WASHINGTON – Airline pilots have lost flying skills as automation takes over mundane tasks and may be startled when systems don’t behave as expected, both of which have contributed to crashes, a federal government and industry report has concluded.
Airlines need to improve pilot training for automation in the cockpit, including autopilot, according to the report obtained by Bloomberg News.
The issue is growing in importance as the United States installs the $42 billion, satellite-based navigation 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?’ ” Patrick Veillette, a corporate pilot who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on cockpit automation, said in an interview.
Auto-throttles, computer navigation systems and other automation on planes have improved safety, said Veillette, who didn’t participate in the report. Airline safety is at an all- time high, according to accident statistics.
The downside of these new technologies is that they may be incorrectly programmed more than previous systems and are so complex that pilots don’t always understand their actions, Veillette said.
The report’s findings were earlier reported in the Wall Street Journal.
The report, titled “Operational Use of Flight Path Management Systems,” echoes the findings of The Buffalo News series “Who’s Flying Your Airplane?” published in 2009 in the wake of the February crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center. The crash, attributed to pilot error, claimed 50 lives.
The researchers who did the study examined 26 accidents from 1996 to 2009 in which automation played a role. The authors also relied on incident reports, cockpit audits and anonymous pilot accounts gathered by airlines and government agencies.
The crash of Flight 3407 and several other accidents in recent years weren’t considered in the report, but they are also related to how pilots are trained on cockpit automation, Veillette said.
A pilot on an Asiana Airlines plane that struck a seawall while trying to land in San Francisco on July 6 said he thought the plane’s auto-throttle was maintaining speed, National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said after the accident. The Boeing 777 had slowed to almost 40 miles per hour below its target speed before losing altitude and striking the seawall, Hersman said. The safety board has not yet concluded what caused the accident.
Pilots accustomed to having autopilot and other devices to keep a plane on course and at the correct speed have allowed basic manual skills to erode, the report said.
Pilots also have greater difficulty handling malfunctions of automated systems because they may not understand the systems or haven’t been adequately trained, the report concluded.
“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,” it said.
In other cases, pilots have accidentally put the wrong information into an airplane’s guidance system, which has caused flying the wrong path or even accidents, according to the report. The report included 18 recommendations for better training on how cockpit devices work, improved design of the systems and new procedures to minimize the impact of malfunctions or mistakes.
The FAA, starting when the group that wrote the report began its work in 2006, has taken action on the 18 recommendations, it said by email. It issued new regulations Feb. 5 changing pilot training to emphasize more realistic simulations, addressing some of the report’s recommendations.
FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta has called industry officials to a meeting Thursday to discuss further steps to improve training.