Archives For Safety

The practice of safety engineering in various high consequence industries.

Update to the MH-370 hidden lesson post just published, in which I go into a little more detail on what I think could be done to prevent another such tragedy.

Piece of wing found on La Réunion Island, is that could be flap of #MH370 ? Credit: reunion 1ere

The search for MH370 will end next tuesday with the question of it’s fate no closer to resolution. There is perhaps one lesson that we can glean from this mystery, and that is that when we have a two man crew behind a terrorist proof door there is a real possibility that disaster is check-riding the flight. As Kenedi et al. note in a 2016 study five of the six recorded murder-suicide events by pilots of commercial airliners occurred after they were left alone in the cockpit, in the case of both the Germanwings 9525 or LAM 470  this was enabled by one of the crew being able to lock the other out of the cockpit. So while we don’t know exactly what happened onboard MH370 we do know that the aircraft was flown deliberately to some point in the Indian ocean, and on the balance of the probabilities that was done by one of the crew with the other crew member unable to intervene, probably because they were dead.

As I’ve written before the combination of small crew sizes to reduce costs, and a secure cockpit to reduce hijacking risk increases the probability of one crew member being able to successfully disable the other and then doing exactly whatever they like. Thus the increased hijacking security measured act as a perverse incentive for pilot murder-suicides may over the long run turn out to kill more people than the risk of terrorism (1). Or to put it more brutally murder and suicide are much more likely to be successful with small crew sizes so these scenarios, however dark they may be, need to be guarded against in an effective fashion (2).

One way to guard against such common mode failures of the human is to implement diverse redundancy in the form of a cognitive agent whose intelligence is based on vastly different principles to our affect driven processing, with a sufficient grasp of the theory of mind and the subtleties of human psychology and group dynamics to be able to make usefully accurate predictions of what the crew will do next. With that insight goes the requirement for autonomy in vetoing of illogical and patently hazardous crew actions, e.g ”I’m sorry Captain but I’m afraid I can’t let you reduce the cabin air pressure to hazardous levels”. The really difficult problem is of course building something sophisticated enough to understand ‘hinky’ behaviour and then intervene. There are however other scenario’s where some form of lesser AI would be of use. The Helios Airways depressurisation is a good example of an incident where both flight crew were rendered incapacitated, so a system that does the equivalent of “Dave! Dave! We’re depressurising, unless you intervene in 5 seconds I’m descending!” would be useful. Then there’s the good old scenario of both the pilots falling asleep, as likely happened at Minneapolis, so something like “Hello Dave, I can’t help but notice that your breathing indicates that you and Frank are both asleep, so WAKE UP!” would be helpful here. Oh, and someone to punch out a quick “May Day” while the pilot’s are otherwise engaged would also help tremendously as aircraft going down without a single squawk recurs again and again and again.

I guess I’ve slowly come to the conclusion that two man crews while optimised for cost are distinctly sub-optimal when it comes to dealing with a number of human factors issues and likewise sub-optimal when it comes to dealing with major ‘left field’ emergencies that aren’t in the QRM. Fundamentally a dual redundant design pattern for people doesn’t really address the likelihood of what we might call common mode failures. While we probably can’t get another human crew member back in the cockpit, working to make the cockpit automation more collaborative and less ‘strong but silent’ would be a good start. And of course if the aviation industry wants to keep making improvements in aviation safety then these are the sort of issues they’re going to have to tackle. Where is a good AI, or even an un-interuptable autopilot when you really need one?


1. Kenedi (2016) found from 1999 to 2015 that there had been 18 cases of homicide-suicide involving 732 deaths.

2. No go alone rules are unfortunately only partially effective.


Kenedi, C., Friedman, S.H.,Watson, D., Preitner, C., Suicide and Murder-Suicide Involving Aircraft, Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance, Aerospace Medical Association, 2016.

People must retain control of autonomous vehicles

So here’s a question for the safety engineers at Airbus. Why display unreliable airspeed data if it truly is that unreliable?

In slightly longer form. If (for example) air data is so unreliable that your automation needs to automatically drop out of it’s primary mode, and your QRH procedure is then to manually fly pitch and thrust (1) then why not also automatically present a display page that only provides the data that pilots can trust and is needed to execute the QRH procedure (2)? Not doing so smacks of ‘awkward automation’ where the engineers automate the easy tasks but leave the hard tasks to the human, usually with comments in the flight manual to the effect that, “as it’s way too difficult to cover all failure scenarios in the software it’s over to you brave aviator” (3). This response is however something of a cop out as what is needed is not a canned response to such events but rather a flexible decision and situational awareness (SA) toolset that can assist the aircrew in responding to unprecedented events (see for example both QF72 and AF447) that inherently demand sense-making as a precursor to decision making (4). Some suggestions follow:

  1. Redesign the attitude display with articulated pitch ladders, or a Malcom’s horizon to improve situational awareness.
  2. Provide a fallback AoA source using an AoA estimator.
  3. Provide actual direct access to flight data parameters such as mach number and AoA to support troubleshooting (5).
  4. Provide an ability to ‘turn off’ coupling within calculated air data to allow rougher but more robust processing to continue.
  5. Use non-aristotlean logic to better model the trustworthiness of air data.
  6. Provide the current master/slave hierarchy status amongst voting channels to aircrew.
  7. Provide an obvious and intuitive way to  to remove a faulted channel allowing flight under reversionary laws (7).
  8. Inform aircrew as to the specific protection mode activation and the reasons (i.e. flight data) triggering that activation (8).

As aviation systems get deeper and more complex this need to support aircrew in such events will not diminish, in fact it is likely to increase if the past history of automation is any guide to the future.


1. The BEA report on the AF447 disaster surveyed Airbus pilots for their response to unreliable airspeed and found that in most cases aircrew, rather sensibly, put their hands in their laps as the aircraft was already in a safe state and waited for the icing induced condition to clear.

2. Although the Airbus Back Up Speed Display (BUSS) does use angle-of-attack data to provide a speed range and GPS height data to replace barometric altitude it has problems at high altitude where mach number rather than speed becomes significant and the stall threshold changes with mach number (which it doesn’t not know). As a result it’s use is 9as per Airbus manuals) below 250 FL.

3. What system designers do, in the abstract, is decompose and allocate system level behaviors to system components. Of course once you do that you then need to ensure that the component can do the job, and has the necessary support. Except ‘apparently’ if the component in question is a human and therefore considered to be outside’ your system.

4. Another way of looking at the problem is that the automation is the other crew member in the cockpit. Such tools allow the human and automation to ‘discuss’ the emerging situation in a meaningful (and low bandwidth) way so as to develop a shared understanding of the situation (6).

5. For example in the Airbus design although AoA and Mach number are calculated by the ADR and transmitted to the PRIM fourteen times a second they are not directly available to aircrew.

6. Yet another way of looking at the problem is that the principles of ecological design needs to be applied to the aircrew task of dealing with contingency situations.

7. For example in the Airbus design the current procedure is to reach up above the Captain’s side of the overhead instrument panel, and deselect two ADRs…which ones and the criterion to choose which ones are not however detailed by the manufacturer.

8. As the QF72 accident showed, where erroneous flight data triggers a protection law it is important to indicate what the flight protection laws are responding to.

One of the perennial problems we face in a system safety program is how to come up with a convincing proof for the proposition that a system is safe. Because it’s hard to prove a negative (in this case the absence of future accidents) the usual approach is to pursue a proof by contradiction, that is develop the negative proposition that the system is unsafe, then prove that this is not true, normally by showing that the set of identified specific propositions of `un-safety’ have been eliminated or controlled to an acceptable level.  Enter the term `hazard’, which in this context is simply shorthand for  a specific proposition about the unsafeness of a system. Now interestingly when we parse the set of definitions of hazard we find the recurring use of terms like, ‘condition’, ‘state’, ‘situation’ and ‘events’ that should they occur will inevitably lead to an ‘accident’ or ‘mishap’. So broadly speaking a hazard is a explanation based on a defined set of phenomena, that argues that if they are present, and given there exists some relevant domain source (1) of hazard an accident will occur. All of which seems to indicate that hazards belong to a class of explanatory models called covering laws. As an explanatory class Covering laws models were developed by the logical positivist philosophers Hempel and Popper because of what they saw as problems with an over reliance on inductive arguments as to causality.

As a covering law explanation of unsafeness a hazard posits phenomenological facts (system states, human errors, hardware/software failures and so on) that confer what’s called nomic expectability on the accident (the thing being explained). That is, the phenomenological facts combined with some covering law (natural and logical), require the accident to happen, and this is what we call a hazard. We can see an archetypal example in the Source-Mechanism-Outcome model of Swallom, i.e. if we have both a source and a set of mechanisms in that model then we may expect an accident (Ericson 2005). While logical positivism had the last nails driven into it’s coffin by Kuhn and others in the 1960s and it’s true, as Kuhn and others pointed out, that covering model explanations have their fair share of problems so to do other methods (2). The one advantage that covering models do possess over other explanatory models however is that they largely avoid the problems of causal arguments. Which may well be why they persist in engineering arguments about safety.


1. The source in this instance is the ‘covering law’.

2. Such as counterfactual, statistical relevance or causal explanations.


Ericson, C.A. Hazard Analysis Techniques for System Safety, page 93, John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey, 2005.

The Sydney Morning Herald published an article this morning that recounts the QF72 midair accident from the point of view of the crew and passengers, you can find the story at this link. I’ve previously covered the technical aspects of the accident here, the underlying integrative architecture program that brought us to this point here and the consequences here. So it was interesting to reflect on the event from the human perspective. Karl Weick points out in his influential paper on the Mann Gulch fire disaster that small organisations, for example the crew of an airliner, are vulnerable to what he termed a cosmology episode, that is an abruptly one feels deeply that the universe is no longer a rational, orderly system. In the case of QF72 this was initiated by the simultaneous stall and overspeed warnings, followed by the abrupt pitch over of the aircraft as the flight protection laws engaged for no reason.

Weick further posits that what makes such an episode so shattering is that both the sense of what is occurring and the means to rebuild that sense collapse together. In the Mann Gulch blaze the fire team’s organisation attenuated and finally broke down as the situation eroded until at the end they could not comprehend the one action that would have saved their lives, to build an escape fire. In the case of air crew they implicitly rely on the aircraft’s systems to `make sense’ of the situation, a significant failure such as occurred on QF72 denies them both understanding of what is happening and the ability to rebuild that understanding. Weick also noted that in such crises organisations are important as they help people to provide order and meaning in ill defined and uncertain circumstances, which has interesting implications when we look at the automation in the cockpit as another member of the team.

“The plane is not communicating with me. It’s in meltdown. The systems are all vying for attention but they are not telling me anything…It’s high-risk and I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Capt. Kevin Sullivan (QF72 flight)

From this Weickian viewpoint we see the aircraft’s automation as both part of the situation `what is happening?’ and as a member of the crew, `why is it doing that, can I trust it?’ Thus the crew of QF72 were faced with both a vu jàdé moment and the allied disintegration of the human-machine partnership that could help them make sense of the situation. The challenge that the QF72 crew faced was not to form a decision based on clear data and well rehearsed procedures from the flight manual, but instead they faced much more unnerving loss of meaning as the situation outstripped their past experience.

“Damn-it! We’re going to crash. It can’t be true! (copilot #1)

“But, what’s happening? copilot #2)

AF447 CVR transcript (final words)

Nor was this an isolated incident, one study of other such `unreliable airspeed’ events, found errors in understanding were both far more likely to occur than other error types and when they did much more likely to end in a fatal accident.  In fact they found that all accidents with a fatal outcome were categorised as involving an error in detection or understanding with the majority being errors of understanding. From Weick’s perspective then the collapse of sensemaking is the knock out blow in such scenarios, as the last words of the Air France AF447 crew so grimly illustrate. Luckily in the case of QF72 the aircrew were able to contain this collapse, and rebuild their sense of the situation, in the case of other such failures, such as AF447, they were not.


Black Saturday fires (Image source: ABC)

With the NSW Rural Fire Service fighting more than 50 fires across the state and the unprecedented hellish conditions set to deteriorate even further with the arrival of strong winds the question of the day is, exactly how bad could this get? The answer is unfortunately, a whole lot worse. That’s because we have difficulty as human beings in thinking about and dealing with extreme events… To quote from a post I wrote in the aftermath of the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday fires.

So how unthinkable could it get? The likelihood of a fire versus it’s severity can be credibly modelled as a power law a particular type of heavy tailed distribution (Clauset et al. 2007). This means that extreme events in the tail of the distribution are far more likely than predicted by a gaussian (the classic bell curve) distribution. So while a mega fire ten times the size of the Black Saturday fires is far less likely it is not completely improbable as our intuitive availability heuristic would indicate. In fact it’s much worse than we might think, in heavy tail distributions you need to apply what’s called the mean excess heuristic which really translates to the next worst event is almost always going to be much worse…

So how did we get to this?  Well simply put the extreme weather we’ve been experiencing is a tangible, current day effect of climate change. Climate change is not something we can leave to our children to really worry about, it’s happening now. That half a degree rise in global temperature? Well it turns out it supercharges the heavy tail of bushfire severity. Putting it even more simply it look’s like we’ve been twisting the dragon’s tail and now it’s woken up…