Upset Recovery Training: Not Just a Fad

Boeing-787-9-Aerobatics

Upset recovery training has been all the rage over the past couple of years. A Google search of that exact phrase returns more than 24,000 results. There’s a professional association dedicated to such training. ICAO even declared aircraft upsets to be the cause of “more fatalities in scheduled commercial operations than any other category of accidents over the last ten years”.

Nevertheless, I get the impression that some folks wonder if it isn’t more of a safety fad than an intrinsic imperative. It’s hard to blame them. You can hardly open a magazine or aviation newsletter these days without seeing slick advertisements for this stuff. When I was at recurrent training a couple of months ago, CAE was offering upset recovery training to corporate jet pilots there in Dallas. “If I wanted to fly aerobatics, I’d fly aerobatics!” one aviator groused.

He didn’t ask my opinion, but if he had, I’d remind him that 99% of pilots spend 99% of their time in straight and level flight — especially when the aircraft in question is a business jet. I’m not exaggerating much when I say that even your typical Skyhawk pilot is a virtual aerobat compared to the kind of flying we do on charter and corporate trips. For one thing, passengers pay the bills and they want the smoothest, most uneventful flight possible.

In addition, these jets fly at very high altitudes – typically in the mid-40s and even as high as 51,000 feet. Bank and pitch attitudes tend to stay within a narrow band. Yaw? There shouldn’t be any. The ball stays centered, period. We aim for a level of smoothness that exceeds even that of the airlines. Passengers and catering may move about the cabin frequently during a flight, but it shouldn’t be because of anything we’re doing up front.

Fly like that for a decade or two, logging thousands and thousands of uneventful, straight-and-level hours and the thought of all-attitude flying can become – to put it mildly – uncomfortable. I’ve even seen former fighter pilots become squeamish at the thought of high bank or pitch angles after twenty years of bizjet flying.

Unfortunately, there are a wide variety of things that can land a pilot in a thoroughly dangerous attitude: wind shear, wake turbulence, autopilot failure, mechanical malfunction (hydraulic hard-overs, asymmetric spoiler or flap deployment, etc.), inattention, and last but not least, plain old pilot error. Look at recent high-profile accidents and you’ll see some surprisingly basic flying blunders from the crew. Air France 447, Colgan 3407, and Asiana 214 are just three such examples. It may not happen often, but when it does it can bite hard.

So yes, I think there is a strong need for more manual flying exposure in general, and upset recovery training in particular. This isn’t specific to jet aircraft, because some light aircraft have surpassed their turbine-powered cousins in the avionics department. I only wish the 1980’s era FMS computer in my Gulfstream was as speedy as a modern G1000 installation.

Defining the Problem

To the best of my knowledge, neither the NTSB or FAA provide a standard definition for “upset”, but much like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we pretty much know it when we see it. The term has generally come to be defined as a flight path or aircraft attitude deviating significantly from that which was intended by the pilot. Upsets have led to loss of control, aircraft damage or destruction, and more than a few fatalities.

As automation proliferates, pilots receive less hands-on experience and a gradual but significant reduction in stick-and-rudder skill begins to occur. The change is a subtle one, and that’s part of what makes it so hazardous. A recent report by the FAA PARC rulemaking workgroup cites poor stick and rudder skills as the number two risk factor facing pilots today. The simple fact is that windshear, wake turbulence, and automation failures happen.

The purpose of upset recovery training is to give pilots the tools and experience necessary to recognize and prevent impending loss of control situations. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that’s why teaching recovery strategies from the most common upset scenarios is actually a secondary (though important) goal.

What about simulators? They’ve proven to be an excellent tool in pilot training, but even the most high fidelity Level D sims fall short when it comes to deep stalls and loss of control scenarios. For one thing, stall recovery is typically initiated at the first indication of stall, so the techniques taught in the simulator may not apply to a full aerodynamic stall. Due to the incredibly complex and unpredictable nature of post-stall aerodynamics, simulators aren’t usually programmed to accurately emulate an aircraft in a deeply stalled condition. Thus the need for in-aircraft experience to supplement simulator training.

Upset Recovery vs. Aerobatics

It’s important to note that upset recovery training may involve aerobatic maneuvering, but it does not exist to teach aerobatics. Periodically over the years, discussions on the merits of this training will cause a co-worker to broach the subject of flying an aerobatic maneuver in an airplane which is not designed and built for that purpose. This happened just the other day, actually. Typically they’ll ask me if, as an aerobatic pilot, I would ever consider performing a barrel or aileron roll in the aircraft.

I used to just give them the short answer: “no”. But over time I’ve started explaining why I think it’s such a bad idea, even for those of us who are trained to fly such maneuvers. I won’t touch on the regulations, because I think we are all familiar with those. I’m just talking about practical considerations.

Normal planes tend to have non-symmetrical airfoils which were not designed to fly aerobatics. They feature slower roll rates, lower structural integrity under high G loads, and considerably less control authority. You might have noticed that the control surfaces on aerobatic airplanes are pretty large — they are designed that way because they’re needed to get safely into and out of aerobatic maneuvers.

Clay Lacy has been flying an airshow sequence in his 1966 Lear 24 for many years.

Clay Lacy has been flying an airshow sequence in his 1966 Lear 24 for many years.

That’s not to say an airplane with small control surfaces like a business jet or light GA single cannot perform aerobatics without disaster striking. Clay Lacy flies an airshow sequence in his Learjet. Duane Cole flew a Bonanza. Bob Hoover used a Shrike Commander. Sean Tucker flew an acro sequence in a Columbia (now known as the Cessna TTx). However, the margins are lower, the aerobatics are far more difficult, and pilots not experienced and prepared enough for those things are much more likely to end up hurt or dead.

Sean Tucker will tell you that the Columbia may not recover from spins of more than one or two turns. Duane Cole said the Bonanza (in which he did inverted ribbon cuts) had barely enough elevator authority for the maneuver, and it required incredible strength to hold the nose up far enough for inverted level flight. Bob Hoover tailored his performance to maneuvers the Shrike could do — he’ll tell you he avoided some aerobatic maneuvers because of the airplane’s limitations.

Knowing those limitations and how to deal with them — that’s where being an experienced professional aerobatic pilot makes the difference. And I’m sure none of those guys took flying those GA airplanes upside down lightly. A lot of planning, consideration, training and practice went into their performances.

Now, consider the aircraft condition. Any negative Gs and stuff will be flying around the cabin. Dirt from the carpet. Manuals. Items from the cargo area. Floor mats. Passengers. EFBs. Drinks. Anything in the armrest or sidewall pockets. That could be a little distracting. Items could get lodged behind the rudder pedals, hit you in the head, or worse.

If the belts aren’t tight enough, your posterior will quickly separate from the seat it’s normally attached to. And I assure you, your belts are not tight enough. Getting them that way involves cinching the lap belt down until it literally hurts. How many people fly a standard or transport category aircraft that way?

Now consider that the engine is not set up for fuel and oil flow under negative Gs. Even in airplanes specifically designed for acro, the G loads move the entire engine on the engine mount. In the Decathlon you can always see the spinner move up an inch or two when pushing a few negative Gs. Who knows what that would do with the tighter clearances between the fan and engine cowl on an airplane like the Gulfstream?

Next, let’s consider trim. The jet flies around with an electric trim system which doesn’t move all that quickly. The aircraft are typically trimmed for upright flight. That trim setting works heavily against you when inverted, and might easily reach the point where even full control deflection wouldn’t be sufficient.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that the more I learn about aerobatics, the less I would want to do them in a non-aerobatic aircraft – and certainly not a swept wing jet! Sure, if performed perfectly, you might be just fine. But any unusual attitude is going to be far more difficult — if not outright impossible — to recover from.

Dang it, Tex!

Every time someone references Tex Johnson’s famous barrel roll in the Boeing 707 prototype, I can’t help but wish he hadn’t done that. Yes, it helped sell an airplane the company had staked it’s entire future on, but aerobatic instructors have been paying the price ever since.

Aerobatic and upset recovery training: good. Experimenting with normal category airplanes: bad. Very bad.


This post first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

The Ab Initio Flaw

For decades, Japan Airlines ran an ab initio flight school in Napa, CA using Beech Bonanzas

Ecclesiastes tells us there’s nothing new under the sun. Where the pilot shortage debate is concerned, that’s definitely true. More than one industry veteran has wryly noted the “impending pilot shortages” of every decade since the Second World War. And considering the number of pilots trained during that conflict, you could say the shortage history goes back a lot further. How about to the very dawn of powered flight? I mean, Wilbur and Orville could have saved themselves tremendous time and money if only they’d had an experienced instructor to guide them!

Every “pilot shortage” article, blog post, and discussion I’ve seen centers around short-term hiring trends and possible improvements in salary and benefits for aviators. Nobody asked my opinion, but for what it’s worth, it seems both clear and logical that the regional airlines are hurting for pilots. The pay and working conditions at those companies are horrific. Major airlines will probably never have trouble attracting people, however. I don’t know if that qualifies as a pilot shortage. I tend to think it does not. It’s more of a shortage of people who are willing to participate like lab rats in a Part 121 industry cost-cutting experiment.

What the pilot shortage mishegas really has me thinking about is the long-term possibility of ab-initio schemes migrating to the United States and what a profoundly bad thing that would be for aviation at every level.

According to Wikipedia, “ab initio is a Latin term meaning ‘from the beginning’ and is derived from the Latin ab (‘from’) + initio, ablative singular of initium (‘beginning’)”. In aviation, it refers to a method of training pilots. In fact, it’s the de facto technique in use for the majority of airlines around the world. Essentially, foreign airlines will hire people off the street who have no flight time or experience. They are shepherded through the various ratings and certificates necessary to fly an Boeing or Airbus while on the airline’s payroll.

This might sound like a brilliant idea — and to an airline, it probably is. Imagine, no bad habits or “we did it this way at my last job” issues, just well-trained worker bees who have been indoctrinated from day one as multi-pilot airline crew members.

I don’t know if the airlines love ab initio or not. What I do know is that non-U.S. airlines use it because there’s no other choice. The fertile, Mesopotamian breeding ground of flying experience we call general aviation simply does not exist in those countries. Without GA’s infrastructure, there are no light aircraft, flight schools, mechanics, or small airports where aspiring pilots can learn to fly. Those who do manage to get such experience more often than not get it here in the United States.

To put it another way, the “pilot shortage” has been going on in foreign countries since the dawn of aviation, and ab initio is the way they’ve solved the problem in most places.

So what’s my beef with this method of training? To put it simply, in an era of atrophying pilot skills, ab-initio is going to make a bad problem worse. While it’s a proven way of ensuring a steady supply of labor, ab initio also produces a relatively narrow pilot who is trained from day one to do a single thing: fly an airliner. These airline programs don’t expose trainees to high Gs, aerobatics, gliders, sea planes, banner towing, tailwheels, instructing, or any of the other stuff that helps create a well-rounded aviator.

If airlines in the U.S. adopt the ab initio system, the pilots they hire will only experience things that are a) legally required, and b) directly applicable to flying a modern, automated airliner. Nothing else. After all, an airline will only invest what’s necessary to do the job. It’s a business decision. And in an era of cutthroat competition and razor thin profit margins, who could blame them?

The problem is, all those crap jobs young fliers complain about (and veterans seem to look back on with a degree of fondness) are vital seasoning for a pilot. He or she is learning to make command decisions, interact with employers and customers, and generally figure out the art of flying. It’s developing that spidey sense, taking a few hard knocks in the industry, and learning to distinguish between safe and legal.

These years don’t pay well where one’s bank account is concerned, but they are create a different type of wealth, one that’s often invisible and can prove vital when equipment stops working, weather is worse than forecast, or the holes in your Swiss cheese model start to line up.

Thus far, airline ab initio programs haven’t been a major part of the landscape here in the U.S. because our aviation sector is fairly robust. We are blessed with flying jobs which build the experience, skill, and time necessary for larger, more complex aircraft. But it’s easy to see why it might become an attractive option for airlines. For one thing, that darn pilot shortage. The cost of flying has risen dramatically over the past decade while the benefits (read: money) remain too low for too long. Airlines can cure the shortage by training pilots from zero hours… but at what cost?

Coming up through the ranks used to mean you were almost certain to be exposed to some of those elements. That’s why I believe ab initio would be just one more nail in the coffin of U.S. aviation, one more brick in the road of turning us into Europe. While I like visiting The Continent, I do not envy the size or scope of their aviation sector and sincerely hope we don’t go down that path.

Addendum

Apparently I’m not the only one with ab initio on my mind. The day before the deadline for this post, AVweb reported on a major announcement from Boeing:

Now, with its subsidiary company Jeppesen, [Boeing] will undertake ab initio airline pilot training to provide a supply of pilots with an “Airline Transport Pilot License” (certificate in the U.S.) and a Boeing type rating who “will be ready to move into the first officer’s seat,” according to Sherry Carbary, vice president of flight services.

Boeing’s ab initio training program is divided into two parts. The first, run by Jeppesen, will take an applicant—referred to as a cadet—who must hold a first-class medical at the time of application, and put her or him through a screening process. Those who pass will go through 12-18 months of flight training, resulting in, according to David Wright, director of general aviation training, an Airline Transport Pilot License. The second phase involves the cadet going to a Boeing facility for another two months of training where she or he gets a first exposure to a full-motion jet simulator, and that will result in a type rating in a Boeing jet. Wright said that cadets will come out of the $100,000-$150,000 program with 200-250 hours of flying time and will be ready to go into the right seat of an airliner.

Boeing jets are operated by major airlines, not regionals. An American pilot would typically sport several thousand of hours of flight experience before being hired there. Now Boeing is proposing to put 200 hour pilots into their airplanes on a worldwide basis. That won’t fly (yet) in the U.S., where 1,500 hours is currently required for an Airline Transport Pilot certificate. But I believe the ab inito trend bodes ill for airlines and general aviation alike.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

To Pull or Not to Pull

Garmin G1000 panel

It’s hard to believe a full decade has elapsed since the launch of the GA glass panel revolution. But as I recall, the first relatively high-volume GA aircraft with a fully integrated glass cockpit was the 2003 edition of the Cirrus SR22. That was the same year that Diamond brought the Garmin G1000 suite to their DA-40. The race was on, and we haven’t looked back since.

While this technology is a blessing, it’s also more complex than traditional analog gauges. Each product line has it’s own failure modes and redundancies, it’s pluses and minuses. Those are the things which dictate how partial panel scenarios should be simulated. It ought to be based on the way failures are expected to occur in real life, right?

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Flying is Not Driving

pan-am

Is there anything as classic as the Mid-Century Modern ethos? From architecture to graphic design, there’s a sleek, organic elegance to it, with classically simple lines which avoid the period styling, superfluous components, and useless ornamentation often found in other trends. It flows logically, and centers on astute use of individual elements.

Best of all, Mid-Century is an inseparable component of my beloved Southern California. Perhaps that’s why I feel such an affinity for it. Oh, it may have incubated at the Staatliches Bauhaus, but SoCal is where the connection between Modern design and Mother Nature bloomed. You’ll find examples of Mid-Century design all over SoCal, from homes to restaurants to signage to furniture and even urban planning.

Modernism is also about the intangibles: casual lifestyle, the quality of light and shadow, and the easygoing nature of people in the West. Modernism is the perfect style for Southern California living because it is compatible with our way of life. Its horizontality and openness promote harmony between shelter and nature, while its aesthetic offers an environment that is at once relaxed and sophisticated. It is a style and it is a lifestyle. And like Southern California, modern is relaxed, it is dramatic, and it is beautiful.

The mid-century era was a seminal time for general aviation as well. By the end of World War II, the Army Air Forces Training Command had graduated 250,000 pilots from its schools. With war in the rear-view mirror, these highly experienced and well-trained military pilots were back in the civilian sector with the world at their feet. For those who were not yet aviators, scores of surplus aircraft were left over from the war and the G.I. Bill provided funding for flight training.

The future looked bright, indeed. Unfortunately, it was at this moment that Something Bad happened when Cessna’s marketing department got the brilliant idea to equate flying with driving.

The top of the slippery slope: a late 50's advertising campaign based on the concept that flying = driving.  Every time I see this, all I can think is "no, No, NO!"

The top of the slippery slope: a late 50’s advertising campaign based on the concept that flying = driving. Every time I see this, all I can think is “no, No, NO!”

Airscape’s David Foxx sent this to me after reading my Year of the Tailwheel post, calling the advertisement “about as heretical as anything a hands-and-feet aviator could ever read. You may want to wash your eyes after!”. Amen, brother.

It’s bad enough that they took a beautiful airplane and put a nosewheel on it; to this day, a Skyhawk still looks to me like a tailwheel C-170 that’s been converted. It may not be in the league of that “flying milk stool”, the Piper Tri-Pacer, but it’s more than enough to make me pine for the days when happiness was a point-and-go airplane and a lung-full of wholesome, unfiltered cigarette smoke.

This mid-50’s advertisement wasn’t a one-time effort; Cessna continued using the “land-o-matic” schtick well into the 1970s. You can find ads for the Cardinal — which ironically was designed as a replacement for the 172 — peddling the same dreck.

There are all sorts of annoying things about the ad. First of all, it claims the 172 will “turn on a dime”. False. The tailwheel can pull that trick, but not the nosewheel. As anyone who’s flown them will attest, a Skyhawk requires three times the turning radius of its predecessor. Then there’s the $8,700 price tag ($72,125 in 2013 dollars) for a factory-new airplane. And last but not least, the “drive it like a car” pronouncement. I’ve seen more than one person try to fly the way that ad says it can be done, only to end up with a bent firewall, broken nosewheel, and mangled propeller.

It is funny to look at though, isn’t it? I suppose in the heyday, anything seemed possible–at least, in advertising. Compared to landing the 170 and 180, the Skyhawk can feel like a cakewalk if the winds are calm. But that’s part of the problem: it’s not. But it convinces pilots they needn’t apply the same care, attention, or skill to their flying that they otherwise would have applied were the plane equipped with “conventional” landing gear. Proper control inputs during taxi? Gone. Slow taxi speeds? See ya! Precise energy and flightpath management? Sayonara. Solving a crosswind? Don’t even get me started.

Land-o-matic?  Hardly.    Just because you can get away with "driving" it on doesn't mean you should.  The technique for landing nose and tail wheel airplanes are basically the same!

Land-o-matic? Hardly. Just because you can get away with “driving” it on doesn’t mean you should. The technique for landing nose and tail wheel airplanes are basically the same!

Even worse, instructors easily fall into the same trap, allowing students in Land-O-Matics to get away with performance they never would have accepted if the third wheel was where God intended. This only reinforces the lesson in the minds of many a pilot, spreading the “new normal” until we arrive in the 21st century, where tailwheel aircraft are often eyed with a wary suspicion by those who don’t understand them or the many benefits they offer.

Some unintended consequences flow from those “so easy a caveman could do it” ads. Somewhere along the way, conventional wisdom seems to have begun opining that tailwheel aircraft require some magical, specialized landing technique. Nothing could be further from the truth.

My experience has been that if a person knows how to land a nosewheel airplane properly and does so on a consistent basis, the move into a tailwheel will be quick and smooth. If not… well, let’s just say the majority of my time with transitioning pilots is spent building the rudimentary skills they never learned as a primary student.

The only significant difference between the two is this: the conventional landing gear absolutely requires proper technique, whereas the nosegear may not. Having said that, questionable flying skill can lead to problems no matter what kind of landing gear you’ve got.

Flying is not driving. Never has been, never will be. So remember, just because you can get away with low-quality takeoff and landing skills doesn’t mean you should.

Stick & Rudder Skills Are Important

Bellanca Decathlon

AVweb’s Glenn Pew interviewed Embry-Riddle professor and former Northwest captain Jack Panosian in a podcast entitled “Avionics — Good Pilots Not Required?”. It’s an inflammatory title, no doubt to encourage people to dive for that “play” button. Obviously it worked, because I listened to the whole thing.

Panosian has an impressive resume: 20 years at Northwest, 5 years at ERAU, and he’s got a Juris Doctorate as well. Nevertheless, while I agreed with some of what he said, certain portions of his thesis seem way off base.

I’ll summarize his points:

  • automation used to monitor human pilots, but today it’s the other way around: we are monitoring the computers these days, and we’re not very good at it
  • computers are good monitors, they do it the same way every time, with the same level of diligence
  • stick & rudder skills are less important than avionics management skill and we need to teach with that in mind

The first two points may be correct (I’ll get to the third one later), but computers don’t “monitor”, they simply execute programming. There’s a big difference there. It’s true that when people monitor the same thing over and over again, we cannot maintain the same vigilance ad nauseum. But when humans monitor something, they’re capable of doing so with thoughtful and reasoned analysis. Humans can think outside the box. They can adapt and prioritize based on what’s actually happening rather than being limited by their programming.

Computers are not capable of that. Remember, system failures are not always covered by the aircraft operating procedures or training, and that’s why safe flight still requires human input and oversight. We are also capable of putting more focus on our monitoring during critical phases of flight. For example, I watch airspeed and flight path with much greater attention during approach than I typically will during cruise.

It’s also worth considering that, despite all the automation, humans still manually perform the takeoff, landing, taxi phases, as well as fly the airplane when the computers get confused or take the day off. These are the areas where most accidents happen. Air France 447 stalled up in the flight levels and remained in that state until reaching the ocean. Colgan 3407 was another stall accident. Asiana 214 was a visual approach gone wrong. Better manual flying skill might very well have made the difference in at least some of these accidents.

Tailwheels, aerobatics, gliders, and formation flying are just a few ways to improve stick-and-rudder skills.  We need more of that, not less.

Tailwheels, aerobatics, and formation flying are just a few ways to improve stick-and-rudder skills. We need more of that, not less.

Glenn Pew asked, “How much of flying the airplane is flying the avionics?”, and Panosian replied that “the greatest innovation was the moving map”, giving an example of synthetic vision showing terrain at night. In my experience, a moving map is no guarantee of situational awareness. I’ve trained many pilots to fly VFR and IFR in glass panel Cirruses, DiamondStars, experimentals, and so on. I can’t tell you how many of them had no idea where they were, even with a 10″ full color moving map directly in front of them. When asked the simple question, “Where are we right now?”, you’d be surprised how many have a tough time coming up with an answer.

Does that seem odd to you? It shouldn’t. Situational awareness is not about the map in front of your eyes, it’s about the moving map inside your head. If you want evidence of that, look at the 2007 CFIT crash of a CAP Flight 2793, a C-182T Skylane which ran into high terrain near Las Vegas. That flight was piloted by two highly experienced pilots who were familiar with the area, had a G1000 panel in front of them, and still managed to fly into Mt. Potosi.

Panosian made the point that the Airbus was designed to be flown on autopilot “all the time — it was not designed to be flown by hand. It was designed so that it’s a hassle to be flown by hand”. Some business jets have similar characteristics. Who would want to hand fly the airplane straight and level for hours on end anyway? The light GA arena has an equivalent as well, the Cirrus SR20 and SR22. I enjoy hand flying them, actually, but the airplane has a somewhat artificial feel due to the springs in the flight control system. It was purposefully designed to fly long distances on autopilot. It’s very good at that mission. It’s well equipped, and has plenty of safety equipment aboard. TAWS, traffic, CAPS, a solid autopilot, good avionics… and yet the Cirrus’s accident rate is not better than average.

I don’t believe the answer is to make the pilot a better manager of automation. This will not stop CFIT, stall/spin, weather, and takeoff or landing accidents.

“The Good news is that we have a generation of pilots that have grown up with this technology, these tablets, etc. and they grab hold of these things better than the older pilot who was trained on the round dials. That’s a good thing because now you’re just molding them into the aviation world and this is how you’ll operate the aircraft.”

I’m a big proponent of glass panels, tablets, and technology. They’re great. But they do not make one a good pilot. If you want a better pilot, start primary students off in a tailwheel airplane and ensure they know how to fly before doing anything else. Everything should flow out of that. I wouldn’t expect this to be a revolutionary idea, but perhaps it is.

“You are not going to be hired because of your stick and rudder skills. You will be hired because of your management skills.”

A good aviator needs both sets of skills. Management ability is important, but no more so than stick-and-rudder capability. If you can’t physically fly the airplane during any or all phases of flight, you don’t belong in the cockpit because any equipment issues during those phases can leave the aircraft without someone capable of safely operating it. Pilots who can’t proficiently hand-fly are passengers. Console operators. Button pushers. System monitors (dog not included). But they’re not pilots.

“In other words, can you manage all these systems, can you manages the information you’re getting and make sure that the airplane is doing what it’s supposed to do? The fact of the matter is that we’ve see this in other industries. It’s hardly unique to the airline industry. A robot can do a better job of welding than a human. An autopilot has many more sensors than a human hand does. They can be done better and safer than a human being, but they must be monitored properly. That’s where the training comes in. We have to change from the stick & rudder skills to the manager skills. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

The problem with his comparison is that flying an airplane is not like welding. Welding does not require you to manage the energy state of a large chunk of metal hurling through the air while maintaining situational awareness, staying ahead of the aircraft mentally, and adjusting for countless variables ranging from weather to traffic to equipment failures to controllers, often all at the same time and at the end of a long work day. Doing all those things does constitute “management”, but I don’t think it’s the kind Mr. Panosian is referring to.

And as far as the autopilot is concerned, it’s extraordinarily simplistic to compare a full autopilot system to a single human hand. What about the rest of the body? What about the vestibular labyrinthine system and resultant equilibrioception? There’s proprioception, thermoception, etc. (Look ‘em up — I had to!). And that’s to say nothing of our sense of sight, hearing, touch, and smell. We use those when we fly, even without direct knowledge of what our body is doing. How many times have you noticed a subtle vibration from a prop or engine, the sound of a leaking seal around a door, the sense of something just not being quite right?

Autopilots do some things better than a human. Automation is helpful and absolutely has it’s place. But it is no substitute for a flesh-and-blood pilot who knows how to fly the machine.

What say you, readers?


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog at http://blog.aopa.org/opinionleaders/2013/09/11/stick-and-rudder/.