Murphy's Law: Operator Error In The Air


December 18, 2011: The U.S. Air Force has released the investigation report on the loss of an F-15E fighter bomber over Libya last March. At first, the loss was attributed to mechanical failure. But a more exhaustive investigation found that the main cause was pilot error (misunderstanding of flight characteristics under certain load conditions). The loss of an F-22 last year was also found to be pilot error (in not following the right procedures when a particular problem occurred.)

The military is paying more attention to pilot error accidents because similar accidents in commercial aviation have sharply declined over the last few decades as more flight safety and pilot assistance devices have been developed. Commercial aviation accident rates have declined 90 percent since World War II, mainly through the introduction of more safety devices and more reliable aircraft.

This has made pilot error the major cause of military and civil air accidents. With military aircraft, particularly fighters during training, collisions in the air or accidently hitting the ground is usually the result of pilot error. These dangerous situations are difficult to avoid, as the high speed maneuvering in close proximity to other aircraft, or the ground, is unavoidable when you are training pilots for combat. While some of the most dangerous such training has been shifted to flight simulators you still have to spend time practicing in the air to obtain useful combat skills.

But military pilots still make errors even when not practicing for combat. Two years ago, the loss of an Indian Su-30 was initially thought to be engine or electronic problems. But the investigation team found that the pilot had inadvertently shut down the automated flight controls, was not aware of it, and believed the aircraft was, for some unknown reason, out of control. The pilot and weapons system operator ejected (the back seat guy was killed when his safety harness broke.) Mistakes like that are made by civil aviation pilots as well and cockpit electronics are constantly being modified to eliminate as many human errors as possible.






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