Aviation safety academics say the term "pilot error" is greatly over-used. Accident chronicles may record human error, they say, but the many occasions when technically troubled flights are saved by ordinary airline crews are not given publicity unless, like the US Airways Airbus A320 Hudson River ditching, they are caught on camera.

Speaking at the UK Royal Aeronautical Society's International Flight Crew Training Conference in London, the US Federal Aviation Administration's chief scientific and technical adviser, Dr Kathy Abbott, and Capt John Cox of the RAeS's operations committee challenged the widely-held belief that sophisticated automation is not far away from taking over pilots' roles.

Dr Abbott said records showed about 30% of all system failure modes that led to accidents had not been anticipated by designers, so there were no checklists to deal with them. The corollary was that pilots successfully dealt with 70% of unanticipated failures, let alone the failures for which there was a checklist, she said.

Meanwhile, since a Thomsonfly Boeing 737-300 crew allowed the aircraft's speed to drop to a dangerously low level on an approach to Bournemouth airport in September 2007 and nearly lost control of the aircraft, the airline's successor, Thomson Airways, has carried out eye-tracking tests of its crews.

The tests have revealed that a few pilots' instrument scans are seriously deficient, even when their performance would have been judged as good by an examiner on the flightdeck. The implication is that some airline crews, possibly at all airlines, are getting by simply because nothing goes technically wrong on their watch.

The worry, says Thomson, is that this pattern may not be correctable because, even with retraining, the pilots concerned tend to revert to their natural patterns later.

Source: Flight International