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.