Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Pilots Rely Too Much on Automation

The Wall Street Journal by Andy Pasztor 17 November 2013

Many Aviators Have Difficulty Manually Flying Planes, Study Commissioned by FAA Finds

Commercial airline pilots have become so dependent on automation that poor manual flying skills and failure to master the latest changes in cockpit technology pose the greatest hazards to passengers, an international panel of air-safety experts warns
A soon-to-be-released study commissioned by the Federal Aviation Administration determined, among other things, that "pilots sometimes rely too much on automated systems and may be reluctant to intervene" or switch them off in unusual or risky circumstances, 

The study found that some pilots "lack sufficient or in-depth knowledge and skills" to properly control their plane's trajectory, partly because "current training methods, training devices and the time allotted for training" may be inadequate to fully master advanced automated systems.

Among the accidents and certain categories of incidents that were examined, roughly two-thirds of the pilots either had difficulty manually flying planes or made mistakes using flight computers.

Relying too heavily on computer-driven flight decks—and problems that result when crews fail to properly keep up with changes in levels of automation—now pose the biggest threats to airliner safety world-wide, the study concluded. The results can range from degraded manual-flying skills to poor decision-making to possible erosion of confidence among some aviators when automation abruptly malfunctions or disconnects during an emergency.

The observers found that in most instances, pilots were able to detect and correct automation slip-ups before they could cascade into more serious errors. But when pilots "have to actually hand fly" aircraft, according to one section of the narrative describing interviews with trainers, "they are accustomed to watching things happen…instead of being proactive."

Pilot lapses and automation were implicated in the high-profile 2009 crash of an Air France Airbus A330 that stalled and went down in the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 aboard, just as they are suspected of causing last July's crash of an Asiana Airlines Inc.Boeing 777 during a botched landing in San Francisco.

With the reliability of engines and flight controls continuing to improve, airline pilots spend the vast majority of their time programming and monitoring automated systems—typically relegating manual flying to barely a few minutes during takeoffs and right before touchdowns.

Overreliance on automation, however, has been recognized for years as an industrywide problem, with numerous earlier studies delving into the consequences.

The 34-member committee, for example, agreed that "pilots must be provided with opportunities to refine" manual flying skills, while receiving enhanced training in computer complexities and automation modes. In addition, the draft recommended training for rare but potentially catastrophic malfunctions "for which there is no specific procedure" or readily available checklist.

The panel also called on manufacturers to develop cockpit designs that are "more understandable from the flightcrew's perspective" and specifically guard against technology failures resulting from integration of various onboard systems.

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