Asiana Crash Report Raises Debate over Autopilot

By Brandi Powell and Christina London
|  Wednesday, Dec 11, 2013  |  Updated 7:44 PM PDT
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A new report about the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco is raising questions about pilots' reliance on autopilot. NBC 7's Brandi Powell explains why pilots are less likely to use this feature when landing at Lindbergh Field.

A new report about the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco is raising questions about pilots' reliance on autopilot. NBC 7's Brandi Powell explains why pilots are less likely to use this feature when landing at Lindbergh Field.

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A report released Wednesday said the captain of the Asiana Airlines flight that crashed in San Francisco was concerned about attempting a visual landing, because the runway’s automatic warning systems were out of service.

The debate over autopilot versus manual operation is a hot topic in San Diego. Travelers may be surprised to learn pilots who land at Lindbergh Field are flying by hand instead of using autopilot. The approach would be too low if pilots used autopilot at Lindbergh; the geography and topography of Bankers Hill and Balboa Park make it unsafe.

“The prevalent runway landing is to the west. That’s where most of your traffic’s coming from, the east. It’s a lot easier to just have it straight in. It saves fuel. It saves time, makes for a much more efficient operation,” said Rich Martindell, a longtime pilot and aviation expert.

The exception is inclement weather. Then, pilots landing at Lindbergh Field are forced to land over Point Loma, to the east, using autopilot.

“When they start landing the other way, it slows down operations at Lindbergh quite a bit,” Martindell said.

That’s one reason he says frequent practice in both hand-flying and auto-throttle is critical.

“You dealing with humans, and humans can make mistakes,” Martindell said.

Martindell says there are advantages to autopilot, including reducing pilot workload and being smoother and safer for passengers.

“The airlines have had autopilot for a long time. The quality of autopilots have increased dramatically," he said.

Martindell adds that pilots still need to have sharp skills to use autopilot.

180 passengers injured in the July 6 crash at San Francisco International Airport. Two teens were killed, and a third teenager was killed accidentally when a fire truck ran over her.

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