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When the dog bites, when the bee stings, will autopilot take care of it?

The National Transportation Safety Administration has released its initial report about an accident outside of Miami on Feb. 11. The private jet was carrying four people, including the pilot. All perished in the crash. According to NBC South Miami, the pilot reported an engine out just minutes after takeoff.

On Monday, Feb. 22, a small plane crashed outside of Spokane, Washington, within minutes of takeoff. The pilot, the only one on board, remains in critical condition. With this accident, the cause is not the story, though. The Spokane Police Department released one officer's body-cam recording from the crash site. This officer was among the first to respond. It is a long recording that gives viewers an up-close look at the immediate aftermath of a crash.

Like these accidents, most plane crashes occur at takeoff and landing. If nothing else, this gives the lie to the urban myth that planes are all on autopilot all the time and pilots really play no role in flying (even if they look good in uniform).

Yes, technology has had an enormous impact on how pilots do their jobs, but it has not made pilots obsolete. Planes do not take off and do not land by themselves. Pilots do that.

 Autopilot works the way cruise control works on a car -- or used to work, before all the accident avoidance systems entered the picture. The pilot maneuvers the plane through ground traffic and a safe takeoff. When the plane reaches its cruising altitude, the pilot may engage the autopilot. At that point, the pilot may be able to take her foot off the gas pedal, but she still has to keep her eyes on the road (to extend the cruise control analogy). The pilot must keep track of how the plane is running and be on the lookout for any change in conditions outside the plane. The pilot must be able to take back control in an emergency.

In 2013, an Asiana Airlines plane crashed on landing at the San Francisco airport. The NTSB suggested that the pilots may have relied too heavily on the plane to do the thinking for them. (See our June 26, 2014, post for more information.) If the pilots had more experience and, the NTSB continued, had received more comprehensive training, the crash may have been avoided.

Aircraft and flight technology have advanced, but even drones need pilots. There is no substitute, yet, for training and experience in the cockpit.

Source: Huffington Post, "10 Urban Legends About Flying That Aren't True," July 8, 2013 (updated Sept. 7, 2013) 

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