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Over-Reliance on Automation Dulls Pilots' Skills - Study

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A new report by an international panel of experts appears to confirm what many aviation observers suspected in the wake of a string of mishaps involving modern jet aircraft - that pilots are increasingly flying manually less and relying too much on automated systems.

Today's modern aircraft can virtually take-off, fly and land by themselves. The report, commissioned by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and backed by years of meticulous study, suggests many pilots fly a typical leg for only a few minutes: during take-off and landing.

The problem, experts say, is when problems occur and pilots are ill-prepared to deal with a situation spiraling out of control. Poor pilot training and judgment are factors that were pegged in the crashed of an Air France Airbus A330 over the southern Atlantic Ocean in 2009 - killing all 228 aboard - and the more recent crash of an Asiana Boeing 777 at San Francisco International Airport.

"Pilots sometimes rely too much on automated systems and may be reluctant to intervene" or switch them off in unusual or risky circumstances, according to a draft reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The WSJ report quoted the study as saying that some pilots "lack sufficient or in-depth knowledge and skills" to properly control their plane's trajectory, partly because "current training methods, training devices and the time allotted for training" may be inadequate to fully master advanced automated systems.

Of the cases examined, roughly two-thirds of the pilots either had difficulty manually flying planes or made mistakes using flight computers.

The panel that penned the report suggests better training for pilots, more pro-activity and changes in airline policy that prioritizes computer-driven decisions over human ones.

They also recommended training for rare but potentially catastrophic malfunctions "for which there is no specific procedure" or readily available checklist.

Mary Cummings, a former US navy pilot who researches aircraft and drone automation engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the New Scientist: "Pilot training programmes can be improved, but probably the biggest practical change that needs to be made is ensuring that the automation itself is highly reliable."