Report: Automation Erodes Pilot Skills

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Reliance on automated systems may be eroding the flying skills of pilots, contributing to about 60 percent of the accidents reviewed by an FAA research team, the Wall Street Journal reported last week. FAA researcher Kathy Abbott presented the preliminary results of the FAA study at an aviation safety conference in Milan. Operating flight-control computers can distract pilots from "managing the flight path of the airplane," Abbott said. In addition, "pilots sometimes abdicate too much responsibility to the automated systems." She added that sometimes pilots don't get enough practice in hand-flying and will hesitate to take control away from the computer in an emergency. The results of the study are expected to be released early next year, hopefully by February, Abbott told AVweb.

The study aims to update an influential FAA report from 1996 that examined "The Interfaces Between Flightcrews and Modern Flight Deck Systems" (PDF). Since such systems have evolved considerably since that research was completed, the new study is "widely expected to set a benchmark," according to the Journal. At last week's forum, Abbott added that her team's research has shown that pilots sometimes are uncertain whether it's better for the autopilot to be engaged or disconnected in various types of emergencies.