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Aircraft now so automated pilots have forgotten how to fly

US Inspector General makes flying nerve-racking again

The US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) is failing to ensure that American pilots can manually fly passenger jets if the automated systems controlling the aircraft fail, a report by the US Department of Transportation Inspector General has found.

"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 [when] transitioning to manual flying," the report states.

"As a result, reliance on automation is a growing concern among industry experts, who have also questioned whether pilots are provided enough training and experience to maintain manual flying proficiency."

Automated systems have been used in commercial airliners for decades now. The first autopilots used to be manually configured and were only for use while cruising. But the introduction of modern computerized systems for automatic piloting and throttle control means that for over 90 per cent of some flights, a computer is in control.

The current FAA rules state that aircraft may only switch into automatic mode after the aircraft is more than 500 feet from the ground, but exceptions are made for some carriers. Of the nine airlines surveyed, two-thirds had just such a clearance.

Airlines are supposed to make sure that pilots get enough training and stick time to ensure they are fully proficient in manual operations – both in flying the aircraft and in monitoring instruments to make sure the computer is doing its job.

But the report found that only 5 of 19 simulator training plans had any aspect of pilot instrument monitoring built in, and rules about how much manual flying experience a pilot is required to have won't be in place until 2019 at the earliest.

Only two of the nine airlines surveyed had any system for measuring how much manual flying time a pilot has during operations. As a result, manufacturers like Airbus are now insisting airlines train pilots to fly manually because of fears that they are relying too much on automation.

"Maintaining the safety of the National Airspace System depends on ensuring pilots have the skills to fly their aircraft under all conditions," the report concludes.

"Relying too heavily on automation systems may hinder a pilot's ability to manually fly the aircraft during unexpected events. While FAA has taken steps to emphasize the importance of pilots' manual flying and monitoring skills, the Agency can and should do more to ensure that air carriers are sufficiently training their pilots on these skills." ®

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