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From: The New Yorker

The Hazards of Going on Autopilot

The New Yorker:

At 9:18 P.M. on February 12, 2009, Continental Connection Flight 3407, operated by Colgan Air, took off from Newark International Airport. Rebecca Shaw, the first officer, was feeling ill and already dreaming of the hotel room that awaited in Buffalo. The captain, Marvin Renslow, assured her that she’d feel just fine once they landed. As the plane climbed to its cruising altitude of sixteen thousand feet, the pair continued to chat amiably, exchanging stories about Shaw’s ears and Renslow’s Florida home.

The flight was a short one and, less than an hour after takeoff, the plane began its initial descent. At 10:06 P.M., it dropped below ten thousand feet. According to the F.A.A.’s “sterile cockpit” rule, all conversation from that point forward is supposed to be essential to the flight. “How’s the ears?” Renslow asked. “Stuffy and popping,” Shaw replied. Popping is good, he pointed out. “Yeah, I wanna make ’em pop,” she assured him. They laughed and began talking about how a different Colgan flight had reached Buffalo before theirs did.

Cockpit systems, he found, were not particularly well understood by the pilots who had to use them, and he concurred with Wiener that the forms of automation in use were not particularly well suited to the way pilots’ minds operated during a flight. In 2006, Casner attempted to remedy the first part of the problem by publishing a textbook on automation in the cockpit. Since then, he has focussed increasingly on the problem of inattention. Last year, he teamed up with the psychologist Jonathan Schooler, from the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies attention and problem-solving ability, to see whether automation was genuinely responsible for the kinds of monitoring errors that Wiener had identified. If computerized systems performed as intended ninety-nine per cent of the time, Casner and Schooler asked, how would a pilot’s ability to engage at a moment’s notice if something went wrong, as it had for Colgan Air, be affected?

Read the whole story: The New Yorker

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