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Too Laid-Back?

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Are We Allowing Technology to Envelope us in Complacency About Flying—To the Detriment of Skills and Judgment?

Aviation lore is full of heroes like Chuck Yeager, who saved the day while calmly muttering on the radio something about “some little fire going in them engines” or such. The quiet, unflappable, laid-back flyer has been the role model for young pilots since the days of the Lone Eagle. But, is there such a thing as “too laid-back?”

The answer, undoubtedly, is yes. Psychology describes this in terms of “defense mechanisms.” As with most things in life, you don’t want too much or too little. This can be tested and is, in fact, a requirement by some airlines and aviation authorities. It is an area certain to be analyzed in conjunction with the tragic recent airline accidents.

When the Asiana Boeing 777 crash occurred in San Francisco (SFO) it quickly became obvious that a perfectly qualified crew of three had flown a perfectly functioning airliner into the ground on a sunny day for no good reason. The resulting chatter in my corner of the airline pilot world was stunned disbelief quickly followed by lots of opining as to the quality (or lack thereof) of some foreign crews.

It Couldn’t Happen Here

Well, looks like it did—just days later a well-qualified crew of a reputable domestic freight air carrier flew a perfectly functioning airliner into the ground under benign conditions.

Accident investigations last months and often years. Yet there is a reason why the NTSB, in its findings, calls it “probable cause.” In spite of black boxes and the ubiquitousness of surveillance cameras and iPhones, in many crashes all factors may never be known—which brings forth the disclaimer to not rush to conclusions.

Landings are a phase of flight described as critical, and every layman understands why. Airspeed is of necessity slow with a small margin above stall. Altitude is of equal necessity low, decreasing the margins for error. It follows that the crew must exert their maximum focus on the approach and landing—the most difficult part of the flight’s profile— when the crew is most affected by fatigue, sleep deprivation or plain boredom.

Most readers of IFR Refresher will probably agree that a low ILS approach is no piece of cake. Add a lurking thunderstorm that may require quick thinking, drawn from a deep pool of experience and knowledge, and a burst of fancy stick and rudder work may be necessary to make it safely to shore.

Others may see it differently. If all you typically do is coupled (autopilot flown) ILS approaches to multi-mile long runways, day-in and day-out, a strictly visual approach may seem intimidating. Regardless of the circumstance, vigilance is required as is command of, and control over, the aircraft.

For those, like me, who came up through the school of hard knocks of flight instructing, the notion of not closely monitoring speed and glide path on final is almost impossible to fathom. As an instructor, you’ve endured many occasions coiled in the right seat ready to pounce on the flight controls should the student deviate to an unsafe degree. It is expected that the beginner is “unreliable” and it is equally expected that the teacher will occasionally take over and save the proverbial bacon.

Contrast this with the atmosphere in the typical multi-crew airliner: Here it is expected that the pilot flying will reliably perform the seemingly simple tasks associated with holding speeds and altitudes, be this through automation or manual hand-flying. They have done so thousands of times and there is no reason to assume that this approach will be any different.

A Set Up For Complacency

The Pilot Monitoring may not be “monitoring.” The Pilot Flying may, for whatever reason, have given up the flying part to gravity. The rest, as they say, is history. There are lessons in all this for the general aviation pilot.

With the increased sophistication of modern avionics, a perverse trap has been set. Back when the top-of-the- line was the round dial six-pack, a couple of radios and some wildly swinging needles, it was subliminally communicated that this flying business was indeed serious and that it took significant skills, attention (and maybe even a certain amount of luck) to provide a safe and desired outcome.

With flat screens, keypads, advanced autopilots and all sorts of fancy accouterments it may be common place to believe that instrument flying has become “easy”—mostly a matter of correctly programming the equipment. I further believe that these square, glowing screens, the similar to those used with TV or video games, have—on a subconscious level—removed the pilot one level from the experience of flying itself.

What those screens and stuff have done is present us with a different view of our flying environment when in fact that environment, and the need to react to it, has not in itself changed.

These are considerations the light airplane pilot now shares with airline guys. The Cherokee that once sported a wing-leveler with a simple on-off switch may now have a full-fledged flight management system with many different operating modes to achieve one desired outcome. The equipment that was meant to simplify has now complicated. The old nav head with the ILS needles may have been harder to fly and less intuitive to interpret— but at least there were just two simple needles to chase around. Today’s electronic HSI and flight director presentation overflows with information, much of it of no use for the current phase of flight and thus a distraction. We have seen this on far too many accidents where the CVR conveyed confusion on the part of the crew.

In this, as in so much else in aviation, we thread a fine line. There is only so much mental capacity, only so much knowledge, only so much flight currency and skills any person can muster. The area between being too relaxed and laid back and pure paranoia is a gray and murky one.

On a check ride in a light twin some years ago, the pilot saw me slightly tense up in preparedness for the required single-engine air work. “Don’t you trust me, Bo?” was her comment. And in spite of this being one of the best pilots I have ever flown with, I guess the answer was not what she wanted to hear: “I don’t trust anyone if I can avoid it. And it seems to have kept me safe through 35 years of flying” Call me paranoid, but I’m still here.

Bo Henriksson is a Captain with a major carrier and has more than 10,000 flight hours. 

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of IFR Refresher Magazine. 

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