Fix to software problem behind naval helicopter crash needed ‘forthwith’: experts
Sikorsky, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, and the Royal Canadian Air Force have done a thorough exploration of the ways similar problems might emerge and have concluded the aircraft is safe.
The software issue identified as a cause of last year’s naval helicopter crash off Greece that killed six Canadian crew members needs to be fixed without delay, say experts on the interplay between automation and humans in aircraft.
Two internal reviews by the Canadian Armed Forces found the autopilot took control of the CH-148 Cyclone helicopter, plunging it into the Ionian Sea as the pilot was turning to return to HMCS Fredericton on April 29, 2020.
Master Cpl. Matthew Cousins, Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough, Capt. Kevin Hagen, Capt. Brenden MacDonald, Capt. Maxime Miron-Morin and Sub-Lt. Matthew Pyke died in the crash.
Mary (Missy) Cummings, an engineer and former U.S. navy pilot, reviewed the Flight Safety Investigation Report, the second of two reports by the military, after its release June 28. Cummings, director of the humans and autonomy lab at Duke University, called the pilot’s inability to regain control from automated software “a very serious problem.”
“This needs to be addressed forthwith. It should be fixed, bottom line. Who bears the costs, that’s up to the lawyers to decide,” she said in a recent video interview from Durham, N.C.
She said the automation on the aircraft is flawed. “There is known confusion for pilots, and instead of addressing this problem head on, people are trying to make excuses for either how the system is or was designed,” she said.
“It’s very likely that another fatality is going to happen if they don’t address this problem.”
According to the two reports’ findings, the autopilot was left on as the pilot executed a sharp turn, and as a result the software built up commands, preventing the pilot from resuming manual control at the end of his turn. The first military report — the Board of Inquiry report — referred to this accumulation of calculations from the automated software as “attitude command bias.”
The Board of Inquiry report said these commands in the software “can accumulate to such a degree that it severely diminishes, or even exceeds,” the pilot’s ability to control the aircraft manually.
Greg Jamieson, a professor of industrial engineering at the University of Toronto who studies human-automation interactions, said the software issue “is a present safety issue that the Defence Department needs to immediately address with Sikorsky.”
The military responds that the aircraft manufacturer, Sikorsky, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, and the Royal Canadian Air Force have done a thorough exploration of the ways similar problems might emerge and have concluded the aircraft is safe.
In an emailed statement sent July 16, Defence Department spokeswoman Jessica Lamirandesaid that as a result of a detailed assessment, the aircraft is being modified to make pilots more aware of when they’re using autopilot and to provide more warning signals for the flight crew.
As for a fix to the software issue, Lamirande wrote that the military is working with Sikorsky to “determine the exact parameters of how to implement this modification.”
“The Cyclone is a complex system, and we need to make sure that, by introducing this change, we are not causing adverse or unintended issues to other parts of the system,” she said. She called the change “a very high priority modification for the fleet” that will be completed as soon as possible.