Pilots are so used to using automation technology in the cockpit that experts are worried that some of them lack the skills to manually fly planes.
That concern was summarized by the inspector general at the U.S. Department of Transportation, who took the Federal Aviation Administration to task this month, saying the agency does not 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 the pilots were attempting a landing at San Francisco International Airport. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the crew’s reliance on automation was a contributing factor.
“We’ve recommended that pilots have more opportunity to practice manually flying the aircraft,” said Robert L. 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 is a safe bet that even before the captain turns off the seat-belt sign, George is flying the plane.
Twentieth-century pilots had to enter much of the data needed for their autopilot systems, but now much of it is electronically uploaded into the plane’s flight management system. Cockpits are so loaded with electronics that planes virtually fly themselves, although the FAA requires pilots to be hands-on for takeoffs and landings while a plane is below 500 feet.
In addition to the autopilot, pilots use a new system known as En Route Automation Modernization, which governs their routing and helps them get around congested airspace and bad weather.
“The changes that have been made in the past decade have been monumental,” Sumwalt said.
But there are situations in which a pilot’s skill at the controls will determine the fate of the airplane. When pilots respond successfully, the event makes no news. When they do not, however, their failure can make for gruesome reading.
In 2009, a Colgan Air flight from Newark to Buffalo crashed after its pilots fumbled when a stall warning went off. The crash killed 50 .
The same year, an Air France plane en route from Brazil to Paris crashed into the Atlantic Ocean after the autopilot malfunctioned and crew error caused the plane to stall. All 228 aboard died.
And in 2014, an AirAsia plane crashed into the Java Sea after the autopilot kicked off in bad weather and the pilot’s bad decision put the plane into a stall that led to 162 deaths.
In the 2013 Asiana Airlines crash, the plane clipped a sea wall while landing in San Francisco, killing three and injuring 187.
“We talked about the pilot’s overreliance on the auto throttle system” in the NTSB report on the crash, said Sumwalt, who flew for Piedmont Airlines and US Airways, logging 14,000 flight hours.
“The general rule of thumb is that any time you’re not sure what the automation is doing, you should disconnect and fly manually,” he said.
Well aware that gadgetry had overtaken the role of the pilot in the cockpit, the FAA in 2013 told airlines that they needed to promote hands-on flying to be sure that pilots keep their skills up. But the inspector general, in a letter to the FAA, said the agency had not followed up to make sure they did.
“FAA has not determined whether air carriers have increased manual flying opportunities as a result of issuing its recommendation to the industry,” the inspector general’s letter said. “FAA has not ensured that air carrier training programs adequately focus on manual flying skills.”
In responding to the letter, the FAA said it would develop guidance for the airlines on appropriate training and set standards to ensure pilots demonstrate that they have maintained their hands-on skills.