Are Airplane Pilots Too Dependent on Technology?

Act 4: Asiana flight 214's crash brings questions of whether pilots rely too much on automation
3:00 | 05/23/14

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Transcript for Are Airplane Pilots Too Dependent on Technology?
Did it really happen again? Tonight the ntsb is investigating the plane landing at the wrong airport again this week, screeching to the halt, passengers jolted. You would like to think those high-tech cockpits are making flying safer and they are. What happens when those computers suddenly shut off? Are pilots really ready to take over? We'll take you inside the cockpit, watch what happens when we turn that autopilot off. Reporter: Tonight, investigators asking what we're asking -- how could this happen again? Just this week, southwest flight 4013 landing at the wrong airport in missouri. The runway, far too short. Pilots slamming on the breaks. Authorities suspect pilot error. The brakes were applied forcefully. We lurched forward a little bit. I was glad I had my seatbelt on. Reporter: Just two months ago, this giant cargo jet landing at the wrong airport in kansas. Again, suspected pilot error. This july, southwest flight 345 slamming down nose first at NEW YORK's LaGuardia airport. Just went down really quickly. Reporter: Suspected pilot error, the captain fired. And the stunning new images released just last month of that crash landing in san francisco, asiana flight 214 slamming down far too short on the runway. And new video of the chaotic moments just after the crash this week when, in the confusion, firefighters accidently run over a 16-year-old survivor, killing her. Inside that cockpit, the faa still investigating pilot error. California dad ben levy was on that flight. You had picked up toys for the boys? And what were they? They were actually fire trucks. They were both into, you know, fire rescue mode. Reporter: Ironically, having no idea -- yes. Reporter: -- That's what you would find landing. Those asiana pilots telling investigators they thought computers were controlling the speed as they came in. Coming home, ben knew that jet was far too low. Too low. I saw walls of water splashing from the thrust of the engine, above the windows of the airplane. Reporter: Water was splashing above the windows? Literally, I am thinking we are going miss the runway and hit the water. Reporter: In san francisco bay, ben remembering the moment he sensed the pilots were trying to regain control. You said it felt like the pilot was trying to take off suddenly, all over again. The guy put full throttle on the engine to start to gain some altitude again. Reporter: The tail breaking off, the plane skids, flipping into a cartwheel, slamming back on the ground. And what did it feel like? Extremely violent shock. Everybody start screaming. Reporter: This crash brings new questions about whether pilots have become too reliant on computers, on automation. The ntsb has ruled out mechanical failure. They're still investigating why those pilots couldn't land on a perfectly clear day. To me, that was a gross example of a loss of airmanship skills, basic skill set that every pilot should have when they get into any airplane. Reporter: Retired american airlines pilot tom casey says pilots are now relying too heavily on automation. When the technology has grown to such sophistication, the pilot has kind of been squeezed out of the process. Reporter: The pilot's been turned into a passenger. Cockpits so sophisticated now, he says that pilots are flying with little more than a press of a few buttons. We asked casey how many buttons did he push on a typical flight from new york to london, 3,400 miles. How often would you actually touch something in the cockpit on one of those long flights? Seven times. Reporter: Seven? Seven times. Reporter: How many minutes are we talking where you're actually working the cockpit? Three minutes. Reporter: He says the rest of the time, the jet is flying itself to london. Until, of course, pressing that approach button to land. You press the app button and the airplane makes a beautiful approach. It lands, and it stops. Reporter: With the press of a button? Yeah, with the press of a button. Reporter: Is it really that easy? 20/20" given access to this simulated cockpit at embry riddle aeronautics university in daytona, florida. So I am going to literally learn what it is like to take off. Yes. Reporter: They took us inside this $15 million simulator. I've never flow before, so this is my first attempt. I was about to learn how to take off. I am going to have you do the takeoff. Try and stay on the center line as we roll on down the runway. Reporter: Try to keep us on the runway here. And we are at 100 knots. And v-1 and rotate. Reporter: Rotate, okay. So we are going up, keep it right around magenta. You can go ahead and turn your yoke a little bit there. Reporter: Yeah. There you go. Reporter: Wow. Now, we are banking. And normally, the flight crew would bring the gear up, and we are at a safe speed. Reporter: So I have just taken off? You just took off. Reporter: And I haven't touched it yet. You are still flying. Reporter: We timed it. Just 3 minutes, 27 seconds before we're able to turn on the autopilot. The computers taking over the job. How does a pilot not get rusty then? A pilot does get rusty. Here's the most important thing to understand. Will the pilot know he's rusty? That's the problem. Reporter: In san francisco, the pilot of that asiana flight now saying that a radio beacon, technology on the runway that helps you land, was out of service, that they were forced to do it manually. Aviation experts arguing that's the point. You should be able to. Other pilots had been landing without that radio beacon for weeks. Can a pilot who has been seduced into over-reliance on technology handle those situations when the airplane gives it up and says, "captain, you've got it, you're the captain"? Reporter: The faa now issuing sweeping new guidelines for cockpit training, demanding pilots have more "stick and rudder skills." In other words, more practice on their own without computers. Remember the miracle on the hudson five years ago this week? That was no autopilot. It was captain sully sullenberger. And he has no auto systems, none, zero. Everything's gone. He touched down with such perfection. He did everything right. Reporter: But can the new breed of pilots handle something like that? I'm not sure the question has an answer yet. Reporter: In the meantime, researchers are trying to help pilots better prepare for those times when computers fail. Much like they did to us in that simulator. Did we hit? Yes. Proof in those final seconds it comes down to the pilot and the skill. Reporter: Tonight that california dad says his boys won't know until they're older when they got those new fire trucks. Does it anger you? They put passengers' lives at risk for nothing that should have happen.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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