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How Reliance On Automation Has Decreased Our Flying Skills

I'll never forget training to become a flight instructor, not only because it is one of the toughest pilot certificates to achieve but also because of an interesting incident that happened during my training. While taxiing during a windy day I had the flight controls placed in the correct position to counteract the affects of the wind. The instructor turned to me and said you don't need to do that because you are going to become an airline pilot some day and taxiing with your flight controls in the proper position won’t matter.

Having never flown airliners I began to wonder if the theories of aerodynamics did not apply to larger planes. Furthermore, we were not flying a large plane and to prevent the strong winds from picking up one of my wings I needed to place my flight controls properly. My instructor’s attitude and disregard of basic airmanship spoke volumes about how some are training our future airline pilots and why some are having problems with training and flying the line.

Years later while training at an airline some of the pilots were having issues with the basic skills of flying such as straight and level, climbs, descents and turns. I could not believe what I was experiencing because most of the people I thought had come from a general aviation background and should have been able to control the aircraft using basic instrument skills.

What I realized is that while I had been flying aircraft with no automation and little or no advanced electronics, some of my contemporaries where flying highly automated and technically advanced aircraft. Some even joked that they had never seen the old "steam" gages, those that are gyroscopically driven, and would not know what to do if they were forced to fly them.

This is where a problem exists in both our training and our training environment. Pilots are only exposed to automation and electronic flight instruments and are now asked to fly an airliner that does not have electronic instruments or uses old vacuum gages as the backup to the electronic instruments.

When the electronics instruments fails

For example, most of the jets I fly have electronic attitude indicators that tell the position of the aircraft relative to the horizon. If the electronic flight information system fails I have an extra on the right side of the plane. If the second system fails then there is a standby attitude indicator in the center of the cockpit so that both pilots can see them.

The standby instruments are either electronic or the old "steam gages". If you don't have experience using the older equipment you may not be able to control the aircraft properly. This came to light recently when my friend was flying with a Captain at an airline that had traditional standby equipment.

During the flight both electronic attitude and heading reference systems failed on the Captain’s and the First Officer’s, or co pilot’s side. Since the Captain was not comfortable using the older airspeed indicator on the standby instruments he relied on the GPS to determine the approximate airspeed. Unfortunately, this is not an accurate indication of the airspeed and the pilot must make calculations using the current windspeed and direction and then subtracting or adding your ground speed.

If the Captain had been comfortable using the standby attitude indicator in the aircraft then he could have simply read the airspeed off the standby airspeed indicator and slowed the aircraft down. After landing, the aircraft had to go through a mechanical inspection to determine if the aircraft structures such as the flaps had succumbed to an over stressed condition due to over speeding the aircraft. Again this could have been determined by simply looking at the airspeed indicator.

In some situations such as the Air France 447, all airspeed indications became inaccurate. This is a difficult situation but with practice pilots can learn how to control the airplane without any airspeed indications.

All pilots should have experienced loss of airspeed indications during their initial training . Unfortunately, it could be many years since practicing a loss of all airspeed indications. Next time you are in the simulator or with an instructor ask them if you could practice a loss of all airspeed indications. This should be practiced at all altitudes and airspeeds to avoid both a low speed and an over speed situation. If you fly often this exercise may not take very long since most pilots already know the pitch and power settings that will give them the performance they desire in the aircraft.

When the autopilot fails.

I like automation because it increases our situational awareness, decreases pilot work load, and decreases fatigue by giving the automation the ability to control the aircraft. But even if the auto flight system is controlling the aircraft, the pilot is still flying the aircraft. The pilot must always monitor the systems to determine if they are working properly and are producing the outcomes desired.

When the automation fails we must be able to control the aircraft manually using our flying skills. It is easy to identify those pilots who rely heavily on the auto pilot. When they turn it on they become much more relaxed. Over the last decade airplanes with sophisticated automation include both small and large airplanes. Therefore, you are seeing pilots rely on automation in all levels of flying from private pilots to airline pilots.

You Will Fly Based On How You Train.

We can prevent many accidents by the way we train and how we fly. The ability to control the aircraft properly affects all levels of flying. The airlines are affected as is demonstrated in the Colgan crash in Buffalo, New York. Accidents statistics also point to a high rate of accidents amongst smaller planes due to the pilot’s inability to control the plane during landing or in the clouds.

So how do you prevent yourself from getting into this undesirable situation when trying to control the airplane either manually or using conventional instruments? The answer is both training and practice. I know the government is trying to intervene and attempt to mandate new pilot standards and training standards to reduce the number of accidents, but we as pilots must act based on real world scenarios and not a bureaucrat’s perception of a problem.

The problem with training is more a quality issue than a quantity issue which is why it is important to receive quality training. I feel many of our problems in the aviation industry stem more from a lack of professionalism than from a lack of training. A professional pilot whether flying their own personal aircraft or with many passengers on board must constantly evaluate their level of flying skills. If you feel one of your skills is lacking or is weak you must practice to bring your skills back to a proficient level and ask for additional training if needed.

Pilot instructors must also demand a high level of professionalism and proficiency from their students. Instructors must evaluate the pilot based on their level of skill and not on their personality. Some pilots with inadequate flying skills are pushed through training because they were well liked by the instructor. My feeling is if you truly liked the pilot you would do everything you can to help them become a better pilot for both their safety and the safety of others.

As we have all heard, practice makes perfect. If you are uncomfortable flying with the autopilot off then maybe you should start turning it off and hand flying. If you are at the point that you are having difficulty flying the plane without the autopilot it is up to you to ask for additional training. I'm sure your instructor would admire your level of professionalism and respect your honesty in your self evaluation.

If you fly for an airline, charter, or corporate flight department and wish to get additional training ask a more experienced pilot to assist you in increasing your proficiency. I know many pilots would be hard pressed in doing this for fear of losing their job. If you are in an environment where you have a union, go to them and ask them how to approach the situation. If you have time during your next recurrent training ask the instructor to review something you are not comfortable with. And as a last resort you may want to take the time and money to get additional training on your own.


Airplanes both large and small have become technically advanced and highly automated. Although this contributes to safety by increasing our situational awareness, and reducing fatigue, it has lead to a degradation in our basic flying skills. These flying skills assist us when the automation or the advanced electronics fails because this is when we must rely on our basic flying skills.

We need to both train and practice flying without the automation and using more conventional instrumentation if installed in the aircraft. This can be done both in changes to training and in pilots taking the initiative of flying without the automation.

So next time your electronic equipment fails and the automation is not available you can do what I did during a flight where this happened to me; fly the airplane! If you are feeling weak in any area of flying then ask an instructor or more experienced pilot for some help in making you a more proficient pilot. This has helped me tremendously in the past.

Safe Flying!

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{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Pete Zaitcev August 8, 2011, 11:02 pm

    Doesn’t the AF 447 example directly contradict the story right above it? If FO at AF447 could fly by reference to GPS and PFD attitude, they would not even enter the pesistent stall.

  • Len Costa August 15, 2011, 6:46 pm


    In the AF447 crash the primary cause of the accident was pilot disorientation and loss of control. The flight instruments failed, and as Carl mentioned, most pilots haven’t practiced flying with the loss of all airspeed indicators since primary flight training.

    Even though the AF447 crew had reference to attitude and GPS groundspeed they still became spatially disoriented causing the loss of control. Sadly, they didn’t even know they were in a stall. It can happen!



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