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Flying on autopilot improves airline safety but can lead to errors

Posted On: Feb. 28, 2016 12:00 AM CST

Some insurers would like to see commercial airline pilots get more “hands-on” flying time, as would federal agencies worried about whether pilots are losing their manual flying skills to cope with an emergency.

The Federal Aviation Administration estimates commercial airline pilots use automation to fly 90% of the time. However, a U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general's report in January said the FAA doesn't know if a pilot is prepared to fly a jet manually should the need arise.

“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,” according to the inspector general's report. Industry experts' concern is growing about “whether pilots are provided enough training and experience to maintain manual flying proficiency,” the report continued.

The Asiana Airlines Inc. flight crashed short of a runway in San Francisco due to the crew not understanding the aircraft's automation system and failing to perform a proper go-around, according to the National Transportation Safety Board in a June 2014 investigation report.

The conclusions of the DOT, which also said improvements in airline automation have resulted in an “impressive” U.S. safety record, stemmed from an audit of nine airlines' flights between March 2014 and November 2015.

Airline flying skills “are perishable,” and more manual flight training is “a patch in the armor,” said Jim Anderson, Scottsdale, Arizona-based senior vice president of Starr Aviation, a unit of C.V. Starr & Co.

“Flying is a terribly unforgiving environment when something goes wrong,” he said. “When it comes to those instantaneous situations where you have got to respond, just being able to program those responses is crucial.”

Still, he said, automation has improved safety.

“Pilots may lose some hand flying skills because of autopilots, but look what automation when used correctly can do,” Mr. Anderson said.

None of the DOT-reviewed flight simulator training programs identified the amount of time pilots were required to train on manual flying skills. The FAA plans to impose new manual flight simulator training requirements, but compliance for air carriers is not mandatory until 2019.

One pilot who conducts pilot evaluations for the FAA said in the DOT audit that “most pilots turn on the autopilot as soon as they can during evaluations so as to minimize the potential for error during a graded event.”

However, major U.S. airlines have their own “excellent” flight simulators and spend millions of dollars on training, said Chuck Cederroth, New York-based managing director of Aon Risk Solutions' aviation practice.

“There's a severe risk in using a real plane to simulate a problem if you make a mistake,” Mr. Cederroth said. “Airlines encourage pilots to fly manually when it is safe, and most pilots do so when below 10,000 feet, such as on approach and takeoff — unless it's a really busy area.”

Terry Miller, president of Conifer, Colorado-based Transport Risk Management Inc., agrees.

“Today you can get a job with less hours of experience but more simulator training than in the past, when you were mostly hand flying and needed to spend a lot of time in the air to be qualified,” he said. “Simulators can do what you can't do safely in an aircraft.”

Benjamin J. Goodheart, Golden, Colorado-based director of aviation safety and claims management at AirSure Ltd., said aviation insurers in the past several years have increased their focus on hands-on flight training, such as in-air “upset recovery” or “extreme altitude recovery” practice, where pilots practice recovering from a loss of control due to flying too slow or at too steep of an angle.

Mr. Goodheart said he also has seen underwriters in recent years request additional flight simulator training for some large commercial operators, feeling it's worth the client's time to mimic errors that occur when technology fails.

“The industry has shifted to embrace this type of training. To see it and feel it and do it is critical,” Mr. Goodheart said.

Thomas H. Endriss, Munich-based aviation underwriter at Munich Reinsurance Co. and a regional specialist for airlines based in the U.S. and Canada, said his clients focus on manual flying skills from the start of pilots' careers. Mandatory, recurrent manual training focuses on recovering from an upset and avoiding traffic, he said.

The frequency of aviation accidents has gone down considerably over the past two decades, “predominantly due to modern technology and crew training,” Mr. Endriss said.

“It's the safest stretch in history, and it's reflected in the insurance industry with unprecedented premium ratings and profitability for insurance companies,” Mr. Miller said.

“An issue addressed in the report is understanding the performance of the aircraft and what it's going to do. This is something that's hard to measure,” Mr. Miller said. “It's only when things go wrong and you have to fly the airplane — that's when the diminished skill level or failure to train to competency results in a pilot not being able to fly the airplane.”