May 28, 2011
Over-reliance on auto-pilot operation can lead to disasters like Air France
I believe the current airline training policy of over reliance on autopilot operation has seriously degraded pilot skills.
I recently retired as a Boeing 747 Captain after a 34 year military and civil aviation career. My career straddled an era of rapidly improving avionics and auto pilots.
In this period, auto flight has changed from an useful aid to the pilot to the preferred and now the required way to fly the jet.
In fact most airlines now insist the auto pilot is engaged immediately after takeoff and removed shortly before touchdown. This is currently regarded as the safest way to operate a jet, as it allows the pilots to concentrate on the flight path and leaves the basic flying skills to the auto pilot.
But hand flying a jet or any aircraft is a skill that needs to be practiced regularly to maintain a high level of competency. Overreliance on the autopilot has now degraded many pilots' skills to the point they are reluctant to remove the autopilot even when it is doing something they do not understand or are not comfortable with. They prefer to "see what it doing" before taking action. As with crashed Air France flight 442, waiting too long before taking control can sometimes be fatal.
Secondly by not being totally familiar with hand flying the jet in normal operation, they are unlikely to perform well when forced to fly manually in an emergency situation. This has caused a number of unnecessary crashes in the last few years. Current airline training does not require regularly practicing hand flying.
It was not always like this. Airline training used to have a strong emphasis on handling skill. A veteran Captain would encourage a new pilot to hand fly the jet at every opportunity and would coach him in the finer points not found in any training manual. Day, night, wind or rain, it was always good to experience the aircraft in every environment. Because when the day came that you had no choice but to hand fly in trying conditions, you were ready. Sully Sullenberger did not hone his famous flying skill by twirling autopilot knobs.
Short sighted airline operating policies have left airline pilots not ready to take control in an emergency.
The solution is surprisingly simple. Pilots must overcome their hand flying reluctance, remove the auto pilot below 10,000 feet and actually fly a few times a month. They will quickly regain confidence and flying skill. Also, they will redevelop a "feel" for flight which will alert them immediately if something feels wrong with the autopilot operation.
I hope this will focus light on a trend I have been worried about for many years.