AP IMPACT: Automation in the Air Dulls Pilot Skill

Pilots have few opportunities to maintain their skills by flying manually, Kay's advisory committee warns.


Even when not using the new procedures, airlines direct their pilots to switch on the autopilot about a minute and a half after takeoff, when the plane reaches about 1,000 feet, Coffman said. The autopilot generally doesn't come off until about a minute and a half before landing, he said.

Pilots still control the plane's flight path. But they are programming computers rather than flying with their hands.

Opportunities to fly manually are especially limited at commuter airlines, where pilots may fly with the autopilot off for about 80 seconds out of a typical two-hour flight, Coffman said.

But it is the less experienced first officers starting out at smaller carriers who most need manual flying experience. Airline training programs are focused on training pilots to fly with the automation, rather than without it. Senior pilots, even if their manual flying skills are rusty, can at least draw on experience flying older generations of less automated planes.

Adding to concerns about an overreliance on automation is an expected pilot shortage in the U.S. and many other countries. U.S. airlines used to be able to draw on a pool of former military pilots with extensive manual flying experience. But more pilots now choose to stay in the armed forces, and corporate aviation competes for pilots with airlines, where salaries have dropped.

Changing training programs to include more manual flying won't be enough because pilots spend only a few days a year in training, Voss said. Airlines will have to rethink their operations fundamentally if they're going to give pilots realistic opportunities to keep their flying skills honed, he said.

The International Air Transport Association says the most common type of airline accident is one in which planes stalled or otherwise lost control in flight. It counted 51 such accidents in the past five years.

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