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The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued new guidelines requiring flight procedures and training to ensure that pilots are able to control aircraft manually and do not rely too much on automatic systems, known as autopilots for short. reports The Register.

Guidelines in the form of a circular with recommendations were issued on Monday November 21. They are aimed at operators of multi-crew aircraft and training centers prevent situations like a crash an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777-200ER in 2013 that crashed shortly before landing due to pilot error. The result was three dead and 187 injured.

Less autopilot

“Even when the aircraft is in autopilot mode, the crew should always have an overview of the aircraft’s flight path and be able to intervene if necessary.” an FAA spokesperson explained the main intent. “This document provides a framework for operations and training programs. It will help pilots develop and maintain skills in manual flight mode and avoid over-reliance on automation.”

The document deals with the requirements set out in the Safety and Liability Act for the certification of aircraft (for example “by facilitating a better understanding of human factors principles in relation to the development and use of automated or complex on-board systems in aircraft operations”) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendations.

The NTSB said in its final report on the causes of the Asiana Airlines crash that the crew failed to adequately monitor the plane’s speed partly because of “reliance on automaticity”. The report lists five factors that contributed to the accident:

  • The complexity of the automatic and autopilot flight control systems, which were insufficiently documented, and Asiana’s pilot training, which increased the likelihood of error;
  • non-standard communication and crew coordination when using automatic control and flight control systems in autopilot mode;
  • insufficient training [pilotů] in planning and conducting visual approaches;
  • the co-pilot’s lack of supervision over the pilot who was flying the machine at the time;
  • crew fatigue, which likely degraded its performance.

Automation has its “buts”

The increasing level of automation and the more frequent use of autopilots have helped increase the safety of air traffic, but at the same time have raised concerns that pilots are losing manual control skills. The safety alert addresses this concern and advises pilots to take control of the aircraft more often.

“Continued use of automatic flight control systems could result in impairment of the pilot’s ability to quickly remove the aircraft from an undesirable condition.” states the document. “Automation can mask many subtle but growing problems that can occur in an aircraft,” warns NBAA Vice President Doug Carr. “When automatic systems reach their limits and the autopilot hands control of the aircraft back to the pilot, the crew must be prepared to respond adequately.”

It is somewhat of a paradox that while the FAA is trying to ensure that pilots can handle aircraft without automatic assistance, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) it goes in the exact opposite direction, pushing for greater automation.

EASA came in the past with a proposal, which would allow commercial airlines to operate planes with one pilot instead of two, as is the case now. The initiative, which was born out of concerns about rising costs and the impending shortage of crews, necessarily presupposes greater use of computer assistance.

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