Calls from Congress to Change Pilot Training

Congressional leaders want to know "are pilots too reliant on automation in the cockpit?"

A series of NBC Bay Area investigative reports found that many times pilots over-rely on automation, which can put safety in jeopardy because they let down their guard and don’t practice manual, hand-flying skills.

NBC Bay Area’s investigation, which followed the fatal crash of Asiana Flight 214 while on approach to land at San Francisco International Airport, also found that many times pilots from foreign countries who travel to the US to train and learn to fly don’t get the hands-on experience that American-born pilots get and those pilots are even more reliant on automation in the cockpit.

Now, in 2019, Republicans in Congress are calling for the FAA to increase training requirements for pilots, especially foreign pilots, to reflect this new reality. Congressional leaders also want the FAA to push the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to also push for stricter training to emphasize manual flying skills and warn about over-reliance on automation in the cockpit.

In 2013, NBC Bay Area spent months traveling to pilot schools, flying with research scientists in the Midwest and sitting with commercial pilots in flight simulators. The investigation discovered that what experts say are too many pilots becoming over-reliant on computer automation, and some aren’t actually learning how to take off and land on their own using manual skills.

Wednesday, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Sam Graves sent a letter to Acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell asking that the agency consider changing standards for training to emphasize how over-reliance on automated systems can lead to fatal crashes and to push for similar changes in other nation’s regulatory bodies.

According to Wednesday’s letter, “Aircraft accidents are rarely the result of just one factor…. Therefore, we write to encourage that those participating in the ICAO pilot licensing review meetings this week on behalf of the United States advocate to place particular emphasis on changes to airline pilot training requirements in the age of highly-automated aircraft systems. A well-trained pilot will always be an aircraft’s most essential safety feature. We believe that global regulators must focus on what training and experience pilots need to be able to recognize when a highly-automated aircraft is not operating as expected, how to respond in such situations, and how to operate the aircraft when automated systems fail. Emphasis should be on competency-based training rather than simply amassing unrelated flight hours.”

Graves in the letter to Elwell also urged the FAA to push the international community to place particular emphasis on changing pilot training requirements, and focus on making sure all pilots can manually fly their airplanes.

After Asiana’s Flight 214 crashed at SFO, the Investigative Unit in 2013 discovered this over-reliance on computers in the cockpit was at the root of the accident. NBC Bay Area’s findings were confirmed about a year later by Federal National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators and the formal conclusion released publicly.

The NTSB found the pilots on Asiana 214 set the altitude wrong for the automatic pilot, that they mistakenly thought the auto throttle would keep them from crashing and that those mistaken assumptions allowed the computer to essentially fly the plane into the ground. According to the NTSB investigative reports, all this took place despite the pilots looking out the window and seeing what was happening. But the pilots did not take over actually flying the plane until it was too late.

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