Last updated: 04:00 PM ET, Thu January 14 2016

DOT Report Says That Pilots Rely on Autopilot Too Much

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | January 14, 2016

DOT Report Says That Pilots Rely on Autopilot Too Much

Pilots rely on automated systems for many of the important maneuvers made by commercial airliners. So-called autopilot has gotten so good that the US Department of Transportation is actually worried that those who are in the cockpit will forget how to fly manually. 

OK, that might be a slight exaggeration, but an audit by the DOT’s inspector general did find that pilots might not always know what to do if an automated system shuts down in the middle of a maneuver. It is not that they have forgotten how to fly, but that they lack the training and real-life experience to respond quickly should they have to take over the controls. 

Lack of manual experience

The DOT report points to specific examples of pilots making mistakes when they had to perform manual maneuvers. The 2013 Asiana incident in San Francisco was cited as one of the most recent instances of this.   

READ MORE: Enjoy This Amazing 360-Degree Video From an Airbus Cockpit

“Advances in aircraft automation have significantly contributed to safety and changed the way airline pilots perform their duties—from manually flying the aircraft to spending a majority of their time monitoring flight deck systems. While airlines have long used automation safely to improve efficiency and reduce pilot workload, several recent accidents, including the July 2013 crash of Asiana Airlines flight 214, have shown that pilots who typically fly with automation can make errors when confronted with an unexpected event or transitioning to manual flying.” 

DOT: FAA isn’t doing enough

The report is critical of the FAA for not doing enough to make sure that pilots are still getting the training and experience that they need to take the controls and manually fly a plane if they are required to do so. The FAA does have explicit rules in place for the use of automated systems. For example, pilots must be in control of the aircraft at takeoff and until they reach an altitude of 500 feet. The FAA requires pilots to be proficient in the specific aircraft that they are certified to fly. That includes an intimate knowledge of all the automated systems. Also, airlines are required to get approval for any “advanced” autopilot features that are installed outside of the factory.  

By the FAA’s own admission, computers control commercial aircrafts for 90 percent of the time that they are in the air. The problem is that there are no rules or measures in place to make sure that pilots have the skills to BOTH monitor autopilot systems and control the plane manually at any given moment during a flight. 

New measuring and monitoring needed

The FAA did issue a “safety alert” in 2013 that “encouraged” airlines to give pilots more manual flight experience both during flights and in training.  However, the aviation body did not set out any requirements or make any new rules at that time. The main focus of the DOT report’s criticism is on the failure to create requirements. 

What can be done about this admittedly worrying lack of training and experience? The DOT ends its report by recommending that the FAA create a plan for measuring and monitoring pilots’ proficiency in both automated and manual flying.  

Now that the DOT has made this issue public, it will most likely force the FAA to do something in response. New training requirements could be on the horizon.


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