Step One

The very first — and arguably most important — of Alcoholics Anonymous’s ‘Twelve Steps’ to recovery is “admitting you have a problem”. Professionals who work with substance abusers will testify about how impossible it is to scramble out of the deep, dark hole of addiction without such an acknowledgement.

In aviation, we have a similar situation. Our addiction is isn’t an illegal substance, however. It’s something far more subtle: technology. We put our faith and focus into sensors, devices, and other hardware, expecting it to keep us safe. And why wouldn’t we? The airplane itself is a piece of technology — and a pretty cool one at that!

Over the past decade, we’ve seen rudder limiters, ballistic parachutes, envelope protection schemes, angle-of-attack sensors, and many other systems finding their way into the cockpit. We cling to these things as though they’re a lifeboat and we just plunged off the stern of the Titanic as it sinks into the icy waters of the north Atlantic.

If only it was that easy! I wish it was. I truly do. For the better part of a century, folks have been trying to engineer all the hazard out of flying, but pilots continue to bend metal, especially while taking off and landing.

I’ve spent years talking about the need for pilots of all stripes to return to the basics: manual flying, tailwheels, and aerobatics. At times this crusade has felt like wandering the desert or talking to a wall, because the incessant tidal wave of high-tech gear has ensured that even the most basic Light Sport aircraft come standard with the kind of avionics heretofore only seen on the space shuttle. Those panels are fantastic — I love them. But it’s a grave error to believe for a moment that they are a substitute for a well-trained and experienced pilot.

Lately I’ve seen some encouraging evidence that the industry might be wising up to the hard truth about today’s pilots. This past week, a safety manager (and former VP of flight testing) for Airbus — the mother of all automated aircraft — publicly stated that a major change in pilot training is needed and that the focus should be on hand-flying.

He said airline training is too focused on meeting regulatory requirements and recurrent training is too weighted toward assessing skills rather than teaching and fostering them. That, he says, makes the regular sim sessions and check rides dreaded threats to job security. “There is no perceived upside to the training,” he said. “And that’s wrong.”

Nelson said there is another perhaps more insidious dynamic at work in an age where most of a pilot’s time is spent inputting data and monitoring systems. “It used to be cool to be a pilot,” Nelson said. “For a lot of pilots it’s just another job.” Nelson said refocusing pilot training will require a wholesale rewrite of curricula and it might require additional training time. He also said time is running out to capitalize on a huge training resource: old-hand pilots with actual hand flying experience in life-threatening circumstances. “Tomorrow’s instructors will not be teaching from personal exposure,” he said. “They’ll be speaking from hearsay.”

He’s on the right track.

At the same time, the FAA issued an Advisory Circular, AC 120-111, promoting Upset Prevention and Recovery Training (UPRT). Unfortunately the FAA’s document, while a promising start, missed the target with its emphasis on academics and simulation. There’s nothing in there about getting into an aerobatic airplane and learning (or re-learning) the basics. You’d think a pilot with 20,000 hours wouldn’t need such training, but remember someone with that kind of flight time is almost certainly spending 99% of it in straight and level flight.

I sort of understand the misfire because the Circular was written with the airline industry in mind. But here’s the thing: airplanes are airplanes. They all obey the same laws of physics. Pilots of smaller aircraft frequently assume that high-speed, high-altitude flight in a swept wing jet must be different somehow from the kind of aviating they’re used to. It’s not.

Oh, the aircraft’s handing characteristics and systems might require a bit of adjustment, but that’s not what we’re talking about. No, this is about turning off the autopilot, auto throttles, flight director, and simply hand-flying. You know — the very thing students with absolutely no flight experience do from day one? Yeah, that. It’s about getting comfortable with being knife-edge, upside down, or anywhere in between. It’s about being able to respond promptly, correctly, and with confidence when necessary so you don’t end up knife-edge or upside down. It’s about making a emergent situation better, not worse.

One of the big surprises of moving into a large jet is that the training is eerily similar to what you’d do if you were transitioning into a single engine piston: you start off with slow flight, steep turns, unusual attitudes, and a variety of stalls. And you know what’s just as surprising? How many pilots have trouble with those maneuvers. Some of them get really stressed out by it!

As I wrote a year and a half ago after the astounding Asiana 214 incident, for many a professional pilot the key to good IFR flying is more VFR flying. Stick, rudder, throttle. If a pilot is in any way uncomfortable with that, there is something wrong just as assuredly as if he had a disqualifying medical issue. More so, I’d argue. The solution is to hop into a glider, tailwheel, and/or aerobatic plane and get back to basics. This goes for anyone flying any sort of aircraft. There are plenty of light GA pilots who file IFR on every flight. Then there are the guys who are always on autopilot. Or the ones who just don’t fly very much.

So why don’t more pilots do it? It took me a long time to figure that one out, because aerobatics, gliders, and tailwheels are some of the most enjoyable flying I’ve ever experienced. Eventually I realized that it all goes back to Step One: admitting there’s a problem. Without that, there can be no improvement, no growth. I’m hopeful that the tide is starting to turn on an industry-wide scale, but it’s far too early for a victory lap. We’ve got a long way to go.

  41 comments for “Step One

  1. April 27, 2015 at 6:08 am

    Great post Ron! I know 2 airline pilots (A340 and E190). One of them flies gliders on weekends and the other owns a PA11(which I usually fly) and instructs on it. At least they both keep they stick and rudder abilities.
    Regards from Argentina!

    • April 27, 2015 at 11:18 pm

      I love it! Those are not only fun aircraft, but some pretty economical ones as well.

  2. April 27, 2015 at 6:40 am

    Bravo! It’s interesting to note that the Captains in all four “saves” mentioned in your last post (“The Weakest Link”) were highly experienced hands-and-feet pilots. The converse holds true for many recent loss of control disasters.

    • April 27, 2015 at 11:31 pm

      It’s interesting that those facts do not appear in the accident reports, nor as far as I know is it taken into account by either the FAA and NTSB when considering changes to training requirements. When that changes, it’ll be a good sign that the pendulum is swinging in the right direction.

      Kind of ironic that pilots see the value but the Powers That Be do not. Some companies go so far as to forbid their pilots from doing any non-work flying. I’ve never understood that.

      • April 28, 2015 at 12:57 am

        I know! Imagine if airlines saw the value in buying a Piper Cup or Citabria or similar for their pilots to fly (at cost, say, if not gratis). When I own an airline, that’s what I’ll do. 🙂

  3. Maharani
    April 27, 2015 at 7:13 am

    Thanks for reminding me about the Asiana incident. As I mentioned once before in a post on women pilots, I am a woman student pilot, aged 60. For me, learning to fly has been extremely challenging but incredibly rewarding. I soloed about a year ago and am now working on perfecting maneuvers for the check ride. The day of the Asiana crash, I, my instructor, and another student did a long X country from El Monte to Monterey. I flew the outward leg. It was foggy at both ends. With help from my instructor (he had the comm) and I successfully performed an IFR takeoff and a landing on runway 10 at KMRY about an hour before the Asiana crash. We read about it on my instructor’s iPhone at lunch…. I was simply staggered. If I as a pre-solo student with 9 months to go before solo could land safely at Monterey on instruments what on earth did he do wrong? It was a beautiful day other than the overcast. Thinking and reading about the accident, first, I was able to more or less figure out what the pilot did wrong. My second thought was-why the hell am I pursuing pilot training as a hobby? Then, what can I learn?-don’t come in too low and too slow-if anything my tendency now is to be a little fast and high on final. Finally-there is no substitute for hand-flying a plane and knowing how to land it that way when needed. This builds on what you said in your last about the pilot being not only the weakest but the strongest link. Good hand flying skills make you the strongest link.

    • April 27, 2015 at 11:55 pm

      You’re in good company — many people were (and still are) flummoxed by the Asiana crash. As far as being the strongest link, I think the combination of high quality manual flying skills and solid decision making is critical for safe flying.

      Best of luck with your check ride!

      • Maharani
        April 29, 2015 at 5:59 am

        Thank you! I hope to get my PPL sometime this year, though I am not in a super hurry-you can’t be, at my age. Whatever it takes….

  4. Karlene
    April 27, 2015 at 7:57 am

    Ron, this is an excellent post. And one of the things I’m working on in my PhD… from both ends. Focus on training, and back to the basics. We’re using gliders for our experiment…. we need data to prove what we all know is true. The funny thing is they FAA has mandated the upset recovery in a level D simulator… which can’t be done with the hydraulic legs in the way. This is another industry challenge.

    • April 28, 2015 at 12:00 am

      I’d love to see your study when you’re done Karlene, it sounds very interesting. As far as the simulator capabilities, with all the FAA is expecting them to do, it seems like some very expensive changes would be required. As you mentioned, the sim’s physical limitations weren’t designed with upset recovery training in mind. Other things (high-altitude departures from controlled flight, for example) might just be a matter of programming… but then, to have an accurate flight model, the data would have to come from somewhere. Do manufacturers even have that data? More questions than answers. That’s why gliders, tailwheels, and aerobatics seems like a pretty good solutions. Probably a lot less expensive, too.

  5. April 27, 2015 at 9:18 am

    Wow, Ron, great continuation to last week’s discussion.

    Sadly, I fall into that 20k+ hours with 99% of the times spent in straight and level (and autopilot on) flight. Recently, I flew my A320 with the (gasp!) Autothrust MEL’d (i.e. inoperative.) Sad to say, it stressed me out! I realized I’d been doing too much auto-flying and not enough hands-on.

    We know from statistics that the automation has greatly improved safety. In short, keeping the big bird on a/p frees up the flight crew from mundane tasks to take in the Big Picture, and that’s what you need in a large passenger transport. Even so, as you mentioned, basic stick and rudder gets rusty. To keep those skills up, we must (again, gasp!) “turn off the magic” every now and then and hand fly. It’s a fine line to tread, however, as you must do it during low task and threat times–e.g., shoot that hand-ILS in clear, day VFR conditions rather than to minimums while carrying passengers.

    I LOVE the concept of transforming the sim into a training tool rather than a threatening evaluating tool (of course it can be both.) Although, the vast majority of sim instructors I’ve had the pleasure of flying with treat it as just that: a tool to teach and learn.

    Karlene: interesting to hear of the upset training challenges! I look forward to reading the results of your PhD research!

    Maharani: I encourage you to continue to challenge yourself, and to learn from others’ mistakes. As I recently wrote in an Op Ed, many of our modern safety improvements such as EGWS and LLWAS have come off the backs of air disasters of yesteryear, and we can ALL learn from such tragedies. And, no matter where your flying hobby takes you, always return to those needle-ball-airspeed roots!

    For me, it’s been a joy to once again “go back to roots” and dabble in a little bit of GA flying, but I’m ashamed to say it’s been a bit overwhelming to have to operate all those gizmos I take for granted in the Airbus–Autothrust, Autotrim, Auto this and Auto that!

    No matter how much or how little automation my cockpit comes with, the fact remains: I’m a happy, hopeless airplane addict. No 12-step for me!

    Eric “Cap’n Aux” Auxier

    • April 29, 2015 at 12:19 am

      You bring up a good point: technology has definitely helped improve flight safety. The question is, how do we maintain maximum proficiency with both button pushing and raw data hand flying? Without mastery of both, we fail to “be all we can be” (to borrow a phrase from those Army commercials) as pilots. It requires quality decision making about when to turn the automation on and when it’s best to turn it off. You mentioned only hand-flying during good weather. What if the need suddenly arises to hand-fly in bad weather some day?

      I too love the idea of making sim sessions as comprehensive a learning experience as possible. Less testing, more learning. When the whole process is an evaluation from start to finish, there’s less opportunity for making mistakes. I’ve noticed that I learn a lot more from the things I do wrong than those I always get right. 🙂

  6. Mike Stateler
    April 27, 2015 at 11:22 am

    Good Post Ron. As a long time pilot (51 yrs, 15M hrs) I totally agree with your insight. I have seen this tech reliance for years as a sim instructor in the GIV. .Aoto pilot off-PANIC, auto throttle & AP off-MAYDAY!! Keep up the good work..

    • April 29, 2015 at 12:32 am

      Thanks Mike! Glad to know someone “on the inside” sees the same thing. Where do you teach? CAE? FSI?

  7. Maharani
    April 27, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    Heres thought-couldn’t flight crews be made up of 1) specialists in managing automation and 2) specialists unhands-on flight? Perhaps a case could be made for having more divergent training tracks, and having crews made up of experts in different skill sets.

  8. Maharani
    April 27, 2015 at 12:17 pm

    To extend this idea-maybe the Co-pilot/First Officer job should have a requirement for first class stick and rudder skills in case of just such an emergency. Then, once you are promoted to Captain, some attrition of those skills may matter less if your First Officer has them. I think there is too much redundancy in cockpit crew skills. Obviously, redundancy is good, but in this case I would argue for less of it. Just a thought-I am not an expert, being merely a student pilot, never trained as an airline pilot and may be way off base here.

    • April 29, 2015 at 1:16 am

      Hmmm… I have to admit, that’s a strategy I’ve never heard advocated before!

      • Maharani
        April 29, 2015 at 5:50 am

        I pride myself on my thinking outside the box skills! But seriously, why not-in the case of cockpit crews, maybe there’s room for both redundancy (multiple backups)-which is obviously well accepted in aviation, and specialization. Of course, the weakness here is if you lose the FO, those skills are gone, BUT, in a pinch, any Captain who was once an FO might be able to do better than a good many of them can do now.

  9. AirFrank
    April 27, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    During my check ride for my commercial certificate the DPE asked what I thought about all the new technology. I told her that once an accomplished pilot they are fine but until then the six-pack (or its digital equivalent) is all that you should have. She smiled and said she agreed. Then I flew an aerobatic plane (i.e., few instruments). Boy, I wish I had learned to fly in that plane.

  10. April 27, 2015 at 9:57 pm

    Bravo! We must be pilots first and systems managers second.

    • April 29, 2015 at 11:18 pm

      Exactly. It’s not always easy to do that. Many of today’s pilots have to maintain multiple skill sets. We’ve gotta be able to use all the bells and whistles, but also be able to fly without any of that stuff.

  11. DEM
    April 29, 2015 at 12:40 pm

    A friend of mine flew 747 freighters and told me about how every 6 months he had to go to Florida for a day and a half of sim training. I started wondering….what if after every sim session they hauled the pilots out to the airport and gave them an hour or two in a J3? Next sim session, a couple hours in a glider. After that, maybe a Pitts or an Extra. And finally, some single engine work in an Apache. Every two years, repeat. The cost would be negligible when compared to what it costs to buy/operate a big jet sim, but the training would be priceless.

    Speaking from unfortunate experience, when something goes to heck on an airplane it can quickly become a completely different machine that you have about 10 seconds to figure out how to fly. The only way to get experience flying unfamiliar planes is to fly a lot of unfamiliar planes.

    • April 29, 2015 at 8:40 pm

      “The only way to get experience flying unfamiliar planes is to fly a lot of unfamiliar planes.”

      I’ve found that to be true as well. That’s one of the reasons I like to fly a wide variety of aircraft. It’s not only fun, but it seems to keep the flying fresh and makes the transition between types easier.

  12. Paul Duggan
    April 29, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    When the economy tanked, I had to sell my plane, so I haven’t flown in a long while. My plan was to first go with an instructor who flies aerobatics and get the hand-flying perfected before going back to flying IFR. Thanks for the confirmation!

    When working on my Private Pilot Certificate, I had an instructor who flew corporate jets for a living and he had me doing Dutch Rolls and other maneuvers while flying to and from the practice area. He said that you don’t learn anything flying straight and level.

    • April 29, 2015 at 8:51 pm

      Your instructor sounds like a smart guy. Flying is so expensive that every instructional moment needs to be maximized in order to keep the overall cost of learning (and therefore the dropout rate) as low as possible.

      I hope you get back into it soon — an aerobatic guy is the perfect partner for that!

  13. John T. Johnson
    April 29, 2015 at 1:40 pm

    I earned my Private in a 65 HP Champ,and progressed as a freight dog, charter pilot, check airman in 135 operations, and lucked out in corporation jets. Many jet recurrent sessions were all auto pilot, and had to fight for some time to get the manual skills. The new glass cockpits have outstanding nav aids and displays that are fantastic, but getting folks to look out the windows for traffic is a lost art. I recently had a young student in a C 172 spending time with a phone on his lap. I had to ask what he was doing. Without telling or asking he had installed a GoPro camera on the bottom of the wing, and was just making a video of his flight lesson – camera controlled by his phone. Maybe holding your heading is not as important as smiling into the camera!
    Glad to hear there is now interest in some manual skill training.

    • April 29, 2015 at 11:09 pm

      I know exactly what you mean about the glass cockpit — it’s like a magnet for the eyes. There’s so much data coming at you that it can ben hard to look away even when you know you should. To be fair, some of that data can be important: traffic information, for example. I’ve been in a midair collision, so traffic avoidance is something I take seriously. Of course that also means LOOKING OUT THE WINDOW as you said.

      There aren’t many things that would really make me lose my cool with a student, but having one pay more attention to a GoPro than looking for traffic would be one of them.

      There are a lot of people out there who understand the importance of manual flying skills. Of course, there are also an awful lot of people who don’t…

  14. Travis
    April 29, 2015 at 2:38 pm

    Great post and oh, so true! I am in training as a new FO with a regional airline. I’m 44 and this is a career change for me but I have spent the last 24 years giving freelance dual flight instruction on the side. I can tell you that most of the “kids” coming to the airlines today have very little stick and rudder skill and surprisingly little aerodynamic knowledge as well. They can spit back the answers as long as the questions are from the book but are, in many cases unable to explain the fundamentals behind those answers.

    • April 29, 2015 at 11:31 pm

      I’ve seen some of that as well. Reminds me of what that Airbus executive said: if things don’t change, tomorrow’s instructors will not be teaching from personal exposure,they’ll be speaking from hearsay.

      Best of luck at the regional!

  15. Matt
    April 29, 2015 at 5:45 pm

    The author is spot on. Have you ever seen or heard of an FAA inspector giving a check ride in aerobatics? The last time I dealt with an FAA inspector for a check ride their weather limits were 5000ft ceilings and 5 miles vis. Until we get people in the FAA who really know how to fly rather than paper and button pushers, I doubt that anything will change. As far as doing training in aerobatic aircraft why not just use a C172. A lot cheaper to operate and can do any stall or slow flight training easily. I have seen my share of pilots who are afraid of doing the basic airman items that doing aerobatics would be a waste of time until those basics are relearned and become proficient at them. When I started flying PT135 with autopilots that work I found that I was getting rusty with hand flying. I started doing all VFR patterns hand flown to keep proficient with whatever I am flying at the time.

    • April 29, 2015 at 11:35 pm

      Believe it or not, some of the tailwheel and aerobatic airplanes out there are even less expensive to purchase and operate than a Skyhawk! The Citabria and Cub are two such examples I can think of. But you’re right, the basics can be learned in any airplane.

  16. Rich
    April 29, 2015 at 6:30 pm

    I fly an admittedly low rent ex-military trainer (Nanchang CJ-6A), whenever anyone asks about putting in better tech I tell them I measure its value against flight hours not flown…so far no new “gotta have” beats putting in the equivalent dollars in avgas.

  17. April 29, 2015 at 7:20 pm

    Angle of attack sensors in the cockpit in the last decade???

    I worked the flight deck as a troubleshooter on the USS Forrestal for three Med cruises and other short deployments off Norfolk, the Caribbean, etc. for an A4 squadron in the mid 60’s. Not a pilot at the time, I asked questions of the pilots and learned the value of AOA and could predict a “bolter” ( go-around) by just watching the approaching aircraft’s AOA indicator as the LSO did.

    Fast forward to my flying career doing circling approaches in the Falcon, Gulfstreams, etc. into PalWaukee (KPWK) and Teterboro (KTEB) at night in challenging weather conditions. Am I ever happy to have had AOA keeping our crew and passengers safe.

    This(AOA) did not just show up in the last ten years. It is not an automated gimmick, it is not fancy “glass” or the newest electronic device (although I like using them, and constantly review the manuals to stay proficient). It is a device that is related to basic aerodynamics and Airmanship. No aircraft should be without it.

    The issue is students and some experienced pilots do not quite understand it……HMMMM. Maybe the FAA should be looking at proper education in this area. The stall/incipient spin on the overshot turn to final is an AOA related thing, yes???

    You write great blogs, Ron. Hope to meet you sometime. TO

    • April 29, 2015 at 8:10 pm

      I was referring to light GA aircraft. Although they’ve been a mainstay of certain kinds of aircraft for years, AOA sensors are a relatively new addition to the piston GA fleet l. I agree with you: if you need to shoehorn a 20 ton Phantom onto the 900 foot long deck of a ship like the Forrestal, it’s absolutely critical that the proper AOA be maintained all the way down the final approach. But if you’re landing a 2000 pound light GA aircraft on a 6000 foot runway, the need for that level of precision is simply not there.

      Thank you for the kind words about the blog – I appreciate it!

  18. WPB
    April 29, 2015 at 7:49 pm

    Needle, Ball Airspeed….(plus engine instruments)…that is all that should be necessary! And, perhaps, the knowledge to relate the compass to the PAPER map in your lap! Thanks for such a great essay!

  19. James Carlson
    May 3, 2015 at 6:51 pm

    Instruction and recurrent training is an important part of the puzzle. I’ve seen pilots (and CFIs) who’d rather fly the autopilot rather than flying the airplane — their first response on getting a heading or altitude change, even one including dreaded “immediate” word, is to spin knobs on the AP panel trying to set up for the desired response.

    I understand that part of being a “systems manager” is knowing how to stay on top of the automation and how to use it to good effect, but I think at least a part of that training needs to be balancing those tasks with hands-on flying. It shouldn’t be an either-or proposition.

  20. May 9, 2015 at 1:02 pm

    I fly with a fair number of guys that are civilian airline guys and then fly the C-130 a couple of days a month in the reserves. It is interesting how it takes them some time to readjust to the Herc because there is so little automation. They also talk about how it affects their airline flying after spending time flying with us. They are all so much better for the time split in different airframes.

    • May 9, 2015 at 1:07 pm

      I can see that. After all, even with the glass panel sophistication of the J model, the gig comes with plenty of precision hand flying, short/rough fields, formation, and all the other stick-and-rudder skills they probably don’t use much at the airline. It’s a perfect compliment to their 9-to5 job.

      • May 9, 2015 at 1:33 pm

        I am referring to the H-model still since that is what I am on. I would imagine there is much less difference with the J because of all of its automation. In fact I hear regular criticism of the loss of piloting in the J from guys that used to be in the H.

        • May 9, 2015 at 2:18 pm

          That’s interesting. I understand the criticism, although I would think that the J guys would still be doing a lot more formation, rough field, equipment drops, and other such manual flying than any airline pilot.

          I don’t know much about the 130 profiles, but are the J models used for different missions than the H?

          • May 9, 2015 at 8:21 pm

            In general they do essentially the same mission. They can carry more and go a little faster but the H has a little bit longer legs because of the external tanks.

            They certainly do a lot more of that stuff than airline guys, but it is far more automated then it was on the H. The best example that I have heard is when something goes wrong with the computer and a former H pilot tries to just fly the plane the instructor won’t let them but rather makes them fix the computer. There is certainly a need to understand how to work the systems you have, but even in the military there is a deterioration in stick and rudder skills.

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