An investigation into the crash last year of Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501 has revealed some startling lapses by the flight crew - and revived a debate that's divided the flying community. Flight Global comments:
The ill-advised decision by an Airbus A320 crew to reset flight computers, without appreciating the ramifications, and the pilots’ failure to cope with the subsequent in-flight upset ... is not the most dispiriting aspect of the crash. More bewildering is that it occurred just five years after Air France AF447 – an accident which had left the airline community stunned that highly-trained and experienced pilots could have failed to recognise one of the most rudimentary upset conditions in aeronautics.
Pulling a circuit-breaker demands specific detailed system knowledge to comprehend the risk. Stalling, in contrast, does not. To misunderstand stalling is effectively to misunderstand the basic concept of lift and the role of the wing. In short, to misunderstand the most fundamental reason why an aircraft is able to fly.
Handling an aircraft at rarefied cruise altitudes requires care and finesse, and stable flight is a delicate balancing act normally entrusted to the flight-management system and autopilot. Yet this environment in which pilots need a separate array of handling abilities is also the one in which they are least likely to gain hands-on experience.
The result is that pilots, used to operating the aircraft at low altitude, suddenly encounter different behaviour characteristics if they are forced to take over in cruise – when they are likely to be facing pressing matters as well as a possible degradation in flight-control laws and related envelope protections.
There's more at the link.
It's not just flying the aircraft at cruise altitude, either. Consider the crash while landing of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 at San Francisco in 2013. Wikipedia reports:
The NTSB determined that the flight crew mismanaged the initial approach and that the airplane was well above the desired glidepath. In response the captain selected an inappropriate autopilot mode, which without the captain's awareness, resulted in the autothrottle no longer controlling airspeed. The aircraft then descended below the desired glide path with the crew unaware of the decreasing airspeed. The attempted go-around was conducted below 100 ft by which time it was too late. Over-reliance on automation and lack of systems understanding by the pilots were cited as major factors contributing to the accident.
The NTSB further concluded that the pilot's faulty mental model of the airplane’s automation logic led to his inadvertent deactivation of automatic airspeed control. In addition, Asiana’s automation policy emphasized the full use of all automation and did not encourage manual flight during line operations. The flight crew’s mismanagement of the airplane’s vertical profile during the initial approach led to a period of increased workload that reduced the pilot monitoring’s awareness of the pilot flying’s actions around the time of the unintended deactivation of automatic airspeed control. Insufficient flight crew monitoring of airspeed indications during the approach likely resulted from expectancy, increased workload, fatigue, and automation reliance.
Again, more at the link. Bold, underlined text is my emphasis.
Note how many references there are to automated or computerized systems, and the pilots' lack of understanding of the aerodynamic realities underlying those systems. It seems that pilots are relying more and more on automated systems to manage almost every aspect of a flight. The aircraft can even be landed automatically at some airports. If the pilot can get it off the ground, he can engage automated systems within seconds after becoming airborne, and never need to touch the controls again (except to issue updates to the automated systems, which is computer data entry rather than actually flying the plane) until arrival at his destination.
As one who's been "up close and personal" with bush flying in Africa, this horrifies me. The thought of a pilot who's not completely familiar with his aircraft, so that he could almost fly it blindfolded if necessary, is so weird that it boggles my mind . . . yet apparently that's not what many airlines expect of their pilots these days. They expect them to control, or "fly", the computer systems rather than the aircraft. If those computer systems are given the wrong inputs, or their response is not properly understood (as in the crashes of Air France 447 or AirAsia 8501), the pilots are seemingly incapable of responding correctly to the information they're receiving.
This makes me glad I don't have to fly commercially very often . . .