Despite their high reliability, accurate flight path control, and flexible display of critical aircraft-related information, automated flight management systems can actually decrease pilots’ awareness of parameters critical to flight path control through out-of-the-loop performance decrements, over-reliance on automation, and poor human monitoring capabilities. The circumstances of the accident involving an American Airlines Flight 965 (Boeing 757) that struck a mountain while in descent for a landing at Cali, Colombia, on December 20, 1995, and the manner in which the pilots lost situation awareness, reveal much about the nature of situation awareness and the factors that can affect it in a dynamic environment such as an aircraft cockpit.

In the end, the Flight crew provide the final defence against accidents through their human ability to adapt, learn, and overcome adversity. This ability to use the human element to overcome change, uncertainty, and error is called airmanship. As we continue to design better aircraft and more effective training for their crews, we must always allow for this most vital of all contributors to flight safety, but we should never knowingly rely on it.

Experiences with Automation

The following quotes come from the US Aviation Safety Reporting System administered by NASA:

Being new in an automated cockpit, I find that the pilots are spending too much time playing with the computer at critical times rather than flying the aircraft. No one looks outside for traffic.

My first priority was data entry rather than situational awareness.

This is another case of learning to type 80 words a minute instead of flying the aircraft.

Needless to say, confusion was in abundance. There are just too many different functions that can control airspeed and descent rates, all of which can control the altitude capture.

In order to make the full benefit of Automation Flight Crew must:

  • Have a proper understanding of automation including its advantages and drawbacks
  • Standard Operating Procedures for the use of Cockpit Automation
  • Proper training
  • Motivation to learn – (When flying multiple types familiarize yourself with the different cockpit layouts and modes of Automation)

Operational consideration with Automation

  • Aviate, Navigate, Communicate
  • One head up at all times – ( In a single Pilot environment Automation tasks should never interfere with outside vigilance)
  • Cross check accuracy – (Verify flight plan amendments prior to “activating”, Use of Raw data to verify position and maintain SA)
  • Know what mode your Flight Management System / Autopilot is in at all times – ( Both crew should always be aware of changes made to Automation system)
  • When things don’t go as expected – TAKE OVER
  • Use the appropriate level of Automation for the task
  • Practice task sharing – back each other up.