Airline pilots over-reliant on automation and losing flying skills, coroner

With increased automation, airline pilots are becoming over-reliant on technology and are losing the basic skills for flying a plane, The Telegraph has quoted a coroner as saying.

Michael Oakley, coroner for eastern North Yorkshire, reportedly made the observation while delivering a narrative verdict into the deaths of two of the 228 passengers and crew who were killed when an Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris plummeted into the Atlantic on June 1, 2009.

‘The air disaster highlights serious public concern of whether pilots are overly dependent on technology and are not retaining the skills required to properly fly complex commercial aircraft,’ said Mr. Oakley. ‘The evidence in the official accident report highlights systematic failures and a lack of comprehension of the aircraft’s situation between the pilots during the flight,’ he said. ‘The pilots were not adequately trained to handle the aircraft safely in the particular high altitude emergency situation that night.’

An investigation following the incident, which took over two years, found that the plane had crashed because of mechanical failure in which the pitot tubes – a device used to measure fluid pressures – were blocked by ice particles. This in turn caused the autopilot to disconnect. The inability of the crew to react led to the plane stalling before plunging into the sea.

Recently the FAA, NTSB and NASA have all raised questions over whether or not technology may pose a safety issue, despite its introduction having made flying safer in many other respects. The FAA also issued a Safety Alert for Operators Warning, telling pilots to pay attention to manual flying skills to avoid becoming over-reliant on auto-flight systems. It was released six months before Asiana Flight 214 crashed at San Francisco International Airport on July 6, 2013, killing three people and leaving several injured.

In its study, Boeing found that over the last decade, the leading cause of death on commercial airlines was loss of control in flight, causing 80 accidents and 1,493 deaths. NASA used that data from Boeing for its own study and found in 46.3 percent of those accidents, inappropriate crew response and interaction with the plane’s equipment played a role in the accident.