Oregon Live: Few of us will ever forget Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot whose astonishing skill and good judgment helped him bring a crippled Airbus A320 safely down in the Hudson River on Manhattan's West Side two years ago and save all 155 passengers on board.
But it turns out Sullenberger is one of a vanishing breed in a commercial pilot corps that has all but lost its capacity to fly planes manually. Computer-powered autopilot systems are implicated, but so, too, are the training pilots receive and federal requirement that automated systems guide most flight. Federal Aviation Administration investigators, in reviewing 46 accidents -- some of them mid-air stalls and some fatal -- found many pilots were unable to correctly take manual control of their planes or had made errors with the automated systems before or during the mishaps.
The past decade has seen a sharp decline in fatal airline accidents, underscoring commercial flight as a safe way to go. But the disclosure this week that pilots are increasingly unable to fly their planes manually is disturbing. It is simply no way to fly. And it is particularly intolerable that we've either let our technology outstrip our capacity to run it or failed in training to keep up with it.
The FAA in May proposed a requirement that airlines train their pilots to recover from a midair stall -- a harrowing moment of power loss repeatedly cited in the study as leaving pilots confused -- and to incorporate into their classes problem scenarios in which pilots would need to actually fly their planes out of trouble, according to a report by The Associated Press.
That would surely help. But the FAA and the airline industry need to coordinate much more closely on pilot proficiency as we yet increase our reliance on sophisticated computer guidance in aviation.
The FAA, for example, separately intends to replace the nation's current radar-based air traffic control system with one directed by more precise GPS navigation. While GPS will allow steeper landings with engines nearly idled for fuel efficiency -- as well as more planes crowding the airspace -- it also means pilots will give up further control to technologies that in critical moments already exceed their grasp.
The challenge is cruelly modern in being both human and digital. The FAA's findings reveal that pilots not only lack the hands-on flying skills to overcome midflight moments when autopilot systems seem errant but that in some cases pilots create the problem early in the trip by feeding onboard computers wrong data.
It will take nerve on the FAA's part to legally demand that the airlines, whose collective profit margin this year fell to less than 1 percent owing largely to fuel costs, dramatically increase the number of days devoted every year to teaching and reteaching their pilots how to manually fly planes in difficult situations. And it will take persistent advocacy from the airlines, professional pilot associations and autopilot manufacturers to ensure that pilots are masters of the computers serving them and the public at 30,000 feet.
Sully Sullenberger surely could teach the hands-on flying part. But the tech part looks to be harder, because it will require a crew that's as savvy about computers as it is the demands of piloting.