Ask the Captain: Has automation affected pilots' skills?

— -- Question:Thank you again for all the great information and answers. I have read recently that automation addiction has eroded pilots' flying skills and that there are concerns about the decreased opportunities for manual flight. What are your thoughts on this, especially considering the recent fatal accidents involving stalls?

— submitted by reader caesarslaw

Answer:Automation in aviation increases with each new generation of aircraft. Today's airplanes utilize computers to do many things including navigation, managing autopilots, maintaining the cabin temperature and more. One of the challenges facing pilots is to maintain the balance of utilizing the automation to fly as efficiently as possible while keeping the manual flying skills necessary in the event of problems. Certainly simulators help hone the flying skills, but they are not enough. Some airlines have realized that there is benefit in encouraging pilots to hand-fly regularly. I believe that this trend will become more widespread.

Unfortunately, some pilots have not received sufficient training in upset recovery (stalls are one form of an upset). There are several groups working to provide specific recommendations to the regulatory agencies. Better training can unquestionably help improve pilot reaction to an upset condition. Combining academic and simulator training will result in pilots who can avoid, recognize and recover from upset conditions. Some of the training maneuvers in the past were not as successful as they were intended. Today we are seeing a slow change to improved upset-recovery training. This is one of the most important safety initiatives underway today. I fully support this type of training and believe it is in our best solution to the recent accidents involving stalls.

Q:I just read an article from a news source posing the question "Do pilots really know how to fly a plane any more?" It was regarding a lack of handson flight capability with all the automated systems operating now.


A:Yes pilots really know how to fly. Is it possible to improve training for pilots and improve hand flying skills? Yes it is. While it is good to see an increasing focus on pilot skills we must remember that thousands of flights fly every day, with pilots using various levels of manual flying skills as well as automation. As mentioned above, it is a challenge to find the right balance where pilots utilize the automation to the optimum degree while maintaining their manual skills. Modern airplanes use many computers to do many tasks. This has improved reliability and efficiency. We do not see many of the pilot mistakes that we did in years past due to automation. There is a tradeoff in risk between more or less automation.

All airplanes are commonly flown manually, take offs are all manual and most landings are manual. There is debate about how much manual flying is enough, but more and more airlines are encouraging their pilots to hand fly regularly. Each operator hopefully will find the right balance for their operation.

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John Cox is a retired airline captain with U.S. Airways and runs his own aviation safety consulting company, Safety Operating Systems.