Pilot decries autopilot: ‘We’re a piece of luggage’

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The National Transportation Safety Board is poised to hold an investigative hearing on pilots’ use of autopilot – a commonplace occurrence that now leave the drivers of craft feeling more like baggage than highly trained operators.

“Once you see you’re not needed, you tune out,” said Michael Barr, a former Air Force pilot and accident investigator who now teaches flight safety at the University of Southern California, The Associated Press reported. “As long as everything goes okay, we’re along for the ride. We’re a piece of luggage.”

That’s not necessarily a bad situation, however. But it can turn dangerous when the autopilot encounters troubles, calling for the pilot to step in – but the pilot has zoned out or worse, lost confidence in the ability to manually fly the craft.

For instance, the NTSB’s hearing on Dec. 10 to Dec. 11 will look at an Asiana Airlines jet crash that occurred last July at San Francisco International Airport. The pilot had been attempting to land the craft without autopilot assistance, when it hit a seawall near the runway. Investigators later said it had been flying too low. Three were killed, several injured, and the question to be determined at the hearing remains, AP reported: What was the level of “pilot awareness in [this] highly automated aircraft?”

Just a few weeks later, a United Parcel Service cargo plane went down near Birmingham, Ala., killing both pilots aboard.

The hearing will focus on “pilot awareness in a highly automated aircraft,” the board said. NTSB officials want to specifically know why three experienced pilots allowed the plane to lose so much speed that the craft was about to stall, just seconds before it crashed, AP reported.

Federal Aviation Administration officials fault failing pilot “mode awareness,” and the overreliance on autopilot that has left those who are supposed to oversee the cockpit in a somewhat inattentive state, AP reported. Even on autopilot, pilots are supposed to continually track their flights, the FAA said.

 

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