Back to Basics

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.

  6 comments for “Back to Basics

  1. Colin Summers
    September 9, 2011 at 9:38 am

    Whoa, I read your posts in my Google Readers and hadn’t been to the site in a while. Gorgeous redesign.

    I fly a DA40 with the G1000 panel. I did my training on steam gauges in a Piper Warrior. I wish I had done the training in a Cub, or a Decathlon (I took an acrobatic lesson in one of those after I had my instrument rating). I would really love to see a movement to go back to the basic stick and rudder skills and require the first twenty hours to be in a tail dragger that required rudder in the turn.

    All of my 1,200 hours are in the same plane, so I stay ahead of it without any trouble. I stepped into my brother’s 172 recently and found myself high, fast, slow, low, yawed… or just plain embarrassed most of the time. My brother is smarter and has a goal to fly 100 different types (he’s a fifth of the way there).

    • Ron
      September 9, 2011 at 10:20 am

      Welcome back! I wasn’t writing much for a long time, but I redesigned the site in the hopes that it would inspire me to update more often. Hopefully others will come back as well. 🙂

      You’ve got a great aircraft! I’ve logged 510 hours (so far) in G1000-equipped DiamondStars. They’re not exactly the most comfortable aircraft in 120 degree heat (I often fly down to Mexico in the -40), but it’s hard to beat the visibility, technology, efficiency, and reliability of that aircraft. They’ve withstood the most intensive torture test yet devised — life on the FBO rental line — far better than most other airframes. We’ve got two of them at Sunrise Aviation with more than 4,000 hours each and 8 years living outside on the ramp at SNA.

      It’s never too late to jump into that Cub or Decathlon and pursue tailwheel and/or aerobatic flying! The best part about it is that the least expensive aircraft — the Citabria, for example — are also the most fun to fly.

      By the way, I enjoyed your site, especially the map showing all the airports you’ve been to. I’d love to add something like that here. Perhaps I can figure out how to export my airport list from Logshare…

      • Colin Summers
        September 9, 2011 at 10:30 am

        Does Assaf know they are going south of the border? Justice Aviation just had a Piper impounded down there. Apparently the renter was using the plane to bring a few uninvited guests over the border and they stopped the plane on the runway before it left Mexican soil.

        I was all geared up to fly down to watch whales and do other adventures when there was a Cessna hijacked on the runway of an airpark and radios stolen out of another plane that was locked and on a Baja Bush Pilots outing. For now I’ll keep my international trips to the colder climes to the north.

        The backseat in the DA-40 is REALLY comfortable (my sons report). Forty-five degree air in the vents at 10.5k and sunshades I made for the windows. So they tour in luxury while the pilot & wife sweat it out in the front office.

        • Ron
          September 9, 2011 at 1:37 pm

          Assaf’s airplanes don’t go into Mexico. None of the Sunrise planes do. I go down there in a friend’s airplane. In fact, we don’t actually even fly INTO Mexico at all, we land at Calexico and drive over to Mexicali.

          I’ve heard quite a few stories of stolen parts and aircraft down there. On the other hand, my friend Dan (the guy behind Logshare and Weathermeister) used to fly down there all the time and never had a problem.

          Yes, the DA40 is quite comfortable in back. Portable window shades make life much more bearable up front!

  2. September 9, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    Lost me at the last moment with the tailwheel preaching. And it went so good.

    • Ron
      September 9, 2011 at 1:37 pm

      It was a bit of a tangent, I’ll grant you. 🙂

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