Hundreds of commercial airline passengers have died over the last five years due to "loss of control" plane crashes, where planes go into deep stalls or abnormal positions that pilots are not able to correct. Aviation safety experts are now voicing concerns that automated navigation (autopilot system) is the problem. Federal regulators have gone so far as to say that the airline industry has 'automation addiction' - a dependence on computerized flying. Commercial airline pilots only fly manually for takeoffs and landings, meaning all but about three minutes of a commercial airline flight is performed using an automated flight system. A draft Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) study found that commercial pilots assign too much responsibility to automation and are not given the opportunity to maintain their skills by flying manually. Safety experts are seeing more and more cases where pilots are simply too ill-equipped to deal with any problems relating to loss of computerized flight controls. "We're forgetting how to fly," says Rory Kay, an airline captain and co-chairman of an FAA committee on pilot training.
On June 1, 2009, Air France flight 447 plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean after going into an aerodynamic stall that pilots were unable to correct, killing all 228 people onboard. An investigation into the fatal crash revealed that the plane's airspeed sensors malfunctioned, which caused the autopilot system to disengage. The co-pilot, who was at the controls when the system malfunctioned for less than a minute, did not know what to do to correct the problem. Protocol for this circumstance is to continue on the same level at the same speed while diagnosing the automation problem. In the Air France crash, the co-pilot kept pointing the plane's nose up, which eventually caused the stall rather than preventing it. In the aftermath, French investigators recommended all pilots receive mandatory training in high altitude stalls and manual flying.
A similar circumstance caused the 2009 Colgan Air crash near Buffalo, New York. The pilots of Colgan Air flight 3407 did not input correct information into the flight's computer system, which caused the plane to slow to an unsafe speed, eventually triggering a stall warning. The pilots tried to correct the stall by pulling the nose up, which triggered an aerodynamic stall. The plane crashed into a house killing all 49 people aboard the fight and one person in the house.
The FAA has recently proposed requiring airlines to train pilots on assessing and recovering from aerodynamic stalls and other realistic flight scenarios that require a hands-on, manual approach. "We've been very slow to recognize the consequence of it and deal with it," says Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation.