2017 was claimed as the safest year in Commercial Jet Aviation in terms of casualties. Aircraft design and the operational use of automated systems have been continuously improved and advanced to assist the pilots in the "Man - Machine" environment. Maybe even to a point, where we might start to consider: Is the automation on the flight decks today, a “nice to have”, or has it become a “need to have”?  What happens when automation fails? Are the pilots actually able to maintain their manual flying skills, and manage attention when juggling concurrent task demands?

During the Asiana 214 flight in San Francisco (U.S.) on July 2013  - where Boeing 777 impacted the ground before the runway - the flight deck was occupied by three pilots. Yet, no one questioned the aircraft state, in regards to the automation mode selected, before it was too late. The lack of understanding the automation selection and the transition to manual flying were acknowledged as a fatal cause of the accident. 

Despite highly experienced pilots, the actual flying hours of manual flying turned out to be significant lower. An airline policy of recommending automation flying, due to cost efficiency seemed to play a role in how much manual flying was conducted.  FAA report after the accident stated:  “Concern in future Flight Safety issue of Man- Machine, due to the over reliance on Autopilot and Automation.” The FAA estimates that automation is used 90% of the time, leaving only 10% for the manual flying.  But does the automation flying actually lead to motor skill degradation, or are there also other factors at stake?

In a NASA study from 2014, “The retention of manual flying skills in the automated cockpit”, 16 active 747-400 pilots were tested on the following parameters: 1) Hand - Eye skills: Instrument scanning and manual control 2) Cognitive skills: Navigation and failure recognition, diagnosis. The finding proclaimed: “Pilots sometimes struggled to maintain the cognitive skills that accompany manual flying such as awareness of the aircraft's position and recognizing instrument system failure”. The conclusions were:

  • Hand - Eye skills: If initially well learned, are reasonably well retained after prolonged use of automation.
  • Cognitive skills: Such as navigation and failure recognition and diagnosis, are prone to forgetting and may depend on the extent to which pilots follow along when automation is used to fly the aircraft.

So this study suggests, that if you have been trained properly in your manual flying skills, they will not decay, but some “rustiness“ might occur.

It seems, however, that cognitive skills of monitoring and situation awareness are more dependent on our state of mind. Do we actively monitor, as in continuously checking the aircraft position in regards to the automation, or do our thoughts wander when automation is selected?

The NASA study revealed that during flights with automation, pilots' thoughts were unrelated to task 20% of the time. This could suggest that for a human it can be hard to engage to the monitoring part during all the time. Our mind starts to drift, we get bored. In this state, a transition into manual flying due to failure might be challenging. When automation failures occur, we might end up being too busy flying the aircraft, not leaving room for the cognitive process in regards to navigation, failure recognition and diagnosis, that are vital in this situation.  So this could lead to a conclusion that more manual flying is necessary for us to maintain both the motor skills and especially the cognitive skills associated. 

This is not news to us that several accidents and incidents have led to changes in training organization around the world, where Upset Recovery and “automation surprise” now has become a part of the training in the simulator. However is it sufficient to train every 6 months, or are both the cognitive and manual skills something we should have a chance to train more frequently?  One could, of course, argue that pilots could do it every day on the job. Looking at it from an isolated point of view, that might be true, but maybe there is more to the equation. Do the context in which we work leave room for training of manual skills?

With rising demands in aviation, more congested airspace and airports have followed. Reduced separation and RNAV approaches in the majority of airports. Requiring automation, more precision, and less time to take up the airspace. Alongside is following effective crew rosters, maximizing the use of the crew, causing fatigue issues. The high demands for pilots, providing first officers fresh from the flight school, and fast track upgrades for captains to be. Inexperience in terms of manual flying hours, but competent in the automation - the magenta children. And then there is of course the policy of the airline in concern. Do that actually encourage pilots to fly manually or not? This do not rule out the choice of flying manually, but this might be some of the factors in a decision of whether or not, to do so. 

The question might be: When should we fly manually? How often is required in order to maintain the manual and cognitive skills?  On an approach into London, with a new First Officer? On the Non-precision approach at night? With reported cross winds close to aircraft limit? Or when your weekly duty hours are passing 45 hours? So has the automation become more of a “need to have” than a “nice to have”?

From my point of view, it has, but mainly as a consequence of the development in today’s aviation. I see a point in the FAA concern, but maybe even more in the ongoing growth of the industry. Are we closing in on the limits of human capabilities with the continuing sophistication and enhancement of automation? Though it might make it easier for us in the daily operation, but are we capable of coping in recognizing the system failures when automation fails? As a CRM Instructor, I find this topic a good platform for discussions in the classroom. My belief is, that creating the awareness, sharing thoughts and ideas on how to address the issue might help us in the future. So if you are a pilot, what are your thoughts?


Gitte Furdal Damm is an experienced flight captain with a demonstrated history of working in the airlines/aviation industry. She is also the owner and CRM Instructor at About Human Factors, providing courses within aviation, such as Initial CRM, Recurrent CRM, Conversion Courses, Commander Upgrade, Teaching and Learning and individual coaching to pilots.