[Avionics Today 01-12-2016] A new report from the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) Office of Inspector General (OIG) recommends the FAA develop new guidance and standards to ensure airline pilots are not overly reliant on aircraft avionics flight control automation systems. The report speaks to concerns many aviation experts have raised over the last decade as avionics capabilities have evolved; pilots could be relying too much on flight deck automation and losing their proficiency in manually flying the aircraft in the event of a major system failure or other extreme circumstance occurs.
The report is based on OIG's interviews with management at nine out of 81 randomly selected Part 121 and Part 121/135 air carriers on their policies and training programs associated with avionics automation, manual flying and pilot monitoring between March 2014 and November 2015. Additionally, OIG interviewed airline pilots directly about their ability to maintain manual flight proficiency.
The agency found that the FAA estimates automation is used 90 percent of the time in flight, and does not currently have a sufficient process to assess a pilot's ability to monitor both flight deck automation and manual flying skills, both of which are crucial for reacting to unexpected events that can occur during the course of a flight. As an example, only 5 of the 19 flight simulator training plans that were reviewed by OIG specifically mentioned pilot monitoring. Pilot monitoring is an industry term that refers to the pilots' ability to monitor the aircraft's flight path, systems performance and actions of other flight crewmembers, according to OIG,.
"FAA is not well positioned to determine how often air carrier pilots manually fly aircraft and has not ensured that air carrier training programs adequately focus on manual flying skills," OIG said in the report.
In November 2013 the FAA made an attempt to address the trend of pilots increasingly relying on aircraft automation systems by publishing final rule No. 8900.241. That rule requires Part 121 pilots to perform more manual flight training on aircraft stall prevention, upset recovery maneuvers and to receive recurrent ground training on manually flying the aircraft. However, OIG found that the agency is still developing guidance for implementing those training requirements and a completion date has not been determined. Operators also are not required to start complying with those new manual flying-focused training requirements until 2019.
Under the FAA's NextGen airspace modernization program, OIG's report also claims that pilots increasingly using automation for Area Navigation (RNAV) and Required Navigation Performance (RNP) flight procedures is leading to a reduction in the overall number of opportunities airline pilots have during live flight operations to maintain their manual proficiency. The report notes that RNAV allows an aircraft to use satellite signals to fly a desired flight path without the limitations imposed by ground-based navigation aids, and RNP adds monitoring and alerting capabilities for pilots that allow the aircraft to fly more precise flight paths. These procedures combined with airline requirements to use the autopilot system to maintain aircraft separation requirements under Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (RVSM) operations contribute to increased reliance on automation, the report says.
"FAA does not have a sufficient process to assess a pilot’s ability to monitor flight deck automation systems and manual flying skills, both of which are important for handling unexpected events during flight. In addition, FAA is not well positioned to determine how often air carrier pilots manually fly aircraft. FAA has also not ensured that air carrier training programs adequately focus on manual flying skills," OIG says in the report.
Based on its findings, the OIG issued two specific recommendations in an effort to improve the FAA's ability to ensure airlines adequately address the need for pilots to maintain manual flying skills:
1. Develop guidance defining pilot monitoring metrics that air carriers can use to train and evaluate pilots.
2. Develop standards to determine whether pilots receive sufficient training opportunities to develop, maintain, and demonstrate manual flying skills.
In response to the recommendations, the FAA has proposed developing official guidance for airline pilot training that includes a curriculum focused on establishing pilot-monitoring duties.
"The FAA will develop guidance defining pilot monitoring duties and responsibilities that air carriers can use to develop pilot training and evaluation. The guidance will address the definition of pilot monitoring in the operational environment, and it will provide the basis for development of a curriculum and syllabus by carriers. The FAA plans to complete this action prior to January 31, 2017," H. Clayton Foushee, director of the FAA's office of audit and evaluation said in a letter to OIG.