Are pilots “forgetting how to fly”? Automation and the erosion of skills

It has been reported that an over-reliance on automated systems has eroded the skills of airline pilots, leaving them unprepared for responding to unusual or emergency situations, or when those automated systems fail:

“Some 51 “loss of control” accidents occurred in which planes stalled in flight or got into unusual positions from which pilots were unable to recover, making it the most common type of airline accident, according to the International Air Transport Association.” News.com.au

As Rory Kay, an airline captain and co-chair of a Federal Aviation Administration advisory committee on pilot training said, “We’re forgetting how to fly.”

For example in 2009:

“the co-pilot of a regional airliner programmed incorrect information into the plane’s computers, causing it to slow to an unsafe speed. That triggered a stall warning. The startled captain, who hadn’t noticed the plane had slowed too much, responded by repeatedly pulling back on the control yoke, overriding two safety systems, when the correct procedure was to push forward.”

This highlights a very real problem in many major hazard industries. Rather than eliminating risk, automation can often displace it. Whilst increasing automation can result in safer systems, humans are still needed, e.g. for tasks that cannot be automated (such as maintenance) or for overseeing the system and responding to emergencies. In such an environment (where there are potentially reduced workforce levels, reduced experience and skills, and possibly even reduced job satisfaction) how do you maintain an alert, engaged workforce in a state of trained readiness?

Whilst automated systems are often introduced to increase safety, production and/or reduce the size of the workforce, companies may wish to consider increased training to compensate for reduced familiarity with tasks, and should maintain enough workers to be able to manage abnormal/emergency situations. Automation changes people’s jobs, and so training may need to prepare people for the failure of automated systems, and not just their use.

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