Fears that autopilot reliance has blunted pilots' skills

By Ashley Halsey

Photo / iStock
Photo / iStock

Pilots are so used to using automation technology in the cockpit that experts are worried some of them lack the skills to manually fly planes.

That concern was summarised by the inspector general at the US Department of Transportation, who took the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to task this month, saying the agency doesn't know how many pilots are capable of actually taking the controls if their electronic systems go dark.

"While airlines have long used automation safely to improve efficiency and reduce pilot workload, several recent accidents, including the July 2013 crash of Asiana Airlines flight 214, have shown that pilots who typically fly with automation can make errors when confronted with an unexpected event or transitioning to manual flying," the inspector general said in a letter to the FAA.

Asiana Airlines flight 214 crashed while attempting to land at San Francisco International Airport. The National Transportation Safety Board determined the crew's reliance on automation was a contributing factor.

"We've recommended that pilots have more opportunity to practise manually flying the aircraft," said Robert Sumwalt, who spent 32 years as an airline pilot before joining the NTSB in 2006, pointing to the issues raised by his own agency.

The FAA responded to the inspector general's letter with a commitment to enhance training requirements.

"A well-trained flight crew is the single most important safety asset on any flight," the Air Line Pilots Association said in response to the inspector general's letter. "Airline pilots' skills are continuously monitored throughout their careers. ALPA supports the Federal Aviation Administration's proven effectiveness in its oversight of pilot training."

The autopilot, developed by Sperry Corp in 1912, is so ubiquitous that pilots commonly refer to it as "George". It's a safe bet that even before the captain turns off the seat belt sign, "George" is flying the plane.

Cockpits are so loaded with electronics that planes virtually fly themselves, though the FAA requires pilots to be hands-on for takeoffs and landings when a plane is below 150m.

In addition to the autopilot, pilots use a new system known as ERAM (En Route Automation Modernisation), which governs their routes and helps them get around congested air space or bad weather.

"The changes that have been made in the past decade have been monumental," Sumwalt said.

Well aware that gadgetry had overtaken the role of the pilot, the FAA in 2013 told airlines they needed to promote hands-on flying. But the inspector general, in a letter to the FAA, said the agency had not followed up to make sure they did.

Responding to the letter, the FAA said it would develop guidance on appropriate training and set standards to ensure pilots maintain their hands-on skills.

- Washington Post

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