The FAA Says Pilots Are Forgetting How to Fly

Typically the pilot is in control for only 3 minutes of your flight, which might explain why not everyone can be a Sully Sullenberger on cue.

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Nov 18 2013, 9:15pm
via Andy Mitchell UK/Flickr

Amidst the daily scoldings about how technology changes us in unquantifiable ways, it’s easy to overlook tangible examples of how technology is actually making us different. The Federal Aviation Administration commissioned a real-world reminder, in the form of a soon-to-be-released report that found that aviators are relying on automation so heavily that, if the need arises, they aren’t prepared to manually fly their planes. As Rory Kay, a United captain and co-chairman of a Federal Aviation Administration committee on pilot training told the Associated Press in 2011, “We’re forgetting how to fly.”

The Wall Street Journal got an early look at the study over the weekend and reported, “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.” This reliance on computer-heavy flight decks and the “problems that result when crews fail to properly keep up with changes in levels of automation” now pose “the biggest threats” to airliner safety in the world.

Tech-skeptic Nicholas Carr wrote about the “de-skilling of the crew” for The Atlantic in October. He explained that typically today’s pilot’s job is more about managing the computer systems that fly the plane. “Automation has become so sophisticated that on a typical passenger flight, a human pilot holds the controls for a grand total of just three minutes,” Carr wrote.

Most of the time, attentive pilots are able to correct automation problems before they become bigger issues, but when the pilot is suddenly thrust back into control of the aircraft, trouble can start. Pilot error and automation problems were implicated high-profile crash of a Air France flight to from Paris to Rio in 2009, and were also suspected in the Asiana Airlines crash landing at San Francisco’s airport in July. Sometimes the problem is the pilot reacting incorrectly, sometimes the automation is acting up and telling the pilot to do the wrong thing.

“If your last dozen landings were autopilot landings and here you are faced with nothing but visual (cues) to deal with, your rust factor would be greater,” Cass Howell, a former military pilot and human factors expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University told the AP after the Asiana Airlines incident. “Too much automation can undermine your flying skills.”

On the other hand, automatic pilots are widely regarded to have made flying safer overall, and are part of a dropping accident rate for airliners over the last decade. Autopilot reduces the danger from pilot fatigue—thanks to autopilot, The Guardian says both of your pilots might be asleep, and that's fine, and maybe even better than them both being awake. It also can safely keep the plane flying in the event that the whole crew is incapacitated by, I don't know, bad fish.

What needs to change isn't whether or not autopilot is used, but how pilots are trained and the kinds of scenarios they prepare for. In a NOVA podcast on autopilot's effect on human pilots, Bill Voss, president of the nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation, said that pilot training is stuck in "Cary Grant, cigar-hanging-out-of-the-mouth, black-and-white movie stuff."

The 277-page long FAA report melded data from accidents and incidents with observations from pilots and industry professionals. The panel members sifted through large volumes of voluntary safety reports filed by pilots, along with additional data gathered by cockpit observers on more than 9,000 flights, the WSJ reports, and the panel of 34 industry experts and pilots came up with 18 recommendations for new rules, guidance material and research. It may be released as soon as the end of this week.