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The Next Big Aviation Safety Issues

In the next decades, commercial aircraft might be flown from the ground and airports might need counter-UAV weapons

Recovering from Upsets

The airline industry had known for decades that pilots were sometimes losing their edge when it came to taking control back from autopilot systems that work so well in general that humans rarely touch the controls except to land and take off. Interventions, in the form of new training regimes, had been underway in the 1990s—but their effectiveness was challenged after the American Airlines 587 crash in Queens, New York, in late 2001.

The Airbus A300’s first officer had attended the carrier’s Advanced Aircraft Maneuvering Program, designed to teach better stick-and-rudder skills, but his response to a wake-turbulence encounter was a series of hard rudder inputs that overloaded the vertical fin. The accident highlighted the effects of “negative training,” particularly for simulators and training that did not accurately reflect real-life situations.

Industry took a pause to reconsider upset training until a spate of accidents in 2009—Turkish Airlines Flight 1951, Colgan Air/Continental Connection Flight 3407 and Air France 447—made it clear that intervention was crucial.


The FAA, largely in response to pressure from families in the Colgan accident, issued new rules in 2013 requiring upset prevention and recovery training in pilots’ initial and recurrent training, including full stalls in the simulator, by 2018. The FAA also greatly expanded the minimum flight time experience for first officers and issued new flight and duty time limitations to cut down on the fatigue that can cloud a pilot’s response to an upset. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and European authorities have made similar upgrades to standards and recommended practices to help member nations battle upset and fatigue issues.

Into Thin Air

When Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished completely in March 2014, the flying public began to understand just how little is known about the exact position of multitudes of jet aircraft overflying the oceans and remote areas of the globe around the clock. Standard practices developed half a century ago—allowing for voice position reports over the radio, sometimes hours apart—now seemed ludicrous in the age of satellite communications, and rightly so. The global airline industry agreed to voluntarily begin tracking their aircraft on 15-min. intervals by 2016, but later pushed for more time, until 2018. ICAO, with the industry, in 2015 launched the concept of a Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS) to progressively change the tracking paradigm through standards that will be codified by member nations. Europe is the first nation to implement portions of GADSS in regulations, mandating normal mode tracking every 15 min. and abnormal mode updates for certain failures every 1 min. By 2021, new aircraft must be equipped with distress mode systems that automatically transmit data every minute when triggered by unusual attitudes, speeds or other failures, and must have either deployable data recorders or a method to transmit key data from the aircraft before a crash. The 1-min. position updates are meant to locate a crash site to within a radius of 6 nm.

Through a Glass Brightly

The optimal fusion of synthetic vision systems with sensor-based enhanced vision systems, known as combined vision systems (CVS), will soon provide pilots with the best of both worlds, boosting safety by virtually eliminating the traditional concept of flight by reference to instruments. With CVS, pilots have a synthetic view of the environment, generated with static terrain, obstacle and airport databases, but merged with a real-time sensor-generated view forward. New rules, expected to be approved by the FAA this year, will allow airlines to reap the benefits by providing for lower landing minimums for various levels of CVS equipage, using the technology in lieu of natural vision. In the long term, advanced technologies in forward-looking sensors should allow CVS operations that will essentially eliminate traditional instrument flight rules operations, which slow air traffic system throughput compared to visual flight operations. 


Industry observers might argue about the cause of a pilot shortage—some say pay is too low, and some say kids are just no longer interested in the profession—but all can agree that an immense number of pilots will be needed to fly an ever-expanding global fleet, while U.S. airlines face a retirement bubble in the next 5-10 years. NASA has been intensely studying the idea of a long-distance relationship between the traditional captain and first officer: The first officer would be located in a high-tech ground station, acting as a pilot and a “super dispatcher,” handling up to a dozen flights at the same time under normal (noncrisis) situations. Information through secure broadband communications channels would allow the super dispatcher to come to the captain’s aid in an emergency. The aircraft could also be flown from the ground station, if required.

Industry observers say if you can reduce onboard crew to one, however, you can reduce it to zero since the backup systems would already have to be in place in case that one person became incapacitated. The economy of scale for first officers would in theory help with the pilot shortage, but much more work is in store to come to terms with the societal and security implications of further reducing the crew.

The Drone Menace

There are few reliable estimates of the total number of commercial unmanned air vehicles (UAV) in service, whether for commercial or recreational use, but the numbers are likely in seven digits and rising. So far, there has been no confirmed drone-to-aircraft collision involving a commercial UAV, but two incidents in which aircraft struck unknown objects that were apparently not birds are under investigation in the U.S. The FAA reported in September 2015 that there had been 650 reports of UAV sightings by commercial and general aviation pilots last year, versus 238 in all of 2014, and at the end of 2015 required all UAV users to register their vehicles before flying them outdoors. So far, there’s little data on the actual collision hazard posed by mini-UAVs, but the potential for airspace disruption—which itself is a safety hazard—is real.

Some companies, such as Selex, are actively pushing counterdrone systems, designed to detect, classify and identify drones and if necessary take control of them for the protection of civil infrastructure, airports included. 

This article was originally published on January 15, 2016.

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