Automation’s Effect on Pilot Skill

Posted by in Aviation, Safety

The Associated Press seems to have discovered what instructors across the country already know: persistent exposure to high-levels of automation can lead to loss of basic flying skill.

A draft FAA study found pilots sometimes “abdicate too much responsibility to automated systems.” Because these systems are so integrated in today’s planes, one malfunctioning piece of equipment or a single bad computer instruction can suddenly cascade into a series of other failures, unnerving pilots who have been trained to rely on the equipment.

The study examined 46 accidents and major incidents, 734 voluntary reports by pilots and others as well as data from more than 9,000 flights in which a safety official rides in the cockpit to observe pilots in action. It found that in more than 60 percent of accidents, and 30 percent of major incidents, pilots had trouble manually flying the plane or made mistakes with automated flight controls.

A typical mistake was not recognizing that either the autopilot or the auto-throttle — which controls power to the engines — had disconnected. Others failed to take the proper steps to recover from a stall in flight or to monitor and maintain airspeed.

The airline industry is suffering from “automation addiction,” Kay said.

It’s not just the airline industry. The greatest advances in avionics and aircraft automation are not found in airliners, they’re found in reciprocating general aviation aircraft.

We now live in a world where you can ask your iPhone to whip up a flight plan and wirelessly transmit it to the avionics in your airplane so you don’t have to input a thing. Did ATC give you a re-route? No problem — and no buttons to press (except perhaps the Staples “easy” button). Just touch the screen of your Garmin navigator and drag the course line to wherever you want it to go. “So easy a caveman can do it”.

I’m not anti-technology. Far from it. I’m a computer nerd and can’t get enough of the stuff. Nor am I suggesting that a high-tech cockpit even makes life easier. Especially when stuff fails or doesn’t respond as expected, the work load can ratchet up very quickly. But the truth is that once you’ve got the boxes figured out, automation can and does rob us of basic flying skill unless we take a proactive stance to prevent the erosion of those skills.

How could it not? Automated aircraft make us flight managers, not pilots who physically control the aircraft. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s something pilots far and wide need to acknowledge and be aware of.

As Captain Dave noted, flying is much safer due to the march of technology.

Flight deck automation has been coming on at a steady pace since the first rudimentary auto-pilots. It has increased safety by ten fold in this country… Not sure about other places, nor do I want to get into the politics of it.

In my opinion, flightdeck automation, and I use that term loosely, is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

He’s right. What remains unsaid, however, is that much like beefing up a weak point on an aerobatic aircraft, we’re just shifting the hazard to another area. The wing might be able to withstand 16 Gs, but that doesn’t mean the engine mount can. If you strengthen the engine mount, then the empennage or longerons become the weakest link. Each component has its own failure point and mode.

Likewise for automation. Sure, it relieves fatigue from hand flying. It brings amazing weather, terrain, and traffic information into the cockpit. Situational awareness is a snap. Fuel burn can now be accurately estimated to within a few pounds on a multi-hour flight.

But it also means we’re more disconnected from the airplane since we aren’t physically flying it. Up and down drafts are masked because the autopilot handles them for us — until it trims all the way to the critical angle of attack. I’ve seen that happen multiple times without the pilot even being aware of it. Our hand flying skills and instrument scan decay due to lack of use.

This sort of thing is especially unnerving to me because I’m aware of it and yet have also fallen victim to it myself on occasion.

I think of automation the same way I think of air traffic control. It’s a safety asset, but one I must constantly monitor because it has failed before and it will fail again some day. I’ve been vectored into traffic, sent across a localizer toward a mountain (ie. forgotten about), and given instructions meant for another aircraft. I’ve even had a controller attempt to cancel my active IFR flight plan in mid-flight without my assent.

Automation is no different. The challenge is to keep our skills sharp and expect the unexpected. If hand-flying skill was well established in the beginning of a pilot’s flying career, that’s not an insurmountable challenge. The modern aviator, though, sees this automation from a very early point, and for some of them, the basic flying skills are not well established. The automation serves to mask the inadequacies. As long as everything keeps running properly, no harm/no foul.

When it doesn’t? Well, that’s where the rock meets the not-so-proverbial hard place, as we’re starting to discover.