Do pilots forget how to fly?

Modern passenger aircraft are getting very sophisticated and, in many instances, computers will control much of the flight. However, if pilots let computers do too much is there a danger that pilots themselves may become obsolete by not keeping up their skills?

The United States Federal Aviation Authority conducted an investigation into pilot skills and the results are somewhat disturbing. The draft study found pilots can “abdicate too much responsibility to automated systems” resulting in significantly weaker flying skills.

The modern trend is for both airlines and aviation regulators commonly discouraging or even prohibiting pilots from turning off their aircraft’s autopilot resulting in pilots having significantly less opportunities to maintain their flying proficiency by flying manually. Obviously, if you have a situation in your job where you don’t perform a particular task often enough, then your skill level deteriorates. New technology is like that. These days, people who have been typing for a living for several decades would forget how to use a typewriter properly because they have lost the skill to do so.

The FAA study examined 46 accidents and major incidents, 734 voluntary reports by pilots as well as data from more than 9,000 flights in which a safety official had ridden in the cockpit to observe pilots in action.

That study revealed that in more than 60 per cent of accidents, and 30 per cent of major incidents, pilots had trouble manually flying the plane or made mistakes with automated flight controls.

The research showed increasing pilot errors included such basic skills as not recognising that either the autopilot or the auto-throttle – which controls power to the engines – had disconnected.

Other pilots who participated in the study failed to take the proper steps to recover from a stall in flight, or to monitor and maintain airspeed.

In the most recent fatal crash in the U.S. two years ago near Buffalo, New York, the co-pilot of a regional airliner programmed incorrect information into the plane’s computers, causing it to slow to an unsafe speed. That triggered a stall warning.

The captain, who hadn’t noticed the plane had slowed too much, responded by repeatedly pulling back on the controls, overriding two safety systems, when the correct procedure was to push forward. The plane crashed killing all 49 people aboard and one on the ground.

Airlines are also seeing increasing numbers of smaller incidents in which pilots waste precious time repeatedly trying to restart an aircraft’s autopilot or fix other automated systems when what they should be doing is taking control of the aircraft from the computers and actually flying the plane themselves.

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