FAA wants pilots to be less dependent on computer autopilots

The US Federal Aviation Administration has issued new guidance calling for flight procedures and training to ensure that pilots can operate aircraft manually, without being too dependent on automated systems.

The guidance comes in the form of an Advisory Circular, issued on Monday. It's directed at aircraft operators conducting multi-crew turbojet operations and at training centers and aims to avoid situations like the Asiana Airlines crash that cost three lives, and many more injured, after an inexperienced pilot stalled the aircraft on landing after ignoring "inconsistencies in the aircraft's automation logic."

"Flightpath management is especially important in operating airplanes with highly automated systems," an FAA spokesperson told The Register in an email. "Even when an airplane is on autopilot, the flight crew should always be aware of the aircraft's flightpath and be able to intervene if necessary."

"This Advisory Circular provides a framework for operations and training programs. It will help pilots develop and maintain manual flight operations skills and avoid becoming overly reliant on automation."

According to the FAA, the advisory addresses requirements outlined in the 2020 Aircraft Certification Safety and Accountability Act [PDF] (e.g. "facilitating better understanding of human factors concepts in the context of the growing development and reliance on automated or complex flight deck systems in aircraft operations") and recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

The NTSB advice follows from Asiana Airlines flight 214 hitting a seawall while landing at San Francisco International Airport on July 6, 2013, an accident that killed three passengers and injured dozens of passengers and crew. Among various findings from the accident investigation, the NTSB called for "reduced design complexity and enhanced training on the airplane's autoflight system."

In its accident report [PDF], the NTSB found the crew of the aircraft had been confused about aircraft systems and failed to adequately monitor the plane's airspeed in part due to "automation reliance."The report cites five factors in the crash:

• The complexities of the autothrottle and autopilot flight director systems that were inadequately described in Boeing's documentation and Asiana's pilot training, which increased the likelihood of mode error;

• The flight crew's nonstandard communication and coordination regarding the use of the autothrottle and autopilot flight director systems;

• The [pilot flying's] inadequate training on the planning and execution of visual approaches;

• The [pilot monitoring's] inadequate supervision of the [pilot flying];

• Flight crew fatigue, which likely degraded their performance.

Yet even as the FAA is looking to ensure pilots can handle planes without automated assistance, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is pushing for more automation. The EASA has filed a working paper to develop ways for commercial airlines to operate with a single pilot rather than two of them. The initiative, born out of cost concerns and crew shortages, necessarily entails greater use of computer assistance.

"HAL, land the plane. ... Siri, why isn't HAL responding? ... Alexa? ... Cortana? ... Anyone?" ®

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