Has Flight Safety Improved With The Transition To Fly-By-Wire Aircraft Technology?

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For many in Southern California, the end of August is marked by preparations for Labor Day barbeques and parties; however, for the residents of a quiet neighborhood in Cerritos, it is also a time to remember those who were killed and personally injured when an Aeromexico passenger jet and a small plane collided and came crashing down into several houses in 1986. Eighty-two people were killed. At the time, legislators, lawyers, and safety advocates criticized the Federal Aviation Administration for lagging to develop the fly-by-wire computerized devices already used in some military jets for civilian aircraft. Twenty-five years later, the technology is standard to all commercial airplanes—but has it improved flight safety?

These days, a system of sophisticated computers, known as fly-by-wire, not only manages many of the tasks pilots once performed manually but also ensures the proper functioning of the aircraft in almost any situation. First invented by NASA in the 1970s, the technology works by translating the pilot’s commands into electronic signals that instruct the computers how to manipulate the flight controls. By continuously monitoring and controlling essential flight factors, such as airspeed and altitude, fly-by-wire is supposed to improve safety, according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

At the time of the 1986 crash in Cerritos, it was argued that had the Aeromexico passenger jet been equipped with such technology, the pilot would have received a warning that he was too close to the other plane and directions for avoiding the crash. More recently, however, the exchange between pilots and computer monitors in the cockpit has compromised flight safety, according to a study conducted by the FAA and airline industry.

Pilots’ overreliance on fly-by-wire systems to control the speed, altitude, and course of the aircraft can jeopardize safety. The study found that pilots’ ability to manually fly planes diminishes as they increasingly rely on the computerized devices. In other cases, pilots’ knowledge or competency in operating the systems may be limited, or pilots may forget how they are programmed, a problem known as mode confusion, reported NPR. Software glitches can also cause the systems to malfunction. After examining more than 2,000 incidents, NPR and other researchers found dozens of cases in which the systems did not follow pilots’ commands properly, a potentially deadly error in the high-traffic conditions found around busy airports, such as Los Angeles International Airport in California.

Overall, most safety advocates, lawyers, and members of the airline industry agree that technology like fly-by-wire has improved safety, thereby reducing the risk of flight-related personal injury or death. While this may be the case, problems with the systems—whether attributable to human error or computer glitches—should be addressed.

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