AP Reports: Automation Puts Pilots' True Skills at Risk

Are Pilot Skills Eroding?

Is an over-dependence on automated, computerized flight controls eroding the skills of today’s airline pilots? That’s the question asked by the Associated Press in an exclusive report that has pilots and passengers all abuzz.

According to the AP, safety professionals and other air travel experts including airline pilots are growing more and more concerned about the increasingly limited opportunities for pilots to maintain their skill by manually flying aircraft because “airlines and regulators discourage or even prohibit pilots from turning off the autopilot and flying planes themselves.” One aviation safety expert states flatly that pilots are forgetting how to fly.

What Passengers Should Know

Before anyone gets too excited, the AP also makes this very important point in its article:

  • Fatal accidents have dramatically decreased in the U.S. in the last decade.

However, the AP story suggests automation may well be eroding pilot skills, and this struck a chord with many on AirlinePilotForums.com, prompting much discussion and comment including the following: “I’m afraid the new generation of airline pilots are not really getting good, solid, stick and rudder and instrument skills.”

Why Pilots Depend on Automation

At the heart of the article is the draft of an FAA study that examined 46 accidents/major incidents, 734 pilot reports and data. Among the findings: pilots had trouble manually flying their planes or made mistakes with automated controls in the following situations:

  • More than 60% of the accidents
  • 30% of the major incidents

Among recent accidents cited in the AP story is the 2009 crash of the Continental Connection/Colgan Air jet near Buffalo, New York that killed everyone onboard, as well as the daring landing-on-the-Hudson that same year by former US Airways Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger whose dazzling manual skills in the cockpit saved everyone on his plane.

Read What an Airline Pilot Thinks About at 30,000 Feet

It’s not that pilots don’t want to fly their planes, but FAA regulations have a lot to do with how they can and cannot fly. As the AP article notes, “Today, pilots are required to use their autopilot when flying at altitudes above 24,000 feet, which is where airliners spend much of their time cruising.” The conclusion is obvious: more manual flight training is called for by many of the aviation professionals cited, but will it happen?

Whether you’re a pilot or a passenger, we’d love to hear your thoughts on this via Facebook.

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Published: August 31, 2011