January 25, 2013

While the increasing level of cockpit automation and more frequent use of autopilots have helped improve operational safety and flying precision, it has also raised concerns that pilots are losing proficiency in their hand-flying skills.

A recent safety alert for operators (SAFO) issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) addresses that concern by recommending that pilots take control of their aircraft more often.

The SAFO, released earlier this month, recommends that professional flight crews and pilots of increasingly advanced aircraft should turn off the autopilot and hand-fly during “low-workload conditions,” including during cruise flight in non-RVSM airspace. It also recommends operators should “promote manual flight operations when appropriate” and develop procedures to accomplish this goal.

“Autoflight systems are useful tools for pilots and have improved safety and workload management, and thus enabled more precise operations,” the SAFO notes. “However, continuous use of autoflight systems could lead to degradation of the pilot’s ability to quickly recover the aircraft from an undesired state.”

The SAFO adds that, though autopilots have become a prevalent and useful tool for pilots, “unfortunately, continuous use of those systems does not reinforce a pilot’s knowledge and skills in manual flight operations.”

Review the SAFO.

In addition to potentially degrading a pilot’s flying skills, reliance on the autopilot may also leave pilots unprepared to properly address a developing issue with the aircraft, noted Doug Carr, NBAA vice president for safety, security, operations & regulation.

“Automation may mask many subtle but growing problems that the aircraft might be experiencing,” he said. “When that automation reaches its limits and the autopilot hands back control of the aircraft to the pilot, the flight crew must be prepared and ready to respond.”

The SAFO adds that flight crews should work with operations personnel and others at their companies to “ensure that the content of this SAFO is incorporated into operational policy, provided to pilots during ground training, and reinforced in flight training and proficiency checks.”

Carr noted that such procedures should also take into consideration the reasons those operations utilize automation technologies in the first place, to improve flight safety and precision.

“We believe there is value for companies to review the content of the SAFO and determine how to accommodate its recommendations, without compromising established safety procedures for their operations,” he added. “We learn to fly manually; it makes sense that we should ensure that our ability to hand-fly the airplane is as proficient as our ability to operate the automation.”