Back to Basics

Posted by in Aviation, Safety

After my recent article on the role of automation in the cockpit, I’ve followed this topic as the discussion continues on various sites around the blogosphere. A fair percentage of them have noticed the same hand-flying deficiencies develop after long periods behind the controls of highly automated aircraft.

Two in particular caught my attention. The first is from a former check airman:

I am aware of a pilot taking a rating check in the FAR 142 environment, who decided to disengage the automation and successfully complete the maneuver on basic flying skills, who flunked that maneuver, even though is was accomplished successfully as hand flown. What does that say about the regulatory authorities attitude about basic flying skills?

Also, many airlines, based on FAA and manufacturer guidance; discourage their pilots from hand flying the aircraft. As a result, their hand flying (and thinking) skills do not get developed and/or will get lost after a period of time flying automated aircraft.

I was a DC-8 Check Airman for a Carrier where the senior people got checked out and flew the DC-10 for two years. When they came back to the DC-8, and some of these people had 20,000 hours in the DC-8, it was clear that two years on the DC-10, not necessarily as highly automated as the current generation aircraft, had caused their hand flying and thinking skills to seriously deteriorate. Getting some of them requalified was quite a task. Not only did their instrument scans seriously deteriorate, but they also had fogotten how to fly and think ahead of the aircraft at the same time.

A few of them required more simulator time than we normally allocate to initial pilot trainees on the DC-8. It was quite an experience for me to see Captains whom I had flown First Officer for, who could make the DC-8 do exactly what they wanted the bird to do, to a situation where, as one of them told me, when I was providing line supervision “I couldn’t find my butt with both hands”.

And from a letter to the editor at AVweb:

I had been flying the Airbus A320 for a supplemental 121 carrier when I was furloughed and had to scramble to find any flying job. I interviewed for a job which required a sim check in a B727 simulator. I had not flown an aircraft with manual thrust levers, a yoke or a trim switch for several years and had never flown a 727 or a 727 sim.

My hand-flying skills were atrocious. I could interpret the steam gauges okay, but I couldn’t keep up with the trim, and I ham-fisted the thrust levers badly. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job, and I didn’t blame them a bit.

I just spoke on the phone today with a friend who spent the past year flying an MD-88 for Dynamic Airways, the new Part 121 charter airline started by Dynamic Aviation. He’s transitioning to a different aircraft and encountered a few of the same challenges encountered by the Airbus pilot quoted above.

It occurs to me that flying “raw data” after a long period away from hand-flying can be as challenging as the transition to a new airplane. I see many similarities in initial pilot performance, especially if the aviator has been confined to a single aircraft type for a long period.

In that regard, I believe one of the best ways to keep yourself sharp is to fly varying types of aircraft. If, for example, you fly an aerobatic plane or a glider in addition to that shiny jet, odds are you’ll enhance and retain skills you probably aren’t even aware of. Perhaps that aptitude is simply the mental agility to move from one cockpit to another. Maybe it’s an improved competence with pitch/power relationships or comfort with unusual attitudes.

However poorly I may have explained it, I’ve simply noticed that those who fly multiple types of aircraft seem to be able to adapt to changes faster than those who don’t. I doubt this has as much to do with physical ability as it does mental acuity, something picked up by Sam in his recent post.

Lastly and most importantly, we need to adjust our training and checking to emphasize the necessity of brainwork. Technology and mental skill ought to be mutually beneficial and neither should be employed to the exclusion of the other. Simulator instructors and check airmen should make a regular practice of failing the automation in unexpected and artful ways as a means of ensuring that pilots are actively backing up their technology and are continuously prepared to revert to lower levels of automation.

Ultimately, the most difficult thing about all this is that it will require a certain change in the training mindset at many airlines. With training footprints slashed to a bare minimum, the goal has become preparing the pilot to pass his checkride in a minimum of time. The focus needs to shift back to preparing the pilot for whatever life on the line throws at him, in particular the sneaky problems that have a way of snowballing unnoticed.

Vee One cuts are serious and it’s good that we practice them, but they’re not particularly subtle, nor do they require much thought beyond rote repetition. We need to move beyond “checking the boxes” mode and include opportunities for real learning in every training and checking event. This will require more simulator time and therefore increased training budgets, but I believe the result will be more thoughtful pilots more attuned to their aircraft and better equipped to handle unusual problems.

Speaking of Sam, notice that he comes to the same conclusion I reached in my original post: namely that the rudimentary flight skills must be developed in primary training because there is little room made for them during advanced ratings, and automation can easily mask the lack of those abilities until they are the only thing standing between a pilot and a Very Bad Day. As such, the case is made for conducting primary flight training in a non-automated aircraft, or at the very least, with the automation fully disabled.

All these guidelines are applicable to advanced airplanes from glass-equipped C172s on up through A380s. Flight instructors, drill them into your students from the very first flight lesson. I generally believe that glass cockpits in training aircraft are overkill or even counterproductive for early flight training. I may very well revise that opinion, however, if their use results in a new generation of professional pilots who start their careers with a healthy and balanced approach to automation.

I hope Sam doesn’t revise his opinion. In fact, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’d take it one step further and suggest that every pilot should learn to fly in the most stone-simple tailwheel airplane available. They’re economical. They put the focus on primary flight skills most likely to atrophy later. They simply will not abide poor airmanship. And most of all, they’re fun to fly. Isn’t that why we got into aviation in the first place?

Unfortunately, the trend is headed in the opposite direction — even Cubs come with glass panels these days! But as far as I know, they’re still making them with an “off” switch, so the hope for a better training experience will continue to spring eternal.