FAA study finds serious flaws in pilot training for handling automation

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A significant emerging study suggests that flightcrew have never been properly trained for operating highly automated aircraft, and that for many of the problems they have to deal with there are no checklists, leaving the pilots to manage using ingenuity and airmanship.

Inadequate crew knowledge of automated systems was a factor in more than 40% of accidents and 30% of serious incidents between 2001 and 2009, delegates at the 2-5 November Flight Safety Foundation International Aviation Safety Seminar in Milan, Italy, were told.

The US Federal Aviation Administration's 1996 landmark report on "interfaces between flightcrews and modern flight deck systems is in the process of being dramatically updated, potentially with far greater implications for change than the original.

Presenting progress in her research toward the new report, FAA human factors specialist Dr Kathy Abbott catalogued the evidence of disharmony between crews and their highly automated aircraft. The study is based on accident and incident data and line operation safety audits over the period 2001- 2009. Abbott adds the caveat that she is presenting raw data at this point, and there is much more work yet to do to understand it fully.

Among the recurring handling problems pilots demonstrate, Abbott's findings include: lack of recognition of autopilot or autothrottle disconnect; lack of monitoring and failure to maintain energy/speed; incorrect upset recovery; inappropriate control inputs and dual sidestick inputs.

Regarding flight management system use, she found that pilots frequently focused on programming the FMS to the detriment of monitoring the flight path.

There are many failures with which pilots have to deal with little or no help from checklists or training of any kind, observes Abbott. These include failures or malfunctions of air data computers, computer or software failures, electrical failures, and uncommanded autopilot disconnects or pitchup for which the reason is not known. Of all these problems pilots face Abbot delivers the judgement: "Failure assessment is difficult, failure recovery is difficult, and the failure modes were not anticipated by the designers."

Despite the sometimes fickle nature of the automation, she observes, pilots frequently abdicate too much responsibility to automated systems. The reasons for this, she found, include: a perceived lack of trust in pilot performance by the airline; policies that encourage use of automated systems rather than manual operations; and insufficient training, experience or judgment, the result of which is that "pilots may not be prepared to handle non-routine situations".

Abbott has discovered particular vulnerabilities in automated systems and their man/machine interfaces. These include: mode confusion, and a pilot tendency to use information from automated systems instead of raw data. Another problem she identified is that much of the information supplied to pilots is, itself, automated - what she calls "information automation". Abbot also found that there was no consistency among operators in their policies for the use of automated systems.

Pilot knowledge was found seriously lacking in many areas relating to automated systems, including: understanding of flight director, autopilot, autothrottle/autothrust, and flight management system/computer systems and their limitations; operating procedures, mode transitions and behaviour; and unusual attitude recognition and recovery.

Although the report is far from finished, Abbott says that probable recommendations are likely to include these: focus training and standard operating procedures on flight path management; distinguish between guidance and control; encourage flight crews to tell air traffic "unable to comply" when appropriate; ensure that SOPs are tailored to the operator's needs.

The industry as a whole, says Abbott, needs to review practice, regulatory guidance, and requirements for training in numerous areas including: flight path and energy management; recovery from off-path circumstances; use of alternative modes to meet air traffic clearances/requirements; operators' operational policies; and managing malfunctions.

Abbott emphasises that these recommendations are not final until reviewed and approved by the US Performance-Based Operations Aviation Rulemaking Committee and the Commercial Aviation Safety Team.