Pilots may be relying too much on automated controls

FAA, NTSB, NASA examining issue

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Thousands of soon-to-be pilots learn to fly at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University each year.


That makes Daytona Beach International Airport the second-busiest general aviation airport in the country.

But for all the time the students there spend in the sky or in one of the schools flight simulators, they are also spending in classrooms learning about flight path management systems.

Automated cockpits and flight path management systems, which laymen might refer to as autopilot, have been around since the 1950s.

Over time they have gotten more and more advanced, and according to an associate professor at Embry-Riddle, the systems take care of keeping track of gauges and other controls that pilots would normally spend a great deal of time monitoring.

"By not having to monitor that stuff as intently, it allows the pilot to make decisions -- to look ahead, look out for weather, look out for traffic," said Les Westbrooks, who flew for a major commercial airline for decades before coming to the school. "When you're in cruise flight on the other hand, it's kind of like driving down the interstate in the middle of Kansas. There's not a lot going on because the automation is taking care of everything and it can cause you to kind of drift a little." 

Westbrooks teaches automation to students at Embry-Riddle and cautions his students to not develop an over-reliance on the technology.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a report in September warning that pilots may be developing a complacency in the cockpit as a result of the advanced automation. 

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco in August may have been the result of the pilots not knowing how to react after the automatic throttle failed. 

According to Westbrooks, the initial investigation has shown that the pilot was attempting to input a great deal into the automation system immediately prior to the crash instead of just pulling up on the yoke and landing the plane.

"Not setting a judgment to that particular pilot, but that's really a time when you don't need to be pushing a lot of buttons," Westbrooks said. 

The NTSB also found an over-reliance on automation to be a factor in a 2009 crash that killed 49 people. A Continental connection jet crashed near Buffalo after the pilots reportedly reacted the wrong way because they were confused by automation.

The FAA identified in its report several vulnerabilities in pilot knowledge and skills for manual flight. The list included the ability to recognize upset conditions, inappropriate inputs for situations and retention of manual flying skills.

Westbrooks said the FAA now requires pilots to go through simulator training at least once a year, where they are put into any number of unexpected scenarios and forced to rely on their manual flight skills.

The same applies to their students when they are put inside simulators. 

"That's going to be part of the issue that we will discuss when you come in for the training: Are you relying on automation too much?" Westbrooks said.

NASA is also addressing this issue by commissioning a three-year study at the University of Iowa.

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