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Mastering automation – The Auto-pilot is not just a switch

Flight Management System Trainer

Mastering automation – The Auto-pilot is not just a switch

Blog by Mark Bond, VP Training Serivces

Automation, and the capabilities now afforded due to technology, has been the result of significant innovation in today's commercial aircraft. However, as we know automation doesn't replace commercial airline pilots, its primary purpose is to help reduce workload.

Modern aircraft have become heavily reliant on automation systems to ensure flight safety, assist pilots in flight operations and deliver efficiencies such as time and cost savings. However, behind the automation there are complex systems that if not utilized properly, can reduce such efficiencies, impact crew coordination, affect compliance with ATC instructions, and possibly result in incidents/accidents. I feel that this is something we should be discussing throughout the industry today.

With systems like the autoflight and flight management system (FMS) taking on ever more complex processes, how do we ensure that Pilots are best trained to manage these systems so they can ensure benefits are maximized for the airline, while also preventing potential significant incidents? What's the training solution?

Without a doubt, automation brings many benefits to the flight deck including reduced workload and repetitive tasks, helping to create a manageable environment allowing pilots to focus on other tasks. Airlines also benefit from many efficiencies such as fuel usage, passenger comfort, and reduction in weather minima.


Benefits aside, it’s the potential issues that we need to address to ensure that our pilots are best prepared to overcome.

Automation systems can change the pilot's role and mind-set to become more focused on monitoring flight systems rather than operating the systems and lead to automation dependency. Pilots may become complacent and reliant on automation without mastering system operations potentially leading to pilots that are unable to anticipate the appropriate aircraft actions. There are many cases of automation dependency in the past that have led to incidents that could have been prevented.

The chance of errors being made can also become a factor. Incorrect selection of autoflight modes, errors entering data into the FMS, questions on autoflight mode annunciators, or proper set-up for nav displays; all are examples that can result in challenges during a flight and affect pilot’s situational awareness.

We know that automation plays a vital role in aircraft operations and supporting pilots. To achieve this, pilots need to be well trained to make the most of these benefits while mitigating the potential issues and incidents that could also occur. So, I guess the real question is how do we achieve this?
Personally, I feel that the solution is to provide our pilots with a simulated training environment where they can learn, practice and master the automation systems before they enter the flight deck.

The team at L3 have developed a training system called the FMST - Flight Management System Trainer which has been designed to provide pilots with the opportunity to practice and build on their flight management system skills in a high-fidelity free play simulated environment. In summary, the FMST can be used for flight crew training to practice pre-flight and in-flight procedures to improve their knowledge of the FMS, autoflight system and associated navigation displays resulting in effective management of the aircraft’s automation.

By learning in a simulated environment, pilots are able to experience the automated systems, which can be augmented with guided lessons, and the appropriate level of automation to be utilized for various phases of flight, e.g., take off vs. high altitude cruising.

As alluded to earlier, the FMST also incorporates additional avionics which are essential to understanding alongside the FMS such as autothrottle/ autothrust, flight instruments, autopilot, navigation radios and other associated control panels and displays. If pilots are to truly make the most of the benefits automation delivers, our pilots must master an integrated approach to using these complementary systems in harmony.


So, what does the future hold regarding the use of automation in commercial aircraft and how do we prepare pilots to make the most of the benefits its delivers?

I think we can safely say that advancements in technology and further use of automation will become even more prominent as we progress to the future. With airspace initiatives like SESAR in Europe and NextGen in the United States, we can expect the air traffic control environment to allow aircraft to further leverage technology, use of data comms to help reduce radio chatter, and many other benefits to be recognized. This is excellent news as I am sure we will continue to see new benefits and efficiencies created for the airline industry. However, the need to understand automation systems will likely become more critical, making training more crucial than ever. It’s important that we begin to discuss efficient, effective, yet still lower cost training methods and tools to enable our pilots to practice and master their use of automation.


Mark Bond, VP Training Services