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Automation Causing Airline Pilots to Lose Flying Skills, Says Study

Digital Vision/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Are airline pilots becoming too reliant on computers that do their flying for them?

Possibly, according to a new study by the Federal Aviation Administration, which contends that the industry is going through "automation addiction."

During flight, airplanes are usually on autopilot, being controlled by automated systems.  Pilots will generally only switch off autopilot to takeoff or land. Not many fliers know that pilots actually "fly" their planes for roughly only three minutes during a routine flight.

The FAA and other aviation experts are concerned that this reliance on computers in flight may cause pilots to lose hands-on skills and impair them if an emergency arises in which they have to take over control of an airplane.

"Two things are worrisome," says John Nance, an ABC News aviation consultant.  "One is when pilots spend so much time utilizing the electronics that when they go away or when they have to hand fly the airplane their skills have deteriorated; and two, the massive sophistication of some airliners today that are so much so that when they get into trouble and the pilots have to take over, sometimes it's impossible for the crew to know what the airplane is doing and what the proper response is."

The most glaring example of something going wrong was in February 2009, when a co-pilot programmed incorrect information on a passenger plane bound for Buffalo, New York.

When the captain noticed the jet traveling at unsafe speed, he pulled back on the control yoke instead of pushing it forward, causing the plane to stall and then plunge to the ground, killing all 50 people on board.

A similar erroneous pilot reaction to an autopilot's turning off also reportedly caused a deadly stall on Air France Flight 447; the plane crashed into the Atlantic on June 1, 2009, killing all 228 on board.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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