FAA fails to en­sure pi­lot skills stay sharp

Man­ual fly­ing and mon­i­tor­ing fal­ter from au­to­ma­tion.

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Joan Lowy

wash­ing­ton» The govern­ment is fall­ing short in en­sur­ing that air­line pi­lots keep up their fly­ing skills and get full train­ing on how to mon­i­tor so­phis­ti­cated au­to­mated con­trol sys­tems in cock­pits, ac­cord­ing to the Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment’s in­ter­nal watch­dog.

Most air­line fly­ing to­day is done through au­to­mated sys­tems that pi­lots closely mon­i­tor. Pi­lots typ­i­cally use man­ual fly­ing skills only briefly dur­ing take­offs and land­ings. Stud­ies and ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tions have raised con­cern that pi­lots’ man­ual fly­ing skills are be­com­ing rusty and that pi­lots have a hard time stay­ing fo­cused on in­stru­ment screens for long pe­ri­ods.

But the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion isn’t mak­ing sure that air­line train­ing pro­grams ad­e­quately ad­dress the abil­ity of pi­lots to mon­i­tor the flight path, au­to­mated sys­tems and ac­tions of other crew mem­bers, the Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment’s Of­fice of In­spec­tor Gen­eral found. Only five of 19 air­line flight sim­u­la­tor train­ing plans re­viewed by in­ves­ti­ga­tors specif­i­cally men­tioned pi­lot mon­i­tor­ing.

The FAA also isn’t well po­si­tioned to de­ter­mine how of­ten air­line pi­lots get a chance to man­u­ally fly planes and hasn’t en­sured that air­line train­ing pro­grams ad­e­quately fo­cus on man­ual fly­ing, ac­cord­ing to the re­port, ob­tained by The As­so­ci­ated Press. It has not been re­leased pub­licly.

In Jan­uary 2013, the agency is­sued a safety alert to air­lines en­cour­ag­ing them to pro­mote op­por­tu­ni­ties for pi­lots to prac­tice man­ual fly­ing in day-to-day op­er­a­tions and dur­ing pi­lot train­ing. But the FAA hasn’t fol­lowed up to de­ter­mine whether air­lines are fol­low­ing the rec­om­men­da­tion, the re­port said.

The FAA pub­lished new rules in 2013 re­quir­ing air­lines to up­date their train­ing pro­grams to en­hance pi­lot mon­i­tor­ing and man­ual fly­ing skills, but the agency is still work­ing on guid­ance to air­lines on how to do that, the re­port said. Air­lines aren’t re­quired to com­ply with the rules un­til 2019, the re­port said.

“Be­cause FAA hasn’t de­ter­mined how car­ri­ers should im­ple­ment the new re­quire­ments or eval­u­ated whether pi­lots’ man­ual fly­ing time has in­creased, the agency is miss­ing im­por­tant op­por­tu­ni­ties to en­sure that pi­lots main­tain skills needed to safely fly and re­cover in the event of a fail­ure with flight deck au­to­ma­tion or an un­ex­pected event,” the re­port said.

The rules on en­hanc­ing train­ing were prompted in part by the 2009 crash of a re­gional air­liner while ap­proach­ing Buf­falo, N.Y. The crash killed all 49 peo­ple on board and a man on the ground.

An in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board re­vealed that the pi­lots weren’t closely mon­i­tor­ing the plane’s air­speed, which be­gan to de­crease to dan­ger­ously slow lev­els. Thus the cap­tain was star­tled when a safety sys­tem called a “stick shaker” au­to­mat­i­cally went on, vi­o­lently rat­tling the con­trol yoke. In­stead of point­ing the plane down­ward to pick up speed, the cap­tain pulled back on the yoke to in­crease al­ti­tude. That slowed the plane even more, even­tu­ally lead­ing to an aero­dy­namic stall. The plane fell from the sky and landed on a house.

The board con­cluded that the mon­i­tor­ing er­rors by the flight crew demon­strated the need for more spe­cific train­ing on ac­tive mon­i­tor­ing skills.

The U.S. and other coun­tries are tran­si­tion­ing to satel­lite-based air traf­fic sys­tems and re­duc­ing their re­liance on radar. Among the ad­van­tages of satel­lite-based nav­i­ga­tion is that planes can fly more di­rect routes, re­duc­ing fly­ing time. But the pre­ci­sion of au­to­ma­tion is needed to al­low planes to safely fly closer to­gether and to in­crease take­offs and land­ing in or­der to re­duce con­ges­tion and meet grow­ing de­mands for air travel.

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