AVmail: September 23, 2013
Letter of the Week:
Fly the Airplane
The old saying of "I can type at 80 words a minute but I can't fly" applies, in my opinion, to a high percentage of airline pilots around the world.
Belatedly, in April of this year, the FAA issued a safety alert for operators, the purpose of which was to encourage operators to promote manual flight operations when appropriate. At least the FAA appears to be the first regulator to take action to tackle the world-wide pilot tendency for automation addiction. This addiction has seen many loss-of-control events that involved pilots being so wedded to the automatic pilot that [pilots] have lost basic instrument flying skills, if they had any in the first place.
Manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus have long realized that pilots who fly their aircraft are not necessarily competent to do so, hence the chase for more automation to minimize the opportunities for pilots to fly by hand, where incompetents are more likely to cause accidents.
While it is easy to say this must be due to poor training, there will always be the politically sensitive issue of ethnic cultural mores. The manufacturers can never admit this since they wish to sell to all customers, including those well known for having a society culture that inevitably clashes with standard flight safety understanding that can lead to a culture of "Real Men Don't Go Around."
Until regulators are convinced that they must initiate firm action to address the ever- widening gap between automation dependency and airline pilots' basic instrument manual flying skills, the risk of loss of control in IMC is bound to continue.
Manufacturers are caught between a rock and a hard place. They have little or no control over individual company training standards or pilot selection criteria. Their flight crew operations manuals rightly assume their aircraft will be flown by competent crews using the most sophisticated automation available. In other words, crews will have a high standard of automation and manual flying skills. The accident record reveals otherwise.
Airline operations departments must in the future pay more than lip service to the need for manual flying skills. This is because a significant number of airline pilots remain apprehensive of anything other than full automation during line flying. Of course, there are occasions when manual flight is inappropriate during line flying. In that case, the skills gap has to be closed by the only other means [available], and that is in the simulator. Extra simulator training may be expensive but nothing like the cost of an accident.
The solution is to schedule a much greater percentage of manual flying on instruments during simulator training than now happens.
To counteract the insidious nature of automation dependency, regulators must lead the way and not assume operators will do it for them. If [a lack of] raw data manual skills are a growing problem, then properly targeted simulator training is essential to stop the rot. Cultural issues cannot be allowed to trump good airmanship.
Bells and Whistles
Shelly Lipman pointed out a serious problem, not only in avionics but increasingly in gadgets of all type.
That problem is that the people who design our devices have little or no actual understanding of the conditions under which they will be used. The Superwhizbang GPS40000XL looks great sitting on the ramp at Reno, with the tech rep pointing out all of the wonderful features ("... and this button lets you find a motel based on the color of their bedspreads ..."), but when the designer puts the most important and frequently used features in a sub-menu, he obviously has no clue about trying to fly in adverse conditions or with an in-flight emergency.
Or consider simple communications. The most important controls on a radio are volume and squelch. You want to be able to instantly turn down the noise or rapidly drop the squelch to hear a weak station, especially with the handheld radio that someone might be carrying into the FBO or after an off-airport landing. Yet at least one major handheld manufacturer uses pushbuttons for volume and hides the squelch control in a menu, making them harder to use.
All of the bells and whistles are nice to have, but not at the expense of basic usability.
Another mistake is made when style overrides simplicity. Somewhere along the way, someone decided that switches are ugly, and actually knowing which control does what is less important than the overall look of a cockpit. Labels became cryptic and difficult to read under perfect conditions, much less at night or in clouds.
Even my Cessna 150 fell victim to this, with important switches hidden under the pilot's yoke, labeled in tiny white characters (at least, they were before the silkscreening wore off) that disappear under anything but optimal lighting conditions. Yet Cessna left 16 square inches of unused panel space below the throttle! And who decided to put the pitot heat switch between the switches for dome lights and nav lights?
It's easier to find your way around the panel of the Apollo Command Module than some of today's planes. Worse is the tendency to camouflage knobs and switches against backgrounds of the same color, especially black on black.
Contrast this to military planes. Not only does every control have a clear, easy-to-read legend, but knobs are in colors contrasting with the background (usually gray on black). Sure, there are a lot more switches and knobs in an F-15 than a 150, but Eagle drivers spend hours learning the position of every control in the cockpit.
The bottom line is that function is more important than feng shui, and the people who design the stuff we use need to keep this in mind.
Cessna's Military Strike
This aircraft with the straight wings and the aft mounted engines could be a good replacement for the aging but able A-10 Warthog. An unsolicited proposal may be risky but could be right to fill the niche since Fairchild Republic is no longer around to do a modern version of the A-10.
I thought perhaps you might publish an article with the highlights of the 2013 Air Races, which finished September 15.
We dropped the ball on Reno coverage this year, Pete, and we apologize to all our readers. We'll do better next year.