Thursday, September 01, 2011

TDD Readers Already Know This

Aircraft automation may be eroding pilots' skills

WASHINGTON — Pilots' "automation addiction" has eroded their flying skills to the point that they sometimes don't know how to recover from stalls and other midflight problems, say pilots and safety officials. The weakened skills have contributed to hundreds of deaths in airline crashes in the last five years.

Fifty-one "loss of control" accidents occurred in which planes stalled in flight or got into unusual positions from which pilots were unable to recover, making it the most common type of airline accident, according to the International Air Transport Association.
"We're seeing a new breed of accident with these state-of-the-art planes," said Rory Kay, an airline captain and co-chair of a Federal Aviation Administration advisory committee on pilot training. "We're forgetting how to fly."
Opportunities for airline pilots to maintain their proficiency by manually flying planes are increasingly limited, the FAA committee recently warned. Airlines and regulators discourage or even ban pilots from turning off the autopilot and flying planes themselves, the panel said.

Hmmm. I think I remember something about this a month and a half ago.
If the training environment reflected [an automation driven] culture, then training would tend to emphasize flying through the Flight Management System. The consequence could be pilots who are very good at translating required performance into FMS commands, but who have completely lost sight of the essential relationships involved in obtaining desired performance.

The article is pretty good the concepts, and does reasonably well on the details. Regulations have effectively banned hand flying the aircraft above FL270 (approximately 27,000 feet) over the last six or so years; however, that is a realm where hardly anyone hand flew previously. Airlines vary in their approach to automation, both among themselves and over time. When I was at Northwest, the operations manual actively encouraged turning off all automation when conditions were permissive. My current airline used to actively discourage shutting off the Flight Management System and the Auto Thrust System (ATS). It has now gone the opposite direction.

Some mishaps that the article lumps under eroded pilot skills are really failure to monitor performance, which is probably more a consequence of complacency. Just over two years a Turkish Airlines 737 crashed short of the runway at Amsterdam Schiphol. A malfunctioning radar altimeter feeding bad data to the ATS, causing it to command idle thrust. The flight crew failed to notice the 60 knot airspeed decay over more than a minute and a half. The Captain's response to the stall warning was quick and correct, but there was insufficient altitude remaining to effect a recovery.

If They were to ask me, which They won't, I would tell Them to include various autoflight system failures in both initial and recurrent training (my airline's recurrent training has added much more manual flying to recurrent training, but there are no AFS failure scenarios). While They are at it, They need to add a currency requirement for completely manual arrivals (AP and ATS off, FMS off on the flying pilot's side).

Steam gauge airplanes separated pilots from the pedestrians. It is time to turn up the steam.

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