Autopilot Addiction? Pilots Forgetting How to Steer

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Travelers put their lives in the hands of pilots every time they board a plane. Now the Federal Aviation Administration says airline pilots may be forgetting how to manually fly.

A new FAA study reveals oftentimes pilots rely heavily on computers, or auto-pilot, for assistance. Safety officials say this "automation addiction" makes their flight skills rusty.

For the most part, pilots only manually control the plane during take-offs and landings. That has many questioning how pilots identify air emergencies.

"We can't get that a situation where the human pilot is not capable of handling the airplane. That's what we're there for," said ABC aviation consultant John Nance.

The report found 51 "loss of control" incidents in the last five years, and the mistakes caused hundreds of deaths.

For example, on Air France Flight 447 the plane's autopilot disengaged because of a stall warning.

The pilots pulled the plane's nose up -- the wrong procedure during a stall. The nose should've been pointed down.

The plane crashed into the ocean killing all 228 people onboard.

Two-thirds of all loss of control incidents are cause by a pilot having trouble manually flying the plane or making mistakes with the onboard computers.

"They can get rusty if they don't be responsible and go back and manipulate the controls of that airplane manually once in a while so they can see how that airplane actually flies," said Kevin Hiatt, vice president of the Flight Safety Foundation

The most recent fatal crash in the United States happened near Buffalo, N.Y., in 2009.

The pilot programmed wrong information into the plane's computer causing it to reduce speed.

The pilots worsened the stall and were unable to manually recover. Fifty people died as a result.

Many airlines discourage or even ban pilots from turning off the autopilot.

But industry experts say airlines need to rethink their operations and give pilots more opportunities to hone their skills and take the reigns.

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Tyler James

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