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.