Precisely why pilot flying skills deteriorate due to Cockpit Automation

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NTSB Acting Chair Hart has spoken forcefully on the subject of degradation of pilots skills due to the reliance on automation. Academic research using a B-747 simulator as a laboratory has provided quantitative data which narrows the focus of whence the problem emanates.

From the debate about the number of crewmembers required to fly the early versions of the B-737, the design of the cockpit tried to minimize the tasks assigned to the manual duties of crews. Ergonomics and automation became the driving elements of future controls. As noted by the Chairman, who is both an aeronautical engineer and pilot, that positive may be trending toward a negative. The disassociation of the pilots from the “mechanics” of flying is said to detract from her/his attention.

The NASA, San Jose State University and University of California, Santa Barbara team put this qualitative hypothesis to a scientific test. Here is their statement of the research parameters:

“We asked 16 airline pilots to fly routine and nonroutine flight scenarios in a Boeing 747-400 simulator while we systematically varied the level of automation that they used, graded their performance, and probed them about what they were thinking about as they flew.”

They found that the scanning required to monitor the instruments maintained the pilots’ observational skills within the cockpit. But, based on their tests, they found that the pilots’ retention of their eye/hand skills “depend on the degree to which pilots remain actively engaged in supervising the automation.”

This report might provide the designers of the automation with specific goals of how to reinvolve the P-I-C and S-I-C in functions which will maintain their flying skills.

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