..What really worries me is the general tendency of over-reliance on automation, compensating for inexperienced/ untalented/ stressed crew ...
On that we agree 100%.
"Reliance on automation" is quickly becoming a catch phrase in this business. But one has to understand the background ...
When a Pan American Boeing 314 crossed the Atlantic, there were 12 crew members on the flight deck. The Captain and First Officer weren't even the "pilots"! As automation progressed, less were needed in the cockpit. When my Dad flew a Super Connie from YYZ-LHR there were 5 in the cockpit. Captain, First Officer, Second Officer/FE, Navigator and Radio Operator. When he flew the DC-8 from YYZ-LHR, only 4 in the cockpit. The Radio Operator has been replaced with easier to tune and use VHF and HF radios. When the INS was installed in the DC-8s, there were now only 3 in the cockpit, the Navigator was no longer needed.
Now I fly a 777 from YYZ-LHR with only 2 in the cockpit. Add to all the above, the SO/FE has been replaced with advanced automated systems (starting with the 767). Hell, even communication is easier with CPDLC/ADS! Am I "relying on automation" or am I flying the aircraft as designed by Boeing? The only reason I can fly 450 passengers safely with only two pilots, is due to the automation designed into the aircraft.
"Relying on automation" though is well known in safety and training circles and many measures have been made to make sure pilots are still capable. My last few sim sessions were with the Autopilot declared INOP. My last Route Check, I was required to manually use the HF to make position reports!
But .... I don't think this applies in this case.
The 2 axis autopilot of the early 737s is very very basic. Even when engaged the pilots never stop "flying" the third axis. These pilots were very well experienced, not just as pilots, but also in early 737s. I am pretty sure they never "relied on automation" as that automation really doesn't exist in the 737-500.
In my opinion, the key to the solution lies in the CVR. Going through 10,000' and levelling out, they must have both been distracted. Not only did they miss that only one thrust lever came back to cruise power, (and trust me, having flown early 737s, a thrust assymetry is very obvious) but when the autopilot reached it's limits and kicked off, they had no idea why control was lost.
Using normal unusual attitude recovery wouldn't work (where you start with roll) as clearly full aileron wasn't enough, or the autopilot could have handled it. One would have to quickly assess and notice the thrust assymetry, bring both thrust levels to even .... then ... start your recovery. I am guessing by the time they realized what had happened (if they ever did) recovery was all but impossible.
So ... what distracted them?