown, the weather’s bad, you’ve got ice on your wings, you might have to shoot a missed approach, and all of a sudden something goes upside down on you, you better know what it is that happened and you better know how to revert back to basic data and basic airmanship.  And that’s the thing it is getting away from the younger, newer crews because they start with automation and that’s what they know.   Two weeks before they went to flight training, they were champion at texting on their cell phone.  They know how to button push.  They don’t really understand the systems from the standpoint of airmanship and hydraulics, and pneumatics, and the electrical systems.  They know how to push buttons and how to react to button pushing and messages and so there’s something lost. 

But all in all, I think that the system has been made safer by the kind of technology that’s in the cockpit.  Aerodynamically, the airplanes have been flat for years.  I still say to juries that the Spirit of Wichita is still the Spirit of St. Louis, it’s a high wing single engine model plant, but it costs more and goes slower. 

Question: Is there a trend in the types of crashes that occur as a result of the lack of airmanship?

Richard Schaden: Yes.  You can go back to a crash of American Airlines in Callie, Columbia, where we reconstructed that and the cockpit regularly and we see the pilots are confused and they’re saying, “What’s it doing now?”  “Why is it doing that?”  “Why is the autopilot doing this?”  “Why is it turning us in that direction?  I thought we were supposed to be going in this direction?” 

In the simulators where I spend probably 12 days a year, even these days, flying different airplanes.  The comment that I hear more often than any, either from the instructor or from one of the crews I’m flying with, or from myself is, why is it doing that?  It’s not supposed to be doing that.  So, I mean, that is a common problem. 

Airplanes have been flown into the ground; they’ve been flown into mountains.  In Callie, Columbia that was the case, it was flown right into a mountain because the automation, the flight management system basically flew it right into a mountain.  So, we have seen that. 

The other thing we are seeing is, there’s a lot of use of composite materials as compared to metals.  Metals we had a pretty good understanding of what their strengths were their ultimate strength, their fatigue strength, their compressive strength, their tensile strength, what have you.  Composite materials are just coming to age in terms of homogeniality, in terms of being consistent and having exactly the same properties all the time because they are evolving so fast.  We had an American Airlines crash out of JFK here bound for the Dominican Republic, probably four years ago.  That was the case where the vertical tail came off.  It was attached using composite structure, of composite materials rather than metal materials and the tail broke off.  A great example of what I was referring to before though, the NTSB investigation really didn’t want to ground the Airbus, so the investigation substantially pointed at the crew claiming that they put in rudder inputs that caused the tail to break.  Well, at the speed that they were at, which was well below maneuvering speed, a pilot in airmanship that had learned to be a pilot from days gone by, would have used any kind of control inputs they could use to try to recover the airplane when it got in the vortex behind the airplane ahead of it, which in that case, I believe they were flying behind a JAL Japan Airlines, 747, which sheds a pretty good vortex.  And they got caught in the vortex and the recovery technique, they used rudders.  And so the NTSB had an escape there where they could point to the pilot’s overuse of the rudder to recover the airplane and that’s why the tail broke off.  I don’t believe that for a minute.  I believe that the reality was that the non-composite materials that attached the tail to the fuselage was flawed material.  And you’ll see little bits of information along those lines in an NTSB report, but they work pretty hard at putting it on the crew. 

Recorded on January 25, 2010