The Key to Good IFR: More VFR

Posted by in IFR, Safety

The Asiana 214 investigation has proven to be every bit as interesting and disturbing as I’d predicted.

Most of the reporting and commentary has been focused on the pilot’s interaction with — and understanding of — the aircraft’s automation system. It seems clear they were having trouble getting the aircraft to do what they wanted during the approach into San Francisco.

You won’t hear pilots bragging about this at cocktail parties, but “what’s it doing now?” is uttered far too often on the flight deck. I myself have been puzzled about why the airplane didn’t do what I thought I asked it to do. Usually it’s a programming issue, but not always.

The most recent issue of NASA’s Callback publication, issue 407, details the story of four professional flight crews who had automation confusion issues similar to that experienced by the Asiana crew. So this isn’t exactly uncommon.

Either way, pressing the wrong button is not a criminal offense.

“Cleared for the Visual.” Gulp!

What is criminal is putting a captain on the flight deck of a passenger airliner when he’s unable to comfortably hand-fly it, because when the electrons aren’t flowing the way you want ‘em to, flying the airplane by hand is often the best course of action… not to mention the most fun, too.

Well, most of the time anyway.

The Asiana Airlines training captain who crashed a Boeing 777 at San Francisco International Airport in July was anxious about the visual approach, which he described as “very stressful,” according to investigators.

Capt. Lee Kang Kuk, an eight-year employee of Asiana on his first extended trip flying the 777, also told investigators he was confused about the operation of the airplane’s automation controls, according to a report released by the National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday as the board held a hearing into the crash.

The 777′s speed dropped dangerously low on the approach, made with assistance of the PAPI lights but without vertical guidance from the ILS glideslope, which was out of service at the time. Both Asiana 214 pilots said they were unsure about the automation mode with respect to the autothrottles, which should have been engaged on the approach. Instead, the autothrottles were set to idle, according to investigators.

The training captain stated it was “very difficult to perform a visual approach with a heavy airplane,” according to the safety board summary of an interview with the pilot. Asked whether he was concerned about his ability to perform the visual approach, he said, “very concerned, yeah.”

An automation interaction problem — the so-called “FLCH trap” — I can understand. But inability to comfortably fly a visual approach? On the surface, that’s a major head-scratcher. When you dig a little deeper, however, it makes perfect sense.

The Key to Good IFR: More VFR

I don’t know how Asiana does it, but many foreign airlines hire their pilots “ab initio”, meaning they are trained by the airline as airline pilots from day one. They have no exposure to pleasure flying, aerobatics, or gliders because the concept of “general aviation” does not exist in most countries. Ab initio airline pilots receive only the minimum required VFR experience. As soon as they venture into instrument flying, the VFR world is left behind forever. They have no use for it! Or so they think.

I’d imagine many of them never fly under visual flight rules again for the rest of their lives. It’s sad. And it’s no wonder some of them are uncomfortable with the thought of flying a visual approach!

It’s not as if the weather was poor, the runway short, or the airfield surrounded by high terrain. There were no issues with density altitude, runway slope or width, or anything else. San Francisco International’s runway 28R is nearly 12,000 feet long. I’ve landed on it many times myself. The weather was clear, winds calm, and the airport is unmistakably large.

Sure, the controllers do tend to keep arriving aircraft quite high. But even from 10,000 feet on a tight downwind, it’s not rocket science to start slowing the airplane and adding drag. Unless you’re asleep at the wheel, you know what’s coming. And even if you don’t, you can ask. The controllers speak English, too. A visual approach in those conditions shouldn’t scare the pilot-in-command of any aircraft. In fact, if there’s an easier way to land an airplane, I’m not sure what it is.

Kids Can Do It — Why Can’t We?

To put this in perspective, consider a glider. It has no engine, and therefore cannot abort a landing attempt. Once you begin an approach to the runway, you are going to land, period. These aircraft have no instruments, no electronic guidance, and they fly in and out of airports without any visual landing aids whatsoever. The landing areas tend to be short, narrow, and rough. And here in the U.S., students as young as fourteen years old can fly them solo. Fourteen! They’re just kids, and apparently even with virtually no flight time, they have no trouble getting comfortable with something that a highly experienced major airline captain felt very uneasy attempting.

This begs the question of how Captain Kuk became so uncomfortable with a simple visual approach. I’d estimate that 75% of all approaches are visuals. I’d be shocked if Kuk hadn’t flown literally hundreds of them. As a scheduled airline pilot, he was required to undergo recurrent training every six months, and had been doing that for eight years.

So how did this level of discomfort with basic visual flying escape the schoolhouse? If Kuk’s training is anything like what we undergo in the Gulfstream, he may rarely have ever flown that kind of visual procedure in the simulator. Mostly what gets simulated are low-visibility conditions. The assumption that it’d almost be “cheating” to have visual references outside the aircraft might not have been correct. Visual approaches in the sim are typically combined with other anomalies: no-flap scenarios, windshear simulations, landing gear blow-downs, etc. But not the typical slam-dunk from a harried controller.

One wonders how many other airline pilots pale at the thought of flying a visual approach (or as the VFR pilots among us call it: landing). I know most airlines no longer allow circle-to-land procedures, but even the neophyte instrument pilot has to perform them to acceptable standards before being issued an instrument rating, and that’s infinitely more demanding than a visual approach. Instead of practicing an ILS PRM at San Francisco, perhaps we should be vectored in on one of those famously high downwinds and cleared for a visual approach from two miles up. Maybe we should train a little more like we fly.

And while we’re at it, taking a hint from that fourteen year old kid who just soloed a beat up Schweizer glider might not be so bad, either. Get out of the glass palace and into an actual airplane where there’s nothing to do except fly by looking out the window.