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‘Autopilot’ use eyed in air crashes

A jetliner takes off from Washington's Ronald Reagan National National Airport. Pilots are becoming so reliant on computer systems that do most of the flying in today's airliners that on the rare occasions when something goes wrong, they're sometimes unprepared to take control, according to aviation safety experts and government and industry studies. Increasing automation has been a tremendous safety boon to aviation, contributing to historically low accident rates in the U.S. and many parts of the world. AP photo

A jetliner takes off from Washington's Ronald Reagan National National Airport. Pilots are becoming so reliant on computer systems that do most of the flying in today's airliners that on the rare occasions when something goes wrong, they're sometimes unprepared to take control, according to aviation safety experts and government and industry studies. Increasing automation has been a tremendous safety boon to aviation, contributing to historically low accident rates in the U.S. and many parts of the world. AP photo

WASHINGTON — Pilots are becoming so reliant on computer systems that do most of the flying in today’s airliners that on the rare occasions when something goes wrong, they’re sometimes unprepared to take control, according to aviation safety experts and government and industry studies.

Automation has changed the relationship between pilots and planes, presenting new challenges.

Pilots today typically use their “stick and rudder” flying skills only for brief minutes or even seconds during takeoffs and landings. Mostly, they manage computer systems that can fly planes more precisely and use less fuel than a human pilot can.

“Once you see you’re not needed, you tune out,” said Michael Barr, a former Air Force pilot and accident investigator who teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California. “As long as everything goes OK, we’re along for the ride. We’re a piece of luggage.”

The National Transportation Safety Board will hold a two-day investigative hearing Dec. 10 and 11 on the crash of an Asiana Airlines jet that was flying too low and slow while trying to land at San Francisco International Airport last July. Three passengers were killed and scores of others injured.

The hearing will focus on “pilot awareness in a highly automated aircraft,” the board said.

Investigators want to know how three seasoned pilots allowed a passenger jet with no apparent mechanical problems in near-perfect weather conditions to lose speed so dramatically that it was on the brink of stalling moments before the crash.

Pilot “mode awareness” is a more common automation-related problem showing up in accidents and incidents, according to an automation study released last month by the Federal Aviation Administration. Mode changes occur frequently during flight, often without any direct action by pilots. If pilots aren’t continually paying close attention, they can lose track of which mode their systems are in.

Pilots also make mistakes when selecting modes. Mode selection errors were cited in 27 percent of the accidents reviewed in the FAA study.

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