Nov 20, 2013

    As planes go auto, pilots lose skills


    AIRLINE pilots have lost flying skills as automation takes over mundane tasks and they may be startled when systems do not behave as expected, both of which have contributed to crashes, a United States government and industry report concluded.

    The issue is growing in importance as the US installs a US$42-billion (S$52-billion) satellite-based air-traffic-control system known as NextGen, the report found. The report was commissioned by the Federal Aviation Administration.

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

    Airline safety is at an all-time high, according to accident statistics, thanks to autothrottles, computer navigation systems and other automation on planes, said Dr Veillette, who did not participate in the report.

    The downside of the new technologies is that they may be incorrectly programmed more often and are so complex that pilots do not always understand their actions, he added.

    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 in July said he thought the plane's autothrottle 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.

    It said: "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."

    The report included 18 recommendations for better training on how cockpit devices work, improved design of the systems and new procedures to minimise the impact of malfunctions or mistakes.