A Coronial inquest into the deaths of two UK nationals who were on Air France AF447 when it crashed into the mid Atlantic ocean in 2009 has brought some critical issues in air safety into the public arena.

While this BBC report doesn’t add to what air safety observers have already learned about the disaster, it does talk in lay terms about pilot training, and growing concerns that cockpit automation raises issues not properly addressed by many airlines.

This is important. In the course of Senate committee discussions in this country, as well as in various safety forums and statements made by safety agencies abroad, there is concern about an airline management tendency to believe that pilots should be required to do as little hands on flying as possible, and leave as much of the control of flight function as possible to computer aided automation.

What numerous incidents in both Airbus and Boeing types have demonstrated, as recently as the Asiana crash at San Francisco, ‘hands off’ can end badly if anything abnormal occurs that requires pilot skills to identify and rectify or recover from.

In Qantas there has been a long and admirable emphasis on ‘recovery upset’ in pilot training. It has saved the airline from the terrible potential consequences of an A380 engine disintegration (QF32) near Singapore in 2010 as well as a control incident with an A330 that forced an emergency landing at Learmonth in 2008, and an electrical crisis in a Boeing 747 fortunately while close to Bangkok Airport in 2008. Among others!

How traditional, and highly successful skills in upset recovery can be maintained in contemporary airliner operations is a much argued or discussed issue for airlines, air safety regulators, certifying authorities and the manufacturers.

This relevance has been underlined by incidents in which the most modern of airliners, with safety records arguably underpinned by automation, have been challenged, sometimes disastrously, by events for which the pilots were inadequately prepared.

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