A draft study found pilots can “abdicate too much responsibility to automated systems” resulting in significantly weaker flying skills.
Both airlines and regulators commonly discourage or even prohibit pilots from turning off their aircraft’s autopilot.
The result has left pilots with significantly less opportunities to maintain their flying proficiency by flying manually.
Rory Kay, an airline captain and co-chair of a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) advisory committee on pilot training, yesterday described the airline industry as suffering from “automation addiction”.
“We’re seeing a new breed of accident with these state-of-the art planes,” he said. “We’re forgetting how to fly.”
The FAA study examined 46 accidents and major incidents, 734 voluntary reports by pilots as well as data from more than 9,000 flights in which a safety official had ridden in the cockpit to observe pilots in action.
It found that in more than 60 per cent of accidents, and 30 per cent of major incidents, pilots had trouble manually flying the plane or made mistakes with automated flight controls.
The research showed increasing pilot errors included not recognising that either the autopilot or the auto-throttle – which controls power to the engines – had disconnected.
Other aviators in the (FAA) study failed to take the proper steps to recover from a stall in flight, or to monitor and maintain airspeed.
In the most recent fatal crash in the U.S. two years ago near Buffalo, New York, the co-pilot of a regional airliner programmed incorrect information into the plane’s computers, causing it to slow to an unsafe speed. That triggered a stall warning.
The captain, who hadn’t noticed the plane had slowed too much, responded by repeatedly pulling back on the controls, overriding two safety systems, when the correct procedure was to push forward. The plane crashed killing all 49 people aboard and one on the ground.
Airlines are also seeing increasing numbers of smaller incidents in which pilots waste precious time repeatedly trying to restart an aircraft’s autopilot or fix other automated systems when what they should be doing is “grasping the controls and flying the airplane,” said Bob Coffman, another member of the FAA pilot training committee.
Paul Railsback, operations director at the Air Transport Association, which represents airlines in the U.S., said, “We think the best way to handle this is through the policies and training of the airlines to ensure they stipulate that the pilots devote a fair amount of time to manually flying.
“We want to encourage pilots to do that and not rely 100 percent on the automation. I think many airlines are moving in that direction.”