Is Stall Training Broken?
One reliable way of stirring up trouble around here is to connect politics with aviation. (I'm good at the trouble part.) The second best might be to discuss economics and aviation in the same sentence. Airline pilots are good at that because pay levels are a favorite topic.
This should be obvious to anyone following our blogs this week on the fallout from the Colgan crash. Some pilots have made the claim that because commuter pilots are so poorly paid, candidates seeking the front seats are less qualified and less experienced than ever. I don't know if I agree with that or not, but I do agree that pilots at this level are paid far too little for their work and the real blame for that rests with the flying public.
In previous blogs, I've argued for higher fares across the board. Because of the public's buy-it-cheap mentality, the industry constantly sends the wrong price/value signals to the market and, as a result, it flies around a lot of seats at below cost. You can blame airline management, but cheap customers are the core cause. It's just stupid. And other than a return to limited regulation, I don't know how to fix it. Maybe more airlines have to fail.
Tangled up in this is the cost/economy of training airline pilots. While everyone is singing the praises of Sully and military pilots in general, very few talk about a basic truth: There's no way the airline industry could ever staff itself entirely or even mostly with former military pilots. There will never be nearly enough of them and it's a delusion to think that the civil side can train to the same standard.
Or is it? The thing about military flight training is that any way you examine it, it's not cost driven. Although the services have been forced to economize, compared to civil training, military training is done on a cost-is-no-object basis. It's debatable whether the investment always produces better pilots, although it probably does produce more uniform results. We've all seen the paradox of expensively trained military pilots who are far from the sharpest knives in the drawer. I'd argue, however, that there are far more dull knives in the civil drawer.
A comment by reader Paul Valovich in my previous blog got me thinking about a new trend that may be developing. Valovich is a former naval aviator and most of us know that the Navy is big on having pilots understand angle of attack and its relationship to the stall. And I'll reveal a bias here by saying that the Navy rightly teaches pilots that pitch controls airspeed and power controls altitude, not the other way around, as many GA pilots are wrongly taught. (Look, I said up front that I'm good at stirring up trouble.)
The worrisome trend I see is that despite the modern wonder of small aircraft glass panels, we're not seeing angle of attack indicators in the certified versions of these systems. We're seeing airspeed tapes and a continuing emphasis on using airspeed as a surrogate for angle of attack. Valovich raises the question of whether GA pilots are generally not being taught basic aircraft control based on a grasp of AoA. I think he's right. And glass cockpits make it worse, not better, because of their unique ability to paint the world as an abstraction utterly divorced from air flowing over wings and control surfaces.
Every new airplane I demonstrate has glass. And every time I fly one, at some point during the flight — often for most of the flight — everyone is looking at the displays, not out the window. I flew the Cirrus Perspective about a year ago on a blustery, gusty Duluth day. On long final, the demo pilot and I got into a protracted discussion about how difficult it was to keep the path indicator on the point of intended landing when the airplane was being kicked by turbulence. Finally, in exasperation, I allowed as why don't I do like I usually do and look out the window and land that way. This is not an isolated incident. Versions of it are happening every day, even as you read this.
So what's needed is a rethinking of GA methods for teaching not just basic aircraft control but edge-of-envelope control, too. It should incorporate the strengths of glass panels while also teaching students to avoid being mesmerized by the dancing tapes. Maybe this is happening already and if it is, I'd like to hear about it.
And please, can we add some decent AoA indicators to these displays? Make them front-and-center prominent, not just after thoughts.