Clinging to Skills or to the Past?
As is often the case, this week's blog on simulator training drew a little trickle of e-mail in the background from readers who don't feel like engaging in the forum. One was from a long-time contributor railing about the inadequacies of modern training and, especially the alarming attitude of some pilots who rely entirely on cutting-edge systems, never giving a second thought to the underlying skills required to survive if those systems fail. He was talking about over reliance on glass and GPS, but it could be any cutting-edge system in the modern airplane. He has a point.
And we have been having this conversation for 200 years. It is the classic confrontation between the traditionalists and the modernists. The sail captains had it when steam arrived, the railroad hogheads had it when diesels evolved and the piston drivers had when the first jets showed up, although that particular conversation didn't last long. At the juncture of one technology eclipsing another, there is always a period of turbulence when the proponents of each throw mud at each other until progress puts it all to rest.
The simulator story I wrote about earlier this week is a version of that, but it got me wondering how you can tell if your insistence that the old way of doing things is a vital primary skill or if you're just clinging to some ancient procedure in defiance of progress that has rendered it obsolete. In other words, you've crossed the line into old fartism.
I can think of two examples. Not too long after GPS approaches became common, I stopped bothering with NBD approaches on instrument proficiency checks. I arrived at this for several rational reasons. I rode along with the FAA doing flight checks and when I told the technician I flew these in actual with my students, he jokingly made the sign of the cross and showed me a plot of typical error tracks for NDBs. Oh.
GPS was so much more accurate and safer and it required more time to teach it. So I dropped NDBs unless the pilot insisted and had the time. I also stopped believing the drivel I was feeding myself about the likelihood of an NDB pulling someone's fat out the fire some dark and stormy night when all else failed. So would a parachute.
Then there's the dead reckoning fantasy. We still spend time teaching primary students to plot a course and build a nav log, something that few will ever use. Maybe none will ever use. It's a warm and familiar process that we imagine to be a fundamental airman skill — but we don't use it, so why teach it?
To be fair, the practical test standards have evolved to include modern nav systems on the checkride and that's a good thing. What we should be teaching is high-level paper map reading in conjunction with GPS—you know, the way we actually fly these days. Throw in a smattering of time and distance work. That might get some heads out of the glass cockpit.
As an instructor, I have also tended to resist the weirder extremes of training exercises, like doing a single-engine hold in a twin. I have done these. I have taught them. Then one night, I realized how pointless it was. In the real world, I'd be declaring an emergency and landing, not holding in my hobbled twin.
Silly stuff like that does build some skill, but it's questionable whether it's worth the effort. The other side of the knife is that it gets in the way of spending time on what really matters: basic aircraft control, basic instrument work and landings. Yes, landings.
Every month I review about 100 NTSB accident records for a particular model for our Used Aircraft Guides. The last one I did was for the Cessna 182. An astonishing 58 percent of Skylane accidents relate to runway loss of control. Some takeoffs, but mainly landings. That's just terrible.
So coming full circle to the last blog, I was assuming airline pilots generally know how to land, which is why the idea of reprogramming simulators for stiffer crosswinds struck me as like single-engine holding. Well, maybe not. Maybe they're just like everyone else; skills erode and they get lazy. The game falls off.
It sure seems to for Skylane drivers.