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FAA urges ICAO to address erosion of 'manual' piloting skills

The US Federal Aviation Administration is set to urge ICAO to address pilot training deficiencies that may leave some of the world's airline pilots unprepared to manually fly aircraft when automated systems fail.

Representatives from the agency will bring up their concerns about training shortcomings and a related concept called "automation dependency" during ICAO's 40th assembly, occurring now in Montreal.

The meeting kicks off as the aviation industry continues grappling with pilot training and automation questions that have simmered for years but became salient following several accidents, including but not limited to recent crashes of two Boeing 737 Max.

Those particular crashes spurred criticism of a Boeing flight control system that contributed to the accidents, but also raised questions about the pilots' response.

The FAA's concerns turn on the theory that many pilots lost or never attained adequate manual flying skills because they have come to rely on increasingly complex automated systems designed largely to prevent pilot error in the first place, according to a paper outlining the FAA's recommendations.

But technological reliance has left some pilots unprepared for emergencies, it says.

"When automation systems do not work as intended or do not work well in the operational situation, pilots without sufficient manual flight control experience and proper training may be reluctant or may not be adequately skilled to take control of the aircraft," says the paper, available from ICAO.

"As the use of automation increases in aircraft design, it is important to consider how ICAO standards and guidance should evolve to ensure that pilot training programmes align with technological advancements," it adds.

The paper's key points will be presented to ICAO's technical commission by the FAA and representatives of Canada, Peru, and Trinidad and Tobago, the paper says.

The FAA has not said the date its representatives will present their concerns.

The agency will ask ICAO to "identify the scope of automation dependency", identify standards related to manual flying, assess airlines' training programmes and review the need for new standards, says the paper.

The FAA and its partners will also urge ICAO to recommend that states take steps themselves to ensure their pilots have adequate manual flight training.

AUTOMATION AND PILOT ERROR

The FAA's concerns cut deep into a pilot training controversy swirling around and within the aviation industry. Safety experts have long warned of an erosion of manual flying skills, with some expert noting many commercial pilots rely on autopilots from a moment after take-off to a moment before landing.

The issue became charged following crashes of a Lion Air 737 Max in October 2018 and that of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max in March.

Regulators grounded the Max following those crashes; investigators have said a new flight control system called MCAS played a leading role.

But the crashes spurred discussion about whether those pilots had sufficient training to address the emergency, and whether they might, with better training, have recovered from MCAS-inspired dives.

Suggestions they might have has occurred in hushed tones, reflecting the overall emotionally-charged nature not only of the crashes, but also of pilot error discussions.

The Max accidents also raised concern about a fast-track ICAO commercial pilot licence standard known as the "multicrew pilot licence". That licence requires no minimum cockpit hours, but holders must have 240h of simulator or cockpit time and a private pilot licence.

Ethiopian was among airlines to adopt the licence standard.

The 737 Max crashes are only the latest accidents to raise questions about pilot training and automation. Others include the 2013 crash of Asiana flight 214 at San Francisco and the 2009 crash of Air France flight 447 into the Atlantic Ocean.

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