Does Airbus Fly-by-Wire Technology “Protect Passengers From Pilots?”

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If you’re like William Langewiesche, then your opinion is yes. But if you’re a true stick-and-rudder pilot, you’ll find the book Fly by Wire an interesting, if not infuriating read. Disguised as an insider’s guide to the “Miracle on the Hudson,” this book actually revisits the old Airbus vs. Boeing debate and presents a strong argument in favor of Airbus’ flight envelope protections — automation designed to override pilots if they push the airplane too far.

Fly by Wire is advertised as a second look at US Airways 1549, the famous flight where Captain Sully Sullenberger ditched his crippled airplane into New York’s Hudson River. Langewiesche relates the narrative of that five minute flight back to the Airbus fly-by-wire system.

The heart of Fly by Wire explores Airbus’ design and development philosophy through interviews with Bernard Ziegler, the former French test pilot and engineer behind fly-by-wire design. There’s something unlikeable about Ziegler — maybe it’s his overwhelming ego, or maybe it’s his low opinion of professional pilots.

Ziegler states that the Airbus isn’t designed with great pilots in mind, and quickly points out that most airline pilots are average at best. With that in mind, he wanted to build a plane that would actively protect the passengers from pilots. And he’s quite frank about it:

“Bah, these airline pilots. It’s all about their command authority… What that means in practice is they want to be able to choose how their passengers die… Some [are arrogant] yes. And they have the flaw of being too well paid… You’re not supposed to be the blue-eyed hero here. Your job is to make decisions, to stay awake, and to know which buttons to push and when.”

This might feel like a slap in the face to true stick-and-rudder pilots, but Langewiesche defends Ziegler to the end. He cites a number of pilot-error accidents, and convincingly argues that an Airbus would have saved the day. The poster child for his case is American 965 which crashed in Cali where, among other things, the crew failed to retract the spoilers during a climb in mountainous terrain. Modern Airbuses will do this automatically in case the crew forgets.

Air France 296 flies into trees during air show at Mulhouse-Habsheim, France

Fly-by-wire critics might point accident at the Toulouse air show, where an A320 overrode pilot control inputs and gently flew into the trees. Langewiesche rightly faults the pilots for putting the airplane into a dangerous situation. But he turns the argument around and reminds us that 133 people survived the crash. Langewiesche writes that the crash was inevitable, but flight envelope protections are what made it survivable.

Despite his sometimes controversial claims, Langewieche puts readers at ease with his lighthearted and humorous tone. He glosses over some of the technical aspects of aviation, but the material isn’t watered down. Instead, he presents an eloquent argument that is accessible to pilots and non-pilots alike. Regardless of your opinion of fly-by-wire technology, I suggest you give Fly by Wire a read.


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About the author
Pat Flannigan is a professional pilot and aviation blogger. He has been flying for fifteen years and is currently working as an airline pilot in the United States.

5 Replies to Does Airbus Fly-by-Wire Technology “Protect Passengers From Pilots?”

  1. bleno says:

    The A320 crash was in Mulhouse, not Toulouse.

  2. Flyopia says:

    Interesting article. I haven’t read the book, but I think computerized advancements are generally good. I do think the Boeing philosophy may be a better one however (the P.I.C. has full authority). From my own research I’ve speculated that perhaps the autopilot was also involved in the Air France 447 crash over the Atlantic. That is purely my own suspicion (and I’m not a crash expert) as I’ve never seen any major media coverage on that possibility. Here’s my take on that crash if you’re interested. http://flyopia.com/air-france-flight-447/ There are quite a few ‘conclusions’ that don’t add up for me, and your article points to some precedent with 296.

    • Agreed – advancements are good, and I’ve seen how cockpit distractions can work to divert a pilot from the number one priority: fly the airplane. I think the Airbus philosophy as it is portrayed in this book is a little repugnant, but it’s really hard to dispute some of the claims. When the situation arises, maybe we’re not as good as we think we are.

      As far as Air France in the Atlantic, I would agree that the automation played a huge role in the accident, but indirectly. I feel that it can become a bit of a crutch. If automation makes it safe to snatch the stick and yank back to get out of any situation – including stalls, then it builds a sense of false understanding of aerodynamics. Even though the airplane had reverted to almost full conventional controls during a full stall, the stick was held fully-back. That’s clearly a disconnect from basic airmanship as taught in private pilot 101.

      Stall recovery works the same in a Cessna as it does on my CRJ or even a doomed Airbus. Unload the wing and all is well.

  3. Chris R says:

    A few months after Air France 447, a NW A330 had same situation occur, but they reverted to basic pilot skills and maintained cruise power, attitude, and trim. 90 seconds later, the air data systems returned to normal. If engineers attempt to replace pilot skill with technology, there is no pilot skill left when technology fails. AF447 was partly lost because the relief pilot who was at the controls failed to use basic stall recovery skills. Guess what encourages skill loss…. Maybe a career based in over reliance on automation? Also, hiding a joystick on the outboard side of the flying pilot prevents the monitoring pilot from immediately knowing what inputs are being fed to the plane. The Boeing yoke is mechanically connected and right in front of both pilots. AF447 captain realized the held back stick too late because it was out of sight, especially at night.

    My recent annual simulator checkride syllabus forced us to hand fly almost the entire time. Great training.

    I’m sure the author of this book believes that technology never fails… And aircraft never ice their air data systems, and aircraft never have electrical fires, and high tech drones never crash in enemy territory, etc, etc.

Please, share your thoughts and opinions

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