'Automation Addiction': Are Pilots Forgetting How to Fly?

Is auto-pilot weakening response time to emergency situations?

ByABC News
August 31, 2011, 3:39 AM

Aug. 31, 2011— -- Automated flight systems and auto-pilot features on commercial aircraft are causing "automation addiction" among today's airline pilots and weakening their response time to mechanical failures and emergencies, according to a new study by safety officials.

This dangerous trend has cost the lives of hundreds of passengers in some 51 "loss of control" accidents over the past five years, the report found.

Rory Kay, an airline captain and co-chairman of a Federal Aviation Administration committee on pilot training, told the Associated Press that pilots are now experiencing "automation addiction."

"We're seeing a new breed of accident with these state-of-the art planes," Kay said. "We're forgetting how to fly."

The technology behind the auto-pilot on commercial aircrafts only requires pilots to do approximately three minutes of flying -- during take-off and landing – which has contributed heavily to the number of "loss of control" accidents, such as the crashing of Air France flight 447, which nosedived 38,000 feet into the Atlantic in June of 2009.

As flight 447 soared through powerful storms over the Atlantic, the plane's autopilot suddenly disengaged and a stall warning activated. The senior co-pilot then said: "What's happening? I don't know, I don't know what's happening."

The pilots then pulled the plane's nose up, when the correct procedure during a stall is the exact opposite: nose down. The co-pilot was yelling "climb, climb, climb!" but was interrupted by the captain, who said: "No, no, no -- don't climb."

The plane slammed into the ocean, killing all 228 on board. A report by France's Bureau of Investigations and Analysis indicated that there were no mechanical problems with the plane, which would not have crashed had the pilot responded correctly.

The Air France crash is one of over four dozen "loss of control" accidents that have occurred over the past five years. A new study by the FAA found that in two thirds of such accidents, pilots had trouble manually flying the plane, or made mistakes with automated flight controls. Though fatal commercial airline accidents have decreased dramatically in the U.S. in the past decade, hundreds have died in "loss of control" accidents.

In 2009 near Buffalo, N.Y., the pilots of a Colgan Air flight first entered the incorrect altitude data into the plane's computer, and then worsened a stall. Their plane crashed, killing 50. Two weeks later a Turkish Airways flight crashed in Amsterdam killing nine. Investigators described the three pilots' "automation surprise" when they discovered the plane was about to stall.

Kay's committee also found that airline pilots have little opportunity to maintain the essential skills of flying manually.

The new draft study by the FAA says that pilots often "abdicate too much responsibility to automated systems." It also found that in more than 60 percent of accidents pilots had trouble manually flying the plane or made mistakes with automated flight controls.

"They can get rusty if they don't be responsible and go back and manipulate the controls of that airplane manually once in a while so they can see how that airplane actually flies," said Kevin Hiatt of the Flight Safety Foundation. "You still have to have the living breathing pilot there to make sure that that airplane operating in as safe a manner possible."

Airlines and regulators discourage or even prohibit pilots from turning off the autopilot and flying planes themselves, according to the FAA committee.

The situation is even worse on commuter flights, where pilots only manually operate the plane for 80 seconds out of a typical two-hour flight.

The FAA's report recommends that pilots take control of the airplane more often in order to keep their skills sharp -- so they are prepared to react when the computers cannot.

ABC News' Jim Sciutto and the Associated Press contributed to this report