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Autopilot isn't enough: experts call for new pilot training standards to prevent crashes

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For over a decade, aviation safety experts like the NTSB's Robert Sumwalt and NASA scientist Key Dismukes have warned that pilots should never drop their guard — that they not only need to monitor their instruments, but also their co-pilots to keep fatal errors from occurring at times when the plane is most vulnerable. In 2003, they achieved a major win: citing a 1994 NTSB study that claimed 84 percent of accidents might have been prevented if the crew caught errors and / or questioned their superiors, they convinced the FAA to offically change the on-duty titles of pilots so both individuals would always have active responsibility.

"If no one is mentally flying the aircraft, then no one is flying the aircraft."

Fast forward ten years, though, and the experts aren't satisfied with their progress. In the face of accidents like the crash of Asiana 214, where crew members didn't seem to be aware of the aircraft's speed, they want the FAA to require pilots to actually be trained how to monitor their often confusing aircraft, and to practice that skill regularly. They've brought up the idea at least twice with the aviation authority, but in the absence of movement, they've created a working group of their own — the Active Pilot Monitoring Workshop. It will use the weight of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), a union which represents some 59,000 US and Canadian pilots, to drive its message home.

With the help of the ALPA's Human Factors and Training Group, and a huge list of participants including many major US airlines, the group plans to issue a report this December to convince the entire industry that with a little more monitoring, future accidents can be avoided. "We've talked about monitoring in the past, but we've never taken such a comprehensive look as this project," says Helena Reidemar, ALPA director of human factors, who co-leads the working group.

The group presented the idea at this year's Air Safety Forum. If you've got an hour and a half to spare, it's all right here on video.