Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Does autopilot dull the skills of U.S. airline pilots?

The National Transportation Safety Board said the pilots of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 were confused by the plane’s technology, which directly resulted in the 2013 crash as the plane landed in San Francisco.

Pilots are so used to using automation technology in the cockpit that experts are worried that some of them lack the skills to manually fly planes.

That concern was summarized by the inspector general at the U.S. Department of Transportation, who took the Federal Aviation Administration to task this month, saying the agency does not know how many pilots are capable of actually taking the controls if their electronic systems go dark.

“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,” the inspector general said in a letter to the FAA .

Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed while the pilots were attempting a landing at San Francisco International Airport. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the crew’s reliance on automation was a contributing factor.

“We’ve recommended that pilots have more opportunity to practice manually flying the aircraft,” said Robert L. Sumwalt, who spent 32 years as an airline pilot before joining the NTSB in 2006, pointing to the issues raised by his own agency.

The FAA responded to the inspector general’s letter with a commitment to enhance training requirements.

“A well-trained flight crew is the single most important safety asset on any flight,” the Air Line Pilots Association said in response to the inspector general’s letter. “Airline pilots’ skills are continuously monitored throughout their careers. ALPA supports the Federal Aviation Administration’s proven effectiveness in its oversight of pilot training.”

The auto­pilot, developed by Sperry Corp. in 1912, is so ubiquitous that pilots commonly refer to it as “George.” It’s a safe bet that even before the captain turns off the seat belt sign, “George” is flying the plane.

Twentieth-century pilots had to enter much of the data needed for their auto­pilot systems, but now much of it is electronically uploaded into the plane’s flight management system. Cockpits are so loaded with electronics that planes virtually fly themselves, although the FAA requires pilots to be hands-on for takeoffs and landings while a plane is below 500 feet.

In addition to the auto­pilot, pilots use a new system known as En Route Automation Modernization, which governs their routing and helps them get around congested air space and bad weather.

“The changes that have been made in the past decade have been monumental,” Sumwalt said.

But there are situations in which a pilot’s skill at the controls will determine the fate of the airplane. When pilots respond successfully, the event makes no news. When they don’t, however, their failure can make for gruesome reading.

In 2009, a Colgan Air flight from Newark to Buffalo crashed after its pilots fumbled when a stall warning went off. The crash killed 50.

The same year, an Air France plane en route from Brazil to Paris crashed into the Atlantic Ocean after the auto­pilot malfunctioned and crew error caused the plan to stall. All 228 aboard died.

And in 2014, an AirAsia plane crashed into the Java Sea after the auto­pilot kicked off in bad weather and the pilot’s bad decision put the plane into a stall that led to 162 deaths.

In the 2013 Asiana Airlines crash, the plane clipped a seawall while landing in San Francisco, killing three and injuring 187.

“We talked about the pilot’s over-reliance on the auto throttle system” in the NTSB report on the crash, said Sumwalt, who flew for Piedmont Airlines and US Airways, logging 14,000 flight hours.

“The general rule of thumb is that any time you’re not sure what the automation is doing, you should disconnect and fly manually,” he said.

Well aware that gadgetry had overtaken the role of the pilot in the cockpit, the FAA in 2013 told airlines they needed to promote hands-on flying to be sure that pilots keep their skills up. But the inspector general, in a letter to the FAA, said the agency had not followed up to make sure they did.

“FAA has not determined whether air carriers have increased manual flying opportunities as a result of issuing its recommendation to the industry,” the inspector general’s letter said. “FAA has not ensured that air carrier training programs adequately focus on manual flying skills.”

In responding to the letter, the FAA said it would develop guidance for the airlines on appropriate training and set standards to ensure pilots demonstrate that they have maintained their hands-on skills.

Original article can be found here:

NTSB Identification: DCA13MA120
Scheduled 14 CFR Part 129: Foreign operation of Asiana Airlines
Accident occurred Saturday, July 06, 2013 in San Francisco, CA
Probable Cause Approval Date: 02/03/2015
Aircraft: BOEING 777-200ER, registration: HL7742
Injuries: 3 Fatal, 50 Serious, 137 Minor, 117 Uninjured.

NTSB investigators traveled in support of this investigation and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

The Safety Board's full report is available at The Aircraft Accident Report number is NTSB/AAR-14/01.

On July 6, 2013, about 1128 Pacific daylight time, a Boeing 777-200ER, Korean registration HL7742, operating as Asiana Airlines flight 214, was on approach to runway 28L when it struck a seawall at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), San Francisco, California. Three of the 291 passengers were fatally injured; 40 passengers, 8 of the 12 flight attendants, and 1 of the 4 flight crewmembers received serious injuries. The other 248 passengers, 4 flight attendants, and 3 flight crewmembers received minor injuries or were not injured. The airplane was destroyed by impact forces and a postcrash fire. Flight 214 was a regularly scheduled international passenger flight from Incheon International Airport (ICN), Seoul, Korea, operating under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 129. Visual meteorological conditions (VMC) prevailed, and an instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plan was filed.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:

The flight crew's mismanagement of the airplane's descent during the visual approach, the pilot flying's unintended deactivation of automatic airspeed control, the flight crew's inadequate monitoring of airspeed, and the flight crew's delayed execution of a go-around after they became aware that the airplane was below acceptable glidepath and airspeed tolerances. 

Contributing to the accident were (1) the complexities of the autothrottle and autopilot flight director systems that were inadequately described in Boeing's documentation and Asiana's pilot training, which increased the likelihood of mode error; (2) the flight crew's nonstandard communication and coordination regarding the use of the autothrottle and autopilot flight director systems; (3) the pilot flying's inadequate training on the planning and executing of visual approaches; (4) the pilot monitoring/instructor pilot's inadequate supervision of the pilot flying; and (5) flight crew fatigue, which likely degraded their performance.

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