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As Attention Wanders, Rethinking the Autopilot


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Test pilot, cockpit Airbus A380

Thomas Lohnes/Agence France-Presse Getty Images

A captain returned to the cockpit after taking a bathroom break and found the first officer facing away from the instruments and talking to a flight attendant. Unnoticed was the fact that the autopilot had disconnected and the plane was in danger of stalling.

The incident is one of more than a dozen in an airline industry report in which the pilots failed to properly monitor the flight, the automation or even the location of their airplane. The report, which came out in 2008, is getting new attention in light of the most conspicuous recent example of pilots not paying attention: the Northwest Airlines flight that overshot its destination and traveled on for another 150 miles before turning back to the airport last October.

Whether these incidents are symptoms of a larger problem in the cockpit is the subject of a debate among aviation experts: are airliners so automated that pilots are becoming complacent?

The issue will be on the agenda at a three-day conference  in Washington beginning on Tuesday, when the National Transportation Safety Board considers pilot and air traffic controller professionalism. “We at the N.T.S.B. are continuing to see accidents and incidents like the Northwest 188 event,” said a safety board member, Robert L. Sumwalt. “Here it shows we have proof that pilots are still not adequately monitoring the aircraft flight path.”

From The New York Times
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