Pilots are too reliant on autopilot, FAA says

A plane sits at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Hyungwon Kang, Reuters).
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Brooks Hays

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has a new year’s resolution for the nation's pilots: use your hands. A recent uptick in manual flying errors has the agency worried about pilots’ basic skills, and has moved it to issue a Safety Alert for Operators — calling on them to "promote manual flight operations when appropriate."

In other words, turn off the autopilot every now and again.

The FAA says an overreliance on high-tech controls "could lead to degradation of the pilot’s ability to quickly recover the aircraft from an undesired state." If a plane is in trouble, a pilot must be able to grab the controls and rectify the situation. But unless a pilot is continually practicing those skills, they may become rusty, the FAA argues.

The "safety alert" applies to all pilots — commercial, private, and otherwise — and asks them to place a greater emphasis on manual flying during ground and flight training, as well as in their daily work. The agency recommends putting stick-and-rudder skills to use at lower altitudes and during light workloads.

The official agency warning comes more than a year after a group of airline industry and safety experts issued a report to Congress calling on the FAA to make sure pilots were better prepared to take the controls in an emergency, as the Wall Street Journal wrote in 2011. The report also recommended that pilot training incorporate more realistic flight simulators and re-create emergency situations based on previous accidents.

In two of the major airline accidents in recent history — the fatal Colgan Air turboprop crash near Buffalo, N.Y. and the crash of an Air France Airbus A330 into the Atlantic Ocean, both in 2009 — manual pilot error was largely to blame, the report pointed out.

"Instead of returning to fundamental principles of flying they followed the false displays of the computers," flight safety expert William Voss told Spiegel Online of the Air France A330 crash. "Pilots must learn to steer the plane by hand again."

The agency isn't calling for pilots to abandon autopilot. The FAA heralds auto-flight systems as "useful tools" and credits them with improved safety and workload management, and more precise operations.