Earlier this month, an Airbus A-400 transport plane intended for the Turkish Air Force crashed near Seville San Pablo Airport in Spain, killing four people. Two of the four dead were the plane’s test pilots. The crash has been blamed on issues within one or more of the engine control units (ECU). More specifically, the ECUs governing the aircraft’s engines had new software installed, and the problem appears to have been a glitch, not in the software itself, but in the loading of the software, which reportedly cut off the fuel supply to the engines.
Shortly before that, another aircraft, the Boeing 787 dream-liner, was also reported to have a critical technology glitch (see our May 4, 2015 blog for details on this one). But, the gist of that problem is that the plane’s entire electrical system must be rebooted at certain intervals to reset the time counter before it reaches 248 days. Otherwise, the electrical system shuts down.
This leads to the obvious question about whether so much technology in aviation is friend or foe. All modern airliners rely heavily on computer technology and the brand new ones almost exclusively so, needing very little input from a live body in the cockpit. Some argue that computer technology is a major benefit to commercial aviation as it helps reduce pilot workloads, increases fuel efficiency, assists with maintenance issues and generally helps things run more smoothly. This is all true, but it also all rests on the assumption that hardware and software running the planes are working properly.
The story becomes much different when the blue wheel starts to spin in airliner control software. What would be a minor irritant on a laptop computer becomes a potentially catastrophic event. Moreover, some models of modern airliners are so dependent on computer technology that the pilots are not able to override the systems to take over manually in the event of a malfunction. That level of technological dependence is probably not a good idea. Software should assist and not govern the flight crew, and the extent of technology in aircraft today risks over, and possibly deadly, reliance.