In this handout photo provided by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), NTSB workers inspect the wreckage of a UPS cargo plane that crashed in a field outside of Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport August 14, 2013. (Photo by NTSB via Getty Images)
Bart Jansen, USA TODAY
Automated flight controls in airline cockpits have become so reliable that safety experts say pilots could become inattentive to rare malfunctions that can lead to crashes.
Problems monitoring equipment have been cited for decades in crashes and could have played a role in two recent fatal crashes. Mechanical problems weren't immediately found as causes.
An Asiana Airlines passenger jet struck a seawall and crashed July 6 on the runway in San Francisco, killing three passengers. A United Parcel Service cargo jet crashed Aug. 14 short of the runway in Birmingham, Ala., killing both pilots.
Besides the stick-and-rudder skills of steering a plane, commercial pilots routinely set automated instruments that govern an airliner's direction, speed and altitude, then check throughout the flight to ensure the systems are performing as expected.
"We get lazy, we get complacent, we get tired," said Jack Panosian, a former Northwest pilot who teaches at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. "What happens when we see something work correctly 99 times? What do we do on that 100th time? Are we monitoring it with the same level? The answer is no."
The National Transportation Safety Board has long noticed problems. A 1994 study of 37 crashes found that 31 involved inadequate monitoring. NTSB findings in several accidents since then:
•On July 26, 2002, a FedEx 727-200 approaching Tallahassee at night crashed and seriously injured three crewmembers who failed to monitor controls when landing lights warned that the plane was too low.
•On Nov. 22, 2004, a Gulfstream G-III sent to Houston to pick up former president George H.W. Bush for a trip to Ecuador crashed and killed three crewmembers after they failed to cross-check instruments during the approach.
•On Feb. 16, 2005, a Cessna Citation 560 crashed in Pueblo, Colo., killing eight people. Besides distractions during the approach, one cause was the pilot's "failure to effectively monitor" the equipment before stalling.
The board recommended after the crash in 2005 that the Federal Aviation Administration "require that all pilot training programs be modified to ... teach and emphasize monitoring skills."
That recommendation was repeated after a Colgan Air crash in Buffalo killed 50 people in 2009 and an American Airlines 757 overran a runway in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in 2010.
"This is really an area that is ripe for improving safety," said Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB member and a former 24-year airline pilot.
The FAA hopes to complete a rule in October for "improving pilot training and qualifications to reduce or eliminate the types of errors that caused the Colgan accident," the agency told USA TODAY in a statement.
Helena Reidemar, the Air Line Pilots Association's director of human factors, said pilots must remain as active in monitoring controls as in actually flying the plane.
"The brain is not wired to reliably monitor instruments that rarely fail," Reidemar said. "We're not robots. We can't just sit there and stare at the instruments for hours on end."
In addition to continually checking controls, flight crews must avoid distractions such as those cited in an incident in 2009 in which two Northwest pilots using laptop computers overshot their scheduled landing in Minneapolis by 100 miles.