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Is automation eroding pilots’ skills?

Nov. 25, 2013, Washington, D.C. - Airline pilots have lost flying skills as automation takes over mundane tasks and may be startled when systems don't behave as expected, both of which have contributed to crashes, a U.S. government and industry report concluded.


November 25, 2013
By The Winnipeg Free Press

The report, commissioned by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration,
says the issue is growing in importance as the U.S. installs the
$42-billion satellite-based navigation system known as NextGen.

 

"There are times when the
airplane will do something that's unexpected and the pilots will go,
'Why did it just do that?'" Patrick Veillette, a corporate pilot who
wrote his PhD thesis on cockpit automation, said in an interview.

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Airline safety is at an all-time high, according to accident statistics.

 

The downside of these new technologies is they
may be incorrectly programmed more than previous systems and are so
complex pilots don't always understand their actions, Veillette said.

 

The report, entitled Operational
Use of Flight Path Management Systems, said it studied 26 accidents from
1996 to 2009 in which automation played a role.

 

A pilot on an Asiana Airlines plane that struck a
seawall while attempting to land in San Francisco July 6 said he
thought the plane's auto throttle was maintaining speed, National
Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said after the
accident.

 

Pilots accustomed to having autopilots and other
devices to keep a plane on course and at the correct speed have allowed
basic manual skills to erode, the report said.

 

Pilots also have greater
difficulty handling malfunctions of automated systems because they may
not understand the systems or haven't been adequately trained, it
concluded.

 

"This is a particular concern for failure
situations which do not have procedures or checklists, or where the
procedures or checklists do not completely apply," it said.

 

In other cases, pilots have accidentally put the
wrong information into an airplane's guidance system, leading to flying
the wrong path or even accidents, according to the report.