The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has released a comprehensive study
that says airline pilots are relying too much on automation - which could lead to dangerous situations. The findings are in line with what Voice of America first reported in August regarding the crash of an Asiana Airlines plane in San Francisco. Details of the new study has implications for travelers worldwide.
Aviation experts call it automation addiction, an overreliance on the computerized flying of passenger jets. But that same technology has helped make airline travel safer than ever. The report by the Federal Aviation Administration agrees with that, but says pilots are not as skilled at manually flying a plane in emergencies or when transitioning back from automation to manual.
VOA first reported "automation addiction” as a possible issue in July's crash of an Asiana jetliner. The Boeing 777 hit a seawall in San Francisco as the pilots were attempting a typical manual approach. The crash killed three and injured more than 180.
Vic Hooper flew as a captain with Asiana until two years ago. He said his first officers preferred to fly on autopilot rather than manually. “Sometimes, I would push them a little bit beyond what they had done. Like I’d try to get them to fly a visual approach. They were very uncomfortable with that,” he said.
“We call that culture “children of magenta,” said former pilot trainer Ross Aimer, referring to the magenta color that highlights the route on the high tech instrument panel.
“There are times where an experienced pilot should be able to totally disconnect all the technology and go back to the basics,” said Ross "Rusty" Aimer, a former pilot trainer.
The report found that in one-fourth of the crashes studied, the pilots were overconfident in the automation and sometimes deferred to it, rather than interrupting it. It pointed to what it called an "erosion of manual flying skills" that could get worse in the future.
John McGraw said it's something we can all relate to. He spent 17 years with the FAA and is now an airline consultant.
“If you watch how people drive today, with all the automated systems they have in cars, some people can manage and some can’t, and they are doing that with no training,” said McGraw.
The report recommends more manual flying, and especially training for rare events. But simulator training costs money and takes pilots away from flying the plane - the revenue maker for airlines.
Michael Huerta, who leads the FAA, said, "With technology that we now have available to us in flight simulators, we are able to very, very significantly enhance training."
The report looked at 26 crashes worldwide until 2009 - no recent ones, like the Asiana crash.
The NTSB contacted VOA after our Asiana story aired and interviewed the pilots featured in our series. The board will hold hearings on the crash in December and release its findings sometime after that.