Should Airline Pilots Fly More — Or Less?

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In an AP story this week, the issue of pilot skills gets another look — with increasing automation, pilots just don’t get to fly enough to stay as sharp as they should be. The answer proposed most often is that procedures need to evolve to be sure that pilots spend more time as actual manipulators of flight controls and less as systems managers. But maybe that’s a losing battle. Should pilots instead be rethinking what their proper role should be in the cockpit? In one ABC report we heard, the average total time on the controls for the crew for a typical flight was around three minutes; the rest is flown by the automation.Modern avionics supply pilots with huge amounts of information, and they are getting better and better at conveying that information in ways that are intuitive and useful to the humans at the controls. Or maybe humans are just adapting to the machines’ foible and quirks. But forget about that for a minute. What about the basic scan? Every instrument pilot who struggles to stay current understands that the scan goes first and there’s no evidence to suggest that modern glass displays change that in ways that matter. You still have to look at the instrument, interpret, evaluate and decide. And any flight instructor or experienced instrument pilot will tell you there’s a difference between scanning with the autopilot engaged and while hand flying.There may be no more vivid example of this than the recent reports about what went wrong in the Air France 447 cockpit. For several minutes, the crew apparently could not interpret the airplane’s departing flight attitude. Could that have been the result of just not enough hand flying? Conversely, would that flight have had a better outcome if the pilots were taken entirely out of the loop? That’s a question that may be argued for years to come, but if we revisit that notion five or ten years from now, it seems to me more likely the answer will be that the airplane of the future would do better on its own. That doesn’t mean there won’t still need to be humans in the cockpit. But maybe while we’re ensuring those pilots maintain their flight-control skills, we should also be focusing on how to train airline pilots for the day when what they’ll really need are better ways to manage complex systems and maximize cockpit resources. I suspect that day will come well before the pilots who are starting out today hang up their wings.