The buzz this week is a report stating that the FAA finds pilot’s manual flying skills may be rusty due to excessive reliance on automation. Although I can agree with some of their findings, I’m more concerned about the issue of when to use which mode? I think the bigger problem with automation is when to turn it off and fly manually? Or, just as important, when should you turn on the automation and let it do the work the system was designed to do?
So how detrimental is our generation of automated airplanes (or better said, the automated pilots) to themselves and the traveling public? When should we, as pilots, switch from automatic to manual flight…or vice versa? That’s the real question. The appropriate use of the technology and deciding when it’s best to use one mode or the other can be tricky, especially when you've been trained to use all of the newest automated features.
I consider myself an inter-generational or semi-automatic pilot. I was raised on manual flying, but taught to use the autopilot to help me do my job. About 10 years ago I transitioned to the Boeing 757/767 which has the advanced automation features (lateral and vertical navigation integrated with the autopilot) which now concerns the FAA. It’s easy to flip switches, but the real concern is knowing when to take over and use our manual piloting skills, honed through years of experience, to do what the automation seems reluctant to do, won’t do, or can’t do quickly enough.
Automation works extremely well to relieve heavy and ongoing workload situations which require constant monitoring of multiple inputs. Automation is designed to fly the airplane smoothly and change modes with the least amount of fright-inducing pitch/power changes. I recall doing my simulator training on go-arounds/missed approaches one afternoon, then riding on the real airplane later that evening which had to do a go-around for real. As a passenger, I was impressed with how smoothly the plane transitioned from descending flight on the approach to adding power smoothly, transitioning to a climb on the pull-up to complete the go-around or escape-the-ground maneuver. The automation did a great job which ensured safety and passenger comfort.
The issues of when to implement, and how to best utilize automation has always been a concern. I recall flying the mostly manual MD80 from 1988 to 2003 and hearing lots of stories about the problems with “automation obsession” which could easily distract a pilot from that most important of all jobs, flying the airplane. “Click it all off” they told the pilots flying automated airplanes. If it’s not doing what it needs to do below 10,000 feet, you need to have your head up and looking around, not buried in the button-pushing process of trying to make the Flight Management Computer (FMC) do its thing.
Several other questions come to my mind as a transitional pilot, given my inbred suspicion of too much automation:
Do younger pilots, trained with more video games and simulators have a tendency to use it more or perhaps too much? Do they use it when it's not appropriate based on growing up in a highly automated world?
Are they concerned about someone thinking they can’t hack the automated flight regime, can’t push all the buttons correctly? Or maybe they really don’t know how to make the automation do that complex departure?
Are they appropriately suspicious of what the automation is telling them? Do they back up the use of the autopilot with their own on-going assessment? That’s where experience comes in. We have a saying when the automation is doing something weird which can be a real trap: “Why did it do that? What’s it going to do next?” I like to have a good plan in mind for what I’m going to do next if the automation doesn'tdo what I think it should. Does everyone think this way? If not, why not?
Why do they turn it off early on an approach, when they perhaps should leave it ON? Most landings I see performed by younger co-pilots are manual from 1000' down to touchdown. I, on the other hand, mostly let the autopilot fly the airplane down to 200’, THEN I turn it off and replicate how the autopilot was flying, which I watch very carefully, just waiting for it to do something I don’t like so I can take over manually.
We DO have a choice of when to use automation and the key is to use that choice wisely.