Better Training, Not New Technology Is Needed To Stop Pilots Crashing

November 25, 1998

AIRLINES are failing to implement new safety procedures designed to reduce pilot error, industry watchdogs claim.

The biggest single cause of air accident fatalities, accounting for half of all deaths, is not mechanical failure but "controlled flights into terrain", or CFITs, by disoriented pilots.

In one horrific example of a CFIT in April, a Colombian jet failed to make a right turn on leaving Bogota, and careened straight into a mountain.

This type of accident appears to be on the increase. And experts commissioned by the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia, and the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal, say that airlines are placing too much faith in new technologies to warn pilots of impending disaster, while giving too little emphasis to basic training and safety procedures.

The CFIT Reduction Task Force, spearheaded by the two organisations, has spent the past five years researching the causes of CFITs with the goal of reducing their incidence by half. Last year, it distributed 30 000 copies of a CFIT avoidance checklist and an education and training aid to the world's airlines. The materials contain simple measures but, according to research, are highly effective. The training aid alerts flight crews to the dangers of CFIT accidents by taking them through examples. Among other things, the checklist ensures that crew complete a risk assessment before taking off, reviewing departure procedures and terrain in the flight path.

Stuart Matthews, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, claims that airlines aren't implementing these countermeasures fast enough. "We would like to have these aids integrated into every airline's training programme, and that is simply not happening," he says.

Instead, airlines appear to be concentrating on improved ground-proximity warning systems. Unlike existing systems, which use radar to detect the proximity of terrain directly beneath the aircraft, the new devices can warn pilots of dangers ahead and give much earlier warnings.

But Matthews argues that technology isn't the answer, at least in the short term. "We have had numerous incidents of people ignoring warnings," he explains. Indeed, research has shown that adding new technology to cockpits while ignoring pilots' ability to act on the information it provides can cause problems rather than solving them ("Out of their hands", New Scientist, 23 November 1996, p 16). The equipment can't be fitted to some older planes, Matthews adds. And it could take several years for large airlines to equip their entire fleets.

In the meantime, CFIT incidents may be getting more common. At least seven have been confirmed this year (see Table), three more than the number reported at this time last year. And figures released last week at the 51st annual International Air Safety Seminar in Cape Town show an upward trend in the number of approach-and-landing accidents, many of which are CFITs. There are currently about 15 such accidents each year. If the trend continues, this will rise to 23 by 2010.

The International Air Transport Association in Geneva, which represents more than 260 airlines, is disappointed by its members' response to the CFIT task force. Ashok Poduval, the association's director for flight operations and safety, says: "All we can do is encourage them to implement these training aids. We are looking at ways to get a time-bound implementation framework in place."
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Author: Duncan Graham-Rowe
New Scientist, issue 28th Nov. 98

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New Scientist

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