After recent incidents including the crash of Asiana Airlines flight 214 in 2013, the U.S. Department of Transportation released an audit report, saying overuse of flight automation could be hazardous. The report suggests that while advancements in automation have improved flight safety, “pilots who typically fly with automation can make errors when confronted with an unexpected event or transitioning to manual flying.”
And flying with automation is incredibly common; The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that automation is used 90% of the time in flights.
“Reliance on automation is a growing concern among industry experts, who have also questioned whether pilots are provided enough training and experience to maintain manual flying proficiency,” DOT writes in the report. It continues, saying the FAA is not able to determine how often pilots use automated flight as opposed to manual flying and has not ensured that pilots receive adequate manual air carrier training.
While the FAA has certain restrictions on when autopilot can and cannot be used, it only refers to take off and landing altitudes under 500 feet, and even then automated systems can be approved by the FAA. Six out of nine airplanes the DOT visited requested and received authorization to use advanced automated procedures, which are a new arrival to the flight industry. This means 100% flight automation for well over half of observed flights.
A series of studies cited by the report between 2010 and 2014 show that pilots benefit from additional manual flying time. The studies were conducted by NASA, Flight Safety Foundation, Pilot Training Rulemaking Committee and Flight Deck Automation Working Group.
“We are making recommendations to enhance FAA’s ability to ensure that air carriers sufficiently address pilot monitoring and manual flying skills,” DOT writes in the report. “In January 2013,
FAA issued a safety alert to air carriers encouraging them to promote manual flight opportunities in both aircraft operations and training.”
Currently, the FAA’s only way to assess a pilot’s ability is to hear them call out everything that they do while flying, such as checking altitude or being aware of a change in conditions. In 2019, new FAA training requirements will be put in to place that focus on manual flight, including recoveries from bouncy landings and stalls (altitude drops), aircraft performance, manual departure and arrival, and more.
DOT ends the report with two vague recommendations:
1. Develop guidance defining pilot monitoring metrics that air carriers can use to
train and evaluate pilots.
2. Develop standards to determine whether pilots receive sufficient training
opportunities to develop, maintain, and demonstrate manual flying skills.