Flying the Needles: Flight Deck Automation Erodes Fine-Motor Flying Skills Among Airline Pilots

Hum Factors. 2016 Jun;58(4):533-45. doi: 10.1177/0018720816640394. Epub 2016 Apr 13.


Objective: The aim of this study was to evaluate the influence of practice and training on fine-motor flying skills during a manual instrument landing system (ILS) approach.

Background: There is an ongoing debate that manual flying skills of long-haul crews suffer from a lack of flight practice due to conducting only a few flights per month and the intensive use of automation. However, objective evidence is rare.

Method: One hundred twenty-six randomly selected airline pilots had to perform a manual flight scenario with a raw data precision approach. Pilots were assigned to four equal groups according to their level of practice and training by fleet (short-haul, long-haul) and rank (first officer, captain).

Results: Average ILS deviation scores differed significantly in relation to the group assignments. The strongest predictor variable was fleet, indicating degraded performance among long-haul pilots.

Conclusion: Manual flying skills are subject to erosion due to a lack of practice on long-haul fleets: All results support the conclusion that recent flight practice is a significantly stronger predictor for fine-motor flying performance than the time period since flight school or even the total or type-specific flight experience.

Application: Long-haul crews have to be supported in a timely manner by adequate training tailored to address manual skills or by operational provisions like mixed-fleet flying or more frequent transitions between short-haul and long-haul operation.

Keywords: automation; information processing; manual controls; perceptual-motor performance; skilled performance.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aircraft
  • Automation / standards*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Motor Skills / physiology*
  • Pilots / standards*
  • Practice, Psychological*
  • Work Performance*