Acting NTSB Chair Hart uses real cases to show need for better Pilot Proficiency when automation fails

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This subject has been a frequent topic here. Pilot professionalism is so important that it bears repeating again and again. Acting NTSB Chair Christopher Hart, himself a pilot and an aeronautical engineer, supports his contention that pilots need to constantly improve their skills with examples which will resonate with his target audience.

Mr. Hart was one of the keynote speakers at the NBAA Annual Convention and Exhibition; there he used that bully pulpit to make an important point: that increasing automation of the aircraft controls has decreased the cockpit crews’ readiness and competence. To make his point to a knowledgeable audience, the Acting Chair used three pointed examples:

· As Hart reviewed the facts of the Asiana Flight 214 fatal crash at SFO, he was “amazed to learn that a 10,000-hour pilot was nervous about doing an approach into San Francisco on a beautiful, clear, sunny day with negligible wind on an 11,000-foot runway because the glideslope was out of service and he was doing it manually.”

· On the Rio de Janeiro to Paris Air France 447 flight, “[They] froze not one, not two, but three pitot tubes, so when he lost his pitot tubes, he lost his airspeed information. When he lost his airspeed information he lost his autopilot and he lost his auto throttle, and he lost his alpha protection. [Alpha refers to angle of attack information needed to prevent aerodynamic stalls.] Here’s a situation where the automation was so complicated that these two pilots didn’t really understand it. Not only that, but they had never seen a failure of airspeed even in training.”

· “I want to go beyond skills and knowledge, which is a huge issue to be sure, and I want to look at attitude [and] in particular, professionalism.” He cited another example of a Northwest Airlines crew so distracted that they overflew their destination of Minneapolis by 150 miles in March 2010. “Here’s probably the worst example of lack of professionalism,” he said.

Those are compelling cases which should command the attention of all pilots.

At the close of his speech, Chair Hart posed a question to aircraft manufacturers. He acknowledged that the cockpit designers have created a suite of functions which the machines do in lieu of humans. That degree of disassociation has caused the pilots to “disengage” from flight consciousness. Equally troubling, Hart commented that the Asiana pilot may have had 10,000 hours, but wondered how much of that time may have been on auto control. As to the Air France accident, the Acting Chair pointed out that under French regulations, the crew is instructed to fly by instruments above 29,000 feet.

When one of the automated systems fails, the pilots reenter the manual flying mode. Hart’s three scenarios illuminated how the crew members were (a) not familiar with how the specific system’s failure impacted other automation; (b) were unfamiliar with how to fly the aircraft under these circumstances and (c) were uncomfortable with the situation and hesitated. To rectify this problem of resuming control, should pilots spend time in simulators perfecting their recovery manoeuvers? Another possibility points to the ergonomic design: can the man/machine interface be adjusted to compel greater pilot involvement?

This clarion call by Chair Hart should be heeded by training schools, airline flight operations training organizations and the OEM design team.

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