High-tech tools that allow pilots to plot their position on a GPS map, shift altitude with a touch of a button and glide down a perfect path to a runway as if on a wire have helped make flying safer today than ever before.
But overreliance on such computerized flight systems -- sometimes called "automation addiction" -- can be deadly, and confusion about them has apparently led to several crashes.
Capt. Dave McKenney, an aviation consultant who helped conduct Federal Aviation Administration studies on the phenomenon, testified at a federal hearing Wednesday in Washington that of the incidents analyzed, "40 percent of the accidents and 30 percent of the major incidents had some type of knowledge deficit by the pilots ... and incomplete understanding of the relationship and modes of the autopilot, auto-thrust and computers."
"We do not train the pilots well on how to actually maintain the flight path of the aircraft using the automated systems," McKinney told the National Transportation Safety Board during a hearing into the July crash of an Asiana Airlines plane at San Francisco International Airport.
Stephen Boyd, an aviation agency manager, said more stringent standards have been put into place in recent years to address this concern, but McKinney said they don't go far enough.
"We need to be training for the exceptions," he said -- the times when automated flight doesn't follow lock-step procedures.
Safety board reports indicated that the three pilots in the cockpit when the Asiana plane crashed at San Francisco hadn't effectively monitored the interplay between automated and manual controls and had been slow to react when the jet lost altitude too quickly.
According to documents released at the hearing, Asiana's chief airline pilot told safety board investigators that all the company's pilots who fly Boeing 777s -- the plane that crashed at SFO in clear weather on July 6 -- were expected to be able to perform manual or "visual" approaches with no automated cues. He also said the pilots had experience with such landings during simulator training and on shorter domestic flights.
However, the chief pilot, Sung Kil Lee, told investigators that the carrier recommended that pilots fly their planes manually as little as possible, according to a safety board report.
A first officer hired by Asiana in 2009 told investigators he had flown on Airbus A320 jets for three years, but had never landed a plane using manual controls.
A retired Boeing 777 captain at Asiana, Victor Hooper, told safety board investigators that first officers "were seldom allowed to practice visual or contact approaches, and every time he offered a (first officer) such an approach, they would refuse or be highly resistant to the suggestion because they did not feel comfortable with it."
That surprised Jim Tilmon, a former commercial pilot and aviation consultant in Arizona. He said practice in the field, not in a simulator, allows pilots to sense when an approach is on target and when it's not, and adjust quickly to problems.
"Experience is a very harsh but almost perfect teacher," Tilmon said. "No matter the sophistication, an airplane is still a machine that is flown by people. You've got to take action. Don't blame it on the autopilot, the auto-throttles, the computers. Blame it on the guy that's sitting there breathing oxygen."
The Federal Aviation Administration has long been concerned about whether pilots are prepared to hand-fly airplanes. On Jan. 4, it issued a safety alert advising airlines to develop or improve policies "to ensure there are appropriate opportunities for pilots to exercise manual flying skills."
Soon after the Asiana crash, the agency beefed up its safety standards, finalizing a rule requiring first officers who fly U.S. planes to go through more training and have as much flight time as captains -- 1,500 hours, up from 250.
Asiana acted as well, with officials pledging to increase training for pilots, including manual landings.
(c) 2013 the San Francisco Chronicle