How skilled are airline pilots? Vanity Fair dissects Air France 447 crash

How competent are your airline pilots?

They may not be as adept as you might think, according to a critical article in this month's Vanity Fair. The piece uses as an example the 2009 crash of Air France 447, an A330 that plunged into the Atlantic off the coast of South America after experiencing a brief problem with some of its automated controls. The article tells of overmatched pilots who got unnecessarily confused at an equipment failure that should not have been a big deal. They then managed to stall the aircraft but never seem to realize what they've done. It's especially painful to read about because, by the end of the piece, readers know how the pilots should have reacted. It was so simple. 

In the lengthy piece called, "The Human Factor," author William Langewiesche argues this is not an isolated incident. Yes, aircraft do not crash often, but it's still a problem.  

"Some of the pilots are superb, but most are average, and a few are simply bad," he writes. "To make matters worse, with the exception of the best, all of them think they are better than they are. Airbus has made extensive studies that show this to be true. The problem in the real world is that the pilots who crash your airplanes or simply burn too much fuel are difficult to spot in the crowd. A Boeing engineer gave me his perspective on this. He said, 'Look, pilots are like other people. Some are heroic under pressure, and some duck and run. Either way, it’s hard to tell in advance. You almost need a war to find out.'"

Does the crash of Air France 447 suggest there's a problem with how pilots are trained? Photo: Caroline et Louis VOLANT, via Flickr.

Does the crash of Air France 447 suggest there's a problem with how pilots are trained? Photo: Caroline et Louis VOLANT, via Flickr.

The biggest problem,  Langewiesche argues, is that pilots no longer have much experience flying the aircraft, so they're not prepared if the computers malfunction. He noted that on the long flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, pilots probably actually fly the plane for about eight minutes -- four at takeoff and four on descent. 

"Once you put pilots on automation, their manual abilities degrade and their flight-path awareness is dulled: flying becomes a monitoring task, an abstraction on a screen, a mind-numbing wait for the next hotel," Langewiesche writes. Then he focuses on the three-man crew on Air France 447. "For all three of them, most of their experience had consisted of sitting in a cockpit seat and watching the machine work.

Do we have any airline pilots reading? What are your thoughts?