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Monitoring cockpit systems not easy for pilots

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Airline pilots often have trouble consistently monitoring automated cockpit safety systems, a problem that has shown up repeatedly in accidents and may have been a factor in the recent crash landing of a South Korean airliner in San Francisco, industry and government experts said Wednesday.

The human brain isn't wired to continually pay attention to instruments that rarely fail or show discrepancies, a panel of experts told an annual safety conference of the Air Line Pilots Association, the world's largest pilots union. As a result, teaching pilots how to effectively monitor instruments is now as important as teaching them basic "stick-and-rudder" flying skills, they said.

"The human brain just isn't very well designed to monitor for an event that very rarely happens," Key Dismukes, a top NASA human factors scientist, said. While people "do very well" at actively controlling a plane, "we're not well designed to monitor for a little alphanumeric (a combination of alphabet letters and numbers) on the panel even if that alphanumeric tells us something important," he said.

The "sheer volume of monitoring required even on the most routine flights and the diversity" of systems that must be monitored has increased, he said.

Concern about the problem is great enough that government, union and industry safety officials formed a working group last fall to come up with a blueprint for teaching pilots techniques for how to overcome the brain's natural tendency to sometimes see but disregard important information. For example, if pilots see airspeed indicators showing appropriate speeds landing after landing, their brains may filter out an unexpected low or high speed, they said.

"The human brain filters out information it considers unchanging," said Helena Reidemar, an airline pilot and the pilots union's director of human factors.

Asiana Flight 214 crashed short of a runway at San Francisco International Airport on July 6 after a nearly 11-hour flight from Seoul, South Korea. Of the 307 people on board, three have died and dozens of others were injured. One of the issues that have emerged in the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation of the accident is whether the pilots, who were supposed to be watching airspeed indicators, were aware the plane was traveling at speeds so dangerously slow that it was at risk of losing lift and stalling.

Dismukes cautioned that it's too soon to reach conclusions about whether the three Asiana pilots who were in the Boeing 777's highly-automated cockpit were closely monitoring the plane's airspeed, "but what was going on there in terms of monitoring systems obviously is going to be a crucial issue."

Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB board member, said: "The question is, did the pilots recognize they were slow? And if not, why not?"

The board's investigation hasn't turned up any mechanical or computer problems with the plane, NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said at briefing last week.

The board has repeatedly investigated accidents in which pilots' failure to closely monitor key system was a contributing factor to the crash, Sumwalt said.

In 2007, after an investigation of a business jet accident in Pueblo, Colo., the board recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration require that pilot training programs be modified to contain segments that teach and emphasize monitoring skills and how to manage multiple tasks, Sumwalt said. Since then, the board has twice repeated the recommendation in response to other accidents, he said.

The FAA, however, hasn't required airlines change their training programs, Sumwalt said. Instead, the agency advised airlines to revise their procedures to "promote effective monitoring" if pilots are found to be inconsistent in their monitoring techniques, he said.

The board doesn't believe the advice goes far enough, and has categorized FAA's response as "unsatisfactory," Sumwalt said.

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Follow Joan Lowy on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AP_Joan_Lowy

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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