An All Nippon Airways pilot who pulled the wrong switch on a 737 flying at 41,000 feet caused the aircraft to drop 1.2 miles in about 30 seconds three years ago, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
The report is especially troubling as it hints at many of the same problems as a recent Vanity Fair article about pilot training that I highlighted here last week. In that piece, which chronicled how pilot error resulted in the crash of Air France Flight 447 in 2009, the author noted that a disturbing number of pilots rely on automation so much that they do not react well when systems fail or they're placed in an unusual situation.
In this case, according to the Journal, the pilot mistakenly used a rudder control switch when he actually meant to use a switch to operate the cockpit door.
"He failed to recognize there was a problem for 17 seconds, and then alternately pushed forward and pulled back on the controls," the Journal noted. "The captain, returning from a bathroom break, was locked out of the cockpit while the plane nose-dived and executed back-to-back rolls in opposite directions. The maneuvers lasted about 90 seconds, though passengers may not have fully realized what was happening because it was dark outside."
The Journal quoted an accident report that blamed an "excessive dependence on autopilot" and "lack of full awareness" for the incident. Luckily, the pilots regained control.
I expect we'll hear even more in the coming years about the continued reliance on autopilot. For even more context about why this a concern, you might read this NewYorker.com article, "The Hazards Of Going On Autopilot."