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On autopilot: 'Pilots are losing their basic flying skills,' some fear after Boeing 737 Max crashes

Automation has made planes safer and more efficient, but the crashes of two Boeing 737 Max jets is leading some to wonder if there is a dangerous flip side. While advanced autopilots and computers are now considered an integral part of any modern jetliner, many pilots worry that the systems are detracting from developing and maintaining their own abilities. (www.usatoday.com) Plus d'info...

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cowboybob 13
old news here....this has been a topic of discussion for many years...and it continues to be a problem. Go watch this video by Warren Vanderburgh (then chief pilot at American) and see if you think much has changed in the past 20 years...I would suggest not much has changed.


Throw in a bunch of new pilots who got their training in simulators vs. the real world and the problem is maybe worse than it ever has been.

Not in any way implying that Boeing is pure as the driven snow in this one (nor Airbus in many other cases), but the state of pilot training in many parts of the world is pitiful...that's the gorilla in the room nobody wants to talk about. It's been dumbed-down like much of everything else these days floating around disguised as education/training. Simulator pilots are the order of the day...faster...cheaper. Safer? Probably fine in the 3-sigma scenario where most everything is working and the checklist covers it. Get outside of the box, and it's a crapshoot...not for me. Basic airmanship is a vanishing(ed) skill that only those who come up through basic aviation training will ever acquire.

I for one am more and more reluctant every day to jump in the back of a flying video game with guys up front who never sweated bullets in real IFR with basic instruments...and Their butt on the line. The only thing between you and the flight control computer code created by the bitbangers in a cube, other than the certification process which is often uncertainand less than adequate, is a professional pilot who can find his own backside when everything goes haywire. Otherwise, you are the next statistic. Understand that I think many airlines across the world do a fine job of training their folks....but there are at least as many that don't.
Po Lau 3
Indeed old news, Airbus has been putting in this type of automation for decades and had its own share of calamities. Its not just about whether a pilot can fly, or a machine can fly, its whether a pilot can fly a machine as he understands it, given the circumstances brought upon him. If not, there is a need for training, specific training for the machine he is enlisted to fly.
Tim Eichman 2
I was going to say, didn't we have the same discussion after Air France a few years ago? They focused on the systems and forgot to "Fly the D**n Plane!"
Steven Palmer 7
When the 'sh*t hits the fan' it is good to remember an old adage of my late father who was a WWII RAF Halifax bomber crew, in Ferry Command flying almost everything, an Empire Test flightcrew at Boscombe Down near Salisbury England after the war, and then until retirement at 60 on Boeing 377 Stratocruisers, Britannias, VC-10s, and finally DC-10s. Firstly AVIATE, then NAVIGATE and finally COMMUNICATE! This wuold be learned by todays' X Box pilots.
sharon bias 5
Anything that runs on a computer can be hacked. Period. The 737Max proves that poorly written software is as bad as hacked software. You need pilots in the plane, and they need to thoroughly understand the software, including ways to override it. A pilot operates under JAR (Just Ain't Right). A subtle sound can trigger a pilot's response long before a light flashes on. You just can't program anything close to a human brain.
Karl Schneider 13
"Welcome aboard Novus Flight 233, the first completely automated flight in history. There are no pilots on board, everything is computer controlled and nothing can go wrong...go wrong...go wrong...go wrong...go wrong........
Rico van Dijk 9
What nonsense, I fly the 737 often enough on hands up to FL200 or so, and so does everyone in our airline, yet our training captains all went into the sim to try the Ethiopia scenario and none survived with a factored reaction time of just two seconds.
sparkie624 3
There is one huge difference that EVERYONE misses in this... The 737 Max's that crashed had 1 AOA Vane each installed them, All the ones flying in the US have 2 AOA Vanes. They tracked the main culprit down to bad AOA Vanes on both....Redundancy... Trying to save a buck!
erik godo 2
Rico can you tell us more about this? Sounds interesting.
Tony Smith 5
This is just one tip of the iceberg in today's world. People want to hand their decision making to computers, not wanting to put in the time and effort to think for themselves. A recent ad by Microsoft sums this up, where AI is used to make better beer. really, have we come to the point where artificial intelligence is needed to brew up some cold ones? The matrix is coming....
Tony Smith 10
I am willing to put my life in the hands of a well trained and experienced pilot and accept the possibility of "pilot error" than put my life in the hands of a piece of software. I realize I'm old school that way these days.
If builders built buildings the way software engineers write programs the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.
sparkie624 5
I have been preaching this for a very long time...
william baker 1
Ya well sometimes it takes a act of god to change what pilots and regulators know. I’m sadden by the loss of lives but maybe this will help us combat the autopilot and give us all more time hand flying.

[This comment has been downvoted. Show anyway.]

Kobe Hunte 1
So far they have been only with 3rd world airlines maybe. But what if they left them flying for more than a month longer? One could of crashed on your doorstep.
Mike Hindson-Evans 2
The previous Boeing 737 rudder hard-over faults some 20-30 years ago were clearly beyond the ability of *any* pilot to correct, judging by the very small but deep craters which resulted across the USA.
sparkie624 2
Careful of the use "ANY", voids your entire statement... Reference "Eastwind Airlines Flight 517" who had the Rudder Hardover, got out of it and landed safely.... That is what lead the FAA to find the true fault! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastwind_Airlines_Flight_517
Mike Hindson-Evans 1
Many thanks for the correction, which I am happy to accept. However, the other incidents (USAIR427 and United 585) did still happen within CONUS; it's still a counterpoint to the "US pilots could have survived a Lion Air/Ethiopian situation" line. On October 02, 1996, the Seattle Times reported that the FAA had delayed publication of 737 rudder mods because the Boeing company had argued that they were "unjustified". Sound familiar? The 737 rudder was designed with a single actuator (SPoF).
Andy Cruickshank 0
Technically correct but not what you mean. Unsubstantiated BS
Jim Myers 4
If the problem was the pilots, the 737 Max would not STILL BE GROUNDED WORLDWIDE!

This is BS being vomited out to sow FUD about the pilots and try to take the heat off of Boeing.
Andrew Turnbull 3
That's a false premise. There can be plenty of additional reasons - political, for the most obvious example - above and beyond the pilots that keep the planes grounded.
Robert Fleury 1
We should not be designed aircrafts with such inherent stability deficiencies that they have to depend on automated systems to remain in flight.
Charlie Graydon 1
Max 737 problems are not a Pilot issue and should not be confused as a pilot issue this is a issue of a system installed on a airplane that pilot were not told about , more then 350 people dead not a single person lost there job at Boeing , the CEO should be gone.
victorbravo77 1
"November ## xray yankee zulu, turn 030 climb and maintain 5400." ...two dials.

Stick and rudder? What are those? Holy crap, grandpa!
Andrew Turnbull 1
If the premise in the headline were true...why were the crashes only in the MAX planes, and why haven't there been other crashes of other planes since then? And why, with something like 42,000 flights and 88,000 hours in MAX planes did Southwest pilots have zero incidents?

I'm not an aviator and I know nothing about flying per se, but I can read and I can think, and the premise in the headline seems absurd.
Jerry Harwood 1
Well said,

A former 767 Capt.
Bill Babis 1
It's not a fear, it's a fact. The problem has been around a long time and continues to grow. In the rush to crew expanding pilot seats the many hours it takes to really get good basic flying skills is left behind. Many pilots today never had them to lose. Without a magic box most pilots I fly with today are clueless to compute a crossing restriction and have no idea of the effects of strong winds aloft on climbs and descents. They react instead of anticipate and manhandle flight controls instead of smoothly putting the aircraft where it needs to be. Yes, they can get the aircraft from point A to point B, but not without a lot of help from the aircraft itself and their capabilities in an emergency may not be what's needed. mtcw
Andrew Turnbull 1
If it's a fact that "the problem has been around a long time" then the premise in the headline is false.
jbermo 1
How do you simulate 2000+ hours of hands-on basic flying experience?
patrick baker 1
where in the flight can or should any airline pilot hand fly his jetliner, except at takeoff and landing? can an airline insist on some minimum time of flight hours in a light aircraft without using autopilot or wing leveler, just so the long lost sense memory of actual control of flight is experienced? How many gliders should American or United or Delta purchase for this purpose? Just for laughs, please remove flight directors and use instead the old round guages that require the pilot to integrate the results of several gages into flight inputs, by hand through his intellect, and practice instrument approaches and go-arounds, just like in primary training.
cessna210g 1
Oh I don't know maybe when you're taking off from LaGuardia Airport and lose both engines due to bird strikes. Then hand flying the plane to a emergency landing on the Hudson River. Can you say Captain Sullenberger.
pjshield 1
Nothing wrong with that approach, as it would make a pilot appreciate how far things have come since the old days. When I flew BE18s w cargo back in the '60s, that's all we had and we always got there...I think.
Gordon Musch 1
It is not that automation is bad, but the programmers are not doing a good job. Now with the advent of AI a plane could be flown without a crew. But the AI needs to be heuristic and learn all the time. And the AI needs to share those lessons with others so they can also learn. With the sky increasingly seeing more and more flights, which will continue to swell over time. An AI is the only thing out there that can keep planes separated safely taking into consideration local weather and other data. A human can not keep all that data separate. With the advent of new supersonic and possibly hypersonic planes, humans can not think and react fast enough to keep up. Only a AI can do this. With a plane flying Mach 9 can you as a human make the correct decision in time? But right now, the programmers/engineers really need to work much harder at making sure their software actually works. And Boeing failed.
mary susan watkins 1
technology and computers have helped people improve and learn and investigate areas where they could not before..that applies in a lot of things from medicine to farming and also to aviation..the point is however, computers and technology are not meant to replace an actual human being,but only to assist in whatever task they are undertaking.."hands on" training should never be pushed aside for a computer chip,which are also made and programmed by people!skill,ability,education and training should never be of less importance than a computer program or an automated system..
victorbravo77 1
I don't disagree @mary susan watkins, but over-reliance on the digitalization of anything is not always a good idea. Flight is among the least forgiving among those things we try to do as humans. Give me a good IFR flight plan and top-shelf controllers anyday. I think the point is stick-and-rudder flying.
Years ago these same sales representatives sold snake oil; now its the 737 Max. If it looks like it, and it sounds like it, then sure as heck don't step in it. So is it true that the plane cant fly without the auto program control system? One crash would have been one too many. Are they using firmware or software to compensate for a design flaw or two? Any airo-engineers with a straight answer? Not that any of these guys seem to reek of a slight conflict of interest, you know? Billions are at the runway.
Rich Kaminski 0
In another 20 years or so I suspect that most aircraft will simply fly themselves. A lot of them basically do now but they keep a crew on board for critical thinking that a computer can not replicate.
If you think about it a lot of people would feel uncomfortable today walking on board a plane and there not being ang crew or pilot. Mostly because there has always been a crew. People are reluctant to change.
Once we start seeing Uber aircraft flying people with no pilot and cars driving themselves as a common everyday practice then people will start to get on board with this.
Now I am not advocating for a completely computer controlled aircraft with no crew or pilot as people need someone to complain to and bring them coffee and tasty beverages.

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