Autopilot Safety Under Scrutiny

By Kevin Spak,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 1, 2009 9:55 AM CDT

(Newser) – One minute Qantas Flight 72 was cruising at a level altitude, autopilot humming. Then suddenly, for no apparent reason, the Airbus A320 went into a nosedive, as the pilots helplessly watched. Eventually, they righted the plane, but not before 115 passengers were injured. Nor was this an isolated incident. Automated systems have been behind many recent aerial scares, sparking a debate on just how safe computers in the cockpit are, Der Spiegel reports.

In the Air France crash, for example, maintenance messages reveal the computers switched themselves off when they received contradictory data. “Incidents of this nature are a harbinger of what is to come,” warns one US NTSB official. One expert estimates that one error per billion flying hours is inevitable for these systems, and it can take programmers weeks to determine what went wrong. “The pilot, on the other hand, sometimes has only seconds.”