Are airline pilots forgetting how to fly due to automation?

The Associated Press has recently come out with a lengthy article entitled: “Automation in the air dulls pilot skill.” And while I doubt that the journalist who wrote the article is a pilot or has any flying experience beyond being an airline passenger, her point seems to be that as commercial aircraft become more reliant on automation in order to navigate increasingly crowded, officials are becoming more worried about deadline accidents involving pilots who have forgotten their “hands-on instincts in the air.”

The article noted that hundreds of people have died in recent years in so-called lost of control accidents where an aircraft stalled or got into an unusual position that could not be corrected by the pilots. Moreover, there have been cases where pilots made the wrong split-second decision, such as steering the aircraft’s nose skyward into a stall, that have led to catastrophic accidents.

Moreover, Rory Kay, an airline captain who is the co-chairman of a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) committee on pilot training in the USA, was then quoted as saying that the airline industry is suffering from "automation addiction” and that we are “seeing a new breed of accident with these state-of-the art planes." It was also noted that airline pilots use automated systems to fly airliners for the entire flight except for about three minutes during the takeoff and landing as most of the remaining time is spent programming navigation directions into computers rather than actually flying the aircraft. Hence, Kay’s committee warned that airline pilots have “few opportunities to maintain their skills by flying manually.”

Finally, a draft FAA study was mentioned that had found that pilots sometimes "abdicate too much responsibility to automated systems." The study looked at 46 accidents or incidents along with 734 voluntary reports by pilots and others plus data from 9,000 flights to conclude that 60% of accidents and 30% of major incidents involved pilots who had trouble manually flying the aircraft or who had made mistakes involving automated flight controls. Typical mistake included not recognizing that either the autopilot or the auto-throttle was disconnected or failing to take proper steps to recover from a stall or failure to monitor and maintain proper airspeed.

The entire AP article is well worth reading but we want to ask you our readers, especially any commercial aircraft pilot readers, what you think: Is automation, either on commercial aircraft or general aviation aircraft (e.g. glass cockpits), really causing pilots to forget how to fly?

4 Responses to Are airline pilots forgetting how to fly due to automation?

  1. free online bookmark August 31, 2011 at 07:54 #

    Moreover, there have been cases where pilots made the wrong split-second decision, such as steering the aircraft

  2. Brad August 31, 2011 at 15:04 #

    I'm not a pilot, but I know a lot about it- more than the average passenger. That said, I think it's ludicrous to state that pilots are "forgetting how to fly." This wave of opinion is brought on by the Colgan Buffalo crash and the Air France crash, where each plane stalled, and for some reason the pilots used the opposite input you would expect- pulling instead of pushing the stick. Why they did so in those situations may be non-intuitive (in the face of a stall warning, automatic reaction would be to push), but there are reasons why (proximity to ground, confusing warnings). Blaming it on such a lack of basic airmanship, that they forget about how speed=lift, should be insulting to everyone with a pilot's license.

  3. Hamza Ishak January 28, 2012 at 17:05 #

    Pilots have to clear regular simulator checks where they are trained in emergency situations. I don't think the automation of flight controls is a serious risk to the safety of the aircraft, passengers, and crew on board.


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