FAA Wants Action On Declining Pilot Skills


The FAA has formally requested the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to address the issue of declining manual flight skills among airline pilots. In a brief submitted to ICAO, the agency says pilots have become too dependent on aircraft systems and either haven’t adequately learned or have not maintained their ability to manually control their aircraft, particularly during the emergencies that result in loss of the systems. “When automation ceases to work properly, pilots who do not have sufficient manual control experience and proper training may be hesitant or not have enough skills to take control of the aircraft,” the FAA report to ICAO said.

The issue has some institutional roots in that most airlines mandate the use of automated systems for almost all phases of flight. There have also been suggestions that when things go wrong, the airplanes issue so many differing alarms and alerts that pilots become overwhelmed and unable to prioritize corrective action.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. That recent ATP requirement for pt121 FO’s is looking better and better now. Maybe doing pattern work as a CFI with a student in a Cessna 150 may seem not applicable to airline flying but you have to start somewhere. If a airline pilot candidate is unable to handle the basic hand flying in a C150, how are they going to be able to handle a 120,000lb+ airliner when the automation quits? This move by the FAA is long overdue. The FAA has been so concerned with following ICAO issues, it is about time the FAA started leading/prodding ICAO on some issues.

  2. Matt W, more time in general aviation is definitely good experience for airlines. However the 1500-hour rule is not a good way to accomplish that. Buzzing around in a 150 for 1500 hours is a waste: 80% of the experience is gained in the first 400 hours.

    To redesign the rule, I would say 1500 hours total time OR some combination of solo >100nm cross-country instrument time, tailwheel time, turbine time, helicopter time, actual IMC time, high performance/complex etc. The way to build ‘captaincy’ and hand flying skills is to do as much challenging flying as possible, preferably solo.

    1500 hours of banner towing would be beneficial, but nowhere near as good as 300 hours of hard IFR solo with no autopilot. The rule should reflect that some experience is way more valuable than others.

    The biggest downside of the rule is that smart kids will look at that 1500 hurdle and decide (sensibly) to go with another career. So we’ll end up with a shrinking talent pool which eventually will mean worse pilots throughout the system.

  3. Mark / Gareth: Gentlemen, I believe that you are both missing the mark a bit here. As a semi-retired pilot, I aged out the top, I interpret what the article is talking about somewhat differently. I, clearly, came into aviation well before the levels of today’s automation were in existence.

    What I saw as I neared the end of my career is a generation of pilots that could do wonderful computer work but pretty much couldn’t hand fly. Training even devolved to their levels in that company instructors were prevented from challenging them with simultaneous emergencies. For the greatest part, they were pretty darn good at their jobs till the “lights went out”, so to speak. Today’s group out there have never had to mentally sort out a “really bad day” in the airplane, set priorities, solve what they could, and get it back on the ground in some kind of survivable condition. Imagine the effort involved in landing (in a simulator I’ll admit) a 4 engine transport from 390 with only one hydraulic system working, ending up with 3 engines out, electrics partially on the fritz, via a full turn ADF approach to a circling landing against the single operating engine. Not only did we have to at least partially solve the issues, we had to do energy management, time things closely because nothing worked normally, and get stopped on a “wet runway” with a cross wind at structural limits.
    Okay, I admit that I was a Flight Examiner at the time with a ton of experience in that jet and the rest of my crew was as well. But, the instructor challenged us almost to our limits. He was a bit surprised we accomplished what we did and so were we. We were also “sweaty” when we climbed out of the box.

    Today’s pilots DO NOT need to face that level of challenge and I certainly do not advocate such except as no-harm, freebie workouts. What I believe the FAA is discussing and what does need to be done is a lot more hand flying. Full approaches, visual approaches, hand landings in bad weather, hand flying all the way up to cruise, etc. Practice doing that smoothly for that passenger comfort the company (and ANY pilot worth his/her wings) wants. Get the “feel” of what the “lady” is trying to tell you through the yoke and throttles. Sorry, can’t help you Airbag side-stick no throttle folks.

    Happy Landing guys.

  4. With pilot shortage, I am seeing corporate aviation putting extremely low time pilots in the left seat with even lower time pilots in the rut seat.

    These pilots also have no weather experience. Flight department managers have convinced themselves this is ok. I am sure the CEOs and Pax have no idea what this could mean in emergency situations. I think the reason they are getting away with it has to do with wonderful automated aircraft automated systems and avionics. Question is, what happens to the “Children of the Magenta line” when the lights go out.

    I am a retired corporate pilot with 24k hours. I recall the BIG challenges I have faced flying for more than 48 years.

    I wish them all the best with the new low time pilots.

    • Garett A, I agree with you that the experience should be spread out over various types of single pilot flying. All of the examples you point out are beneficial. But you would be amazed how many FO’s I have had in jets who could not fly a typical VFR traffic pattern or who thought that a visual approach flown on an IFR clearance entitled him to fly straight in to landing in an uncontrolled field in VMC cutting in front of local VFR traffic.

  5. With pilot shortage, I am seeing corporate aviation putting extremely low time pilots in the left seat with even lower time pilots in the rut seat.

    These pilots also have no weather experience. Flight department managers have convinced themselves this is ok. I am sure the CEOs and Pax have no idea what this could mean in emergency situations. I think the reason they are getting away with it has to do with wonderful automated aircraft systems and avionics. Question is, what happens to the “Children of the Magenta line” when the lights go out.

    I am a retired corporate pilot with 24k hours. I recall the BIG challenges I have faced flying for more than 48 years.

    I wish them all the best with the new low time pilots.

  6. Practice makes perfect is the old adage. I believe practice makes permanent. Therefor, what you practice is of utmost concern.

    Since the advent of this quantum leap in automation, what is being practiced in daily flying results in very little hand flying. Likewise training is geared toward developing the “automation” skills. Airlines run on very thin profit margins. So, sim time is geared toward practicing and confirming “automation” skills.

    The FAA is now getting concerned about the lack of hand flying skills. This is not rocket science. Time, effort, sim programming, and those giving airline check rides will have to dedicate time dedicated toward hand flying. In addition to simply more hand-flying both in the sim and during pax flights, there has to be a airline corporate structure that will encourage that.

    At this point, flight training in GA airplanes is geared toward “automation” skills. At this time the airman check rides are geared toward confirming “automation” skills. Today, airlines are encouraging the vast majority of the flying be done using “automation” only.

    We are railing about the young generation of pilots being “children of the magenta line”. Airlines, flight training, and currency standards are all aimed at “automation” proficiency. With all this time and dedication to “automation” skills what would you expect the result to be…outstanding hand-flying skills?

    And, to add more insult to injury regarding the skills of the “children of the magenta line”, the 1500 hour rule promotes those “children” as they become CFI’s, to share what they have learned as a result of the focus on “automation” flying. Consequently, those CFI’s are teaching what they have learned. It’s a vicious circle.

    All of us are a product of our teaching, resulting practice of what we were taught, making permanent those fundamentals. If those fundamentals are flawed or inadequate, that is what has to change. We need to stop criticizing the new generation of pilots, accusing them of being poor flyers when they are simply responding to their “automation” training.

    Those pilots forced into retirement today, were a product of hand-flying airman-ship training from the beginning because the airplanes from GA to the heavies were relatively low tech. As more and more automation was introduced, they learned that in addition to the fundamental airman-ship they already mastered and practiced. I believe by choice, most of those pilots saw the value of both perspectives taking on the responsibility of maintaining both skills because they were familiar with both…therefor seeing the value in both…even though they could see the corporate structure and emphasis changing. They are now retired or close to it…thinning the ranks quickly.

    Without being trained in basic airman-ship being as important as mastering “automation” skills, young pilots are simply practicing what they have been taught then continuing that way regarding currency requirements because that is company policy. And that practice is becoming permanent. How will these new pilots have any perspective other than “automation” flying?

    Mechanical/electrical components fail. Even aircraft designers are incorporating more “automation” into the background of airplane handling to make augment the resulting less perceived need for hand-flying skills.

  7. BEST COMMENT: @Gareth, “ The biggest downside of the rule is that smart kids will look at that 1500 hurdle and decide (sensibly) to go with another career. ‘

    NOT QUITE SO GOOD: “‘So we’ll end up with a shrinking talent pool which eventually will mean worse pilots throughout the system.”

    Best comment.

  8. As a former commercial pilot and CFI, I would suggest a few hours of aerobatics. I had a Citabria and other CFIs would bring students to me as they were afraid to teach spin recovery. This was back in the ’70s. Not necessary I know but it couldn’t hurt.

  9. It’s a bit of a conundrum to say the least. Here’s a parallel. Young people today have been raised relying on computers as an extension of many aspects of their lives. My wife is a graphic artist from the old school. Many new graphic designers are “not designers” but “sophisticated software operators”. Folks that did graphic paste up, calligraphy etc. and grew into the computers were true artists and the computer was a useful tool (and of course there are exceptions both ways). Aviation is in the same boat as nothing is a substitute for old fashioned stick and rudder skill. I’ve had the privilege of watching a young man at the FBO I fly out of (his name is Jake) go from an FBO lineman/student pilot, to a flight instructor, flying commercial on a twin, and now left seat in a Pilatus PC-12 Turbo Prop. Jake is and will be a good pilot no matter where he ends up in his career.

  10. Hugh C – 2 comments above reminded me – back in the late 50s when I got my private, spins were req’d.
    Later on when I got my CFI, I taught my students spins in J3s, Champs, 150s, & others. Never considered the legality of it, but just wanted good safe experience for them.- yes, they enjoyed it!

  11. The very predictable result of automation in the cockpit.

    When the human is taken out of the loop, the human is no longer practicing active response and therefore no longer needs the skills to do so. Take the man out of the loop, the loop does what the loop does, and the man gets stupid, no longer able to interpret if the loop is functioning nominally.

    We have lost the emphasis on the very practical basics of “Fly the damn plane”.

  12. All of you made good points. David C. I agree completely when you wrote, “What I believe the FAA is discussing and what needs to be done is a lot more hand flying. Full approaches, visual approaches, hand landings in bad weather, hand flying all the way up to cruise, etc. Practice doing that smoothly for that passenger comfort the company (and ANY pilot worth his/her wings) wants. Get the “feel” of what the “lady” is trying to tell you through the yoke and throttles.”

    I am a huge believer in hand-flying the airplane, including hand-flying the approaches, holding, and in IMC conditions. I did not learn to fly to just sit in the cockpit and look cool. I was a Captain for Midway Airlines in Chicago and I flew the DC-9-10s and DC-9-30s which had steam gauges (which I love) and they had very old autopilots that would click off by themselves almost every leg. We’ve had numerous times where we had to hand fly the airplane and it was simply very enjoyable.

    When I was a new First Officer at Midway, I flew a 4-day trip with a Captain that hated hand-flying the airplane. After I had completed the preflight inspection, I entered the jetway and the Captain was reading the aircraft maintenance log. I said, “How’s she looking?” and he said in a gruff voice, “The autopilot is inoperative.” Well, it just popped out of me and I said, “Oh great, we get to hand fly it!!!” and he said, “No… YOU get to hand fly it.” And I said, “That’s better yet!!!” He looked at me with squinted, quizzical eyes as if I were nuts. I hand flew it from Chicago to Washington, DC, at night for the overnight and he was so happy that he had someone with him that loved hand-flying the plane that as our crew was walking out to the hotel van, he said, “I’m taking all of us out for dinner and drinks!!! And he took us to a very nice place!!!

  13. For instructors: what about banning the use of autopilot during training for an instrument rating? Are too many instrument students never learning to hand-fly in IMC and the proper scan?

    • I never used the autopilot at all during my instrument rating training (or a GPS for that matter). The first time I used it was during my actual flight test and at the examiner’s suggestion as we had to hold several laps longer than anticipated due to traffic, and he had seen already that I was capable of hand flying it without a problem.

  14. The problem is that EAA started building fast spam can airplanes and threw all the primary gliders on a bon fire to keep women and kids out of flying. I doubt there is an EAA chapter anywhere with a tow plane and a primary glider to teach new pilots how to fly, and land, on a dead engine, and nail it, every single time.

    The other problem is that there are too many little obedient hallway monitors in aviation that ruined it for everyone else. Rules, rules, rules… nobody wants to fly – why – because it sucks. Not only is it expensive, dangerous, labor intensive, complicated, etc… I can rattle off two dozen valid reasons why aviation suxors as a hobby… on top of all that, you have these GA spam can pilots and all their radio technobabble bull and all these rules.

    News flash: the air is a commons that does not belong to you, or the FAA. Don’t tell me how I can and can not fly. My generation is pretty damn sick of all your toxic rules.

    That’s why aviation is dying. You killed it.


  15. Learn to use everything. Fly hands-on or with autopilot. IFR or VFR. If you got it, know how to apply it.

  16. My airline starts a type rating/qualification with the first few sim sessions flying only raw data… manual flying during regular flights is promoted when conditions allow.
    It is correct for the FAA to adres this issue… basic skills should be more important than having a fancy app in front of your nose.

  17. I see many pilot’s agreeing that more hand flying would be beneficial in Technologically Advanced Aircraft. However, it is not just hand flying that promotes “stick and rudder” and manual flying skills. It must be hand flying with the flight director off and auto-throttle off otherwise you are not improving the basic instrument scan and manual aircraft control we all desire. Simply hand flying and following the flight director does very little to improve pilot skills. I suggest we all start using the phrase “raw-data hand-flying with auto-throttle off” as a skill for improving safety that must be practiced. I have 24,000 hours in many phases of general aviation, instructing, corporate, and airline operations. Yes, I have hand flown many raw-data auto-throttle off take-offs and landings in Boeing 727, 737, 747, 777, 787 aircraft (yes, on the line not just simulator) and it is fun, easy, and safe when you are proficient in that mode. Yes, the airline operation manual allowed this but so few pilots actually did that many pilots thought it was prohibited. Training Departments at all types of operations need to include raw-data hand flying with auto-throttles off in the syllabus. Unfortunately, there are too many instructors, and management pilots that don’t agree and continue to ignore this lack of proficiency as the cause of many recent accidents. Again, most pilots “hand-fly” quite frequently (in the big iron at my airline) but it is raw-data hand flying with auto-throttles off that is necessary. (PS – the Airbus A320 is also easy to fly raw-data on approach and landing, but raw-data mode was prohibited on take-off).

  18. Some good comments here. But I don’t see the one that applies most to US certified pilots. Simply put, I have the skills to hand fly multiple turboprop models, a Lear35, a DC9 and now a narrow body Airbus. BUT the FAA became so draconian over my career regarding enforcement actions that I rarely use those skills. When ATC tracking systems have automatic “snitch patches” built in so that even the controller may not know an altitude was busted or any other clearance exceeded, I, and most other line pilots have chosen to use the autopilot as a way to preserve our ticket. In today’s US airspace system, especially in terminal areas, one must remain exactly on the RNAV course. (I’ve been called out by ATC for trying to sneak around a building cell, which resulted in being off the green/magenta line by less than a 1/4 mile). In such circumstances, even the most proficient stick and rudder pilot uses the automation as means to protect his/her ticket. Modern GPS/RNAV/GNSS based arrivals and departures almost demand a reliance on the automation. I personally try to kick the automation off when flying into the occasional lesser dense destination or when being vectored during climb or descent, but when operating from DFW to ATL the autopilot stays engaged from 1000agl on departure til minimums on approach. *

    In short, it’s not that I can’t hand fly, it’s that the FAA seriously discourages me from doing so.

    We obviously can’t have airliners flying around off altitude or course, my only answer would be: the FAA must force airlines to include basic raw data hand flying in initial and recurrent training. This of course will add to the cost of training, so I am not hopeful. But the average pilot needs the opportunity to practice without “jeopardy”. **

    *It is virtually impossible to even fly a visual approach by ones self in most major areas. ATC almost always issues headings, altitudes and speeds for “visual” approaches .

    **Most simulator training, even for basic hand flying, is so focused on “checking a box” (demanded by the FAA) or adhering to “procedure” that it still feels like a jeopardy event.

  19. In the early ’70’s I was trained to fly under-the-hood landings in a complex, high-performance A/C, and got to the point where either my friend or I could talk one another into hood landings, from either the left or right seat..think the equivalent of a PAR/GCA to zero-zero. DME Arcs, NDB approaches, partial panel, heavy IFR under rigorous simulated circumstances, all standard. I read of a particular situation where a corporate pilot a few years back claimed they were overwhelmed flying 45 minutes of actual. Nothing wrong with the newest technology, but, as one pilot I spoke with recently said, “The plane just flies itself”. Sad to see such degraded skills.

  20. What a dynamic subject, but here’s my stab at an overall view:
    How much of this problem might be due to the fact that regulation, litigation and the overall expense of gaining experience has risen to a level that only “privileged” individuals can afford to enter this field? Piston engine flying is now reserved for those who are willing to pay for high maintenance bills and incredible insurance premiums. In the 80’s the manufacturers were burdened with lawsuits and stopped producing aircraft. The GA Revitalization Act removed some of their liability, but some of that has simply been passed on to the pilots through insurance premiums. It certainly is possible to save every last penny, as many have, for flight lessons, and then make next to nothing for years of instructing. But who is crazy enough to want a life like that? Gaining experience is no longer as easy as borrowing a buddies aircraft and going flying. Just read the insurance policy. You have to have experience to be covered, and you have to have coverage (or money) to gain experience. I am a 10,000+ hour professional pilot with 18 years of experience, and I have a hard time affording to be in a 3 person partnership on a general aviation aircraft. Hauling cancelled checks was how I gained most of my hand flying skills, and that type of flying almost doesn’t exist anymore. Basically only pilots that can afford to fly on their own dime to gain experience or are willing to working for flight schools that “turn two million dollars into one” (as the aviation saying goes) are left for hiring. Sure, some doctors, lawyers, politicians, and other well paid professions can afford to own aircraft; and their kids might be able to enter the field relatively easily. (I’d be willing to guess that their parents may not push them in that direction though). There are, however, many other talented young aviators out there that simply can’t afford to demonstrate or hone their skills. The Civil Air Patrol is a possible avenue to experience and training, but it can take quite a bit of time to get actual flying experience there. It also isn’t really a paid job. Aviation has become so expensive that practicing in an actual aircraft isn’t desirable or financially possible. As a former member of a union training review board, discussions about training failures resulted in my own realization that raising the pass/fail rate of an airline ultimately boiled down to how much money was spent. You can spend enough money to attract pilots with experience, or you can spend money training pilots without experience, but in either case it’s going to cost someone. But here’s the kicker: The pilot shortage has caused some airlines to hire some pretty inexperienced pilots. Those airlines are now paying $1000’s of dollars on extra training in highly advanced simulators to “train to proficiency” all because they dried up the pool of experienced pilots. And who is filling that pool? General Aviation!! If something can be done to ease the cost of fuel and insurance due to FAA mandated maintenance and liability on general aviation aircraft, then this problem might just improve on its own.

    We could just completely automate aircraft so no mistakes will be made, and we won’t have to train pilots. Right? RIIIIGHT…. Just like the automated checkouts where you need a security guard to watch a camera and monitor for theft, an attendant to help you when you have to show your ID, or the machine runs out of change, or paper, or malfunctions…. It’s not that simple. You’re causing more problems than you’re solving.

    There’s liability in allowing an individual to fly a GA airplane with low experience, and of course the likelihood that they might make a mistake. There’s the possibility that they might have an engine failure and land on a road, inadvertently causing a fatal wreck with a vehicle or a pedestrian, or hurt themselves. But the same liability exists on a much greater scale when you reduce the experience level across the entire industry due to attempting to avoid it on a smaller scale. Then, when an airliner crashes and many people are hurt, the fingers get pointed at the pilots and their lack of experience. The truth is that aviation has become so safe (due to the expensive automation which is degrading our skills), that the very occasional accidents that DO occur are the GA accidents that degrade public confidence due to dramatic media coverage. This just serves to justify the increased insurance premiums and mandated maintenance causing the problem.

    I feel like I’m talking in circles, but all the same I think I’m covering the fact that this certainly is a very dynamic subject. My previous paragraphs show what I feel is the root of the problem, but I also think there’s more to it than that. You can’t change one thing. All of the change we’re experiencing with rapid advancements in safety is painful. Take flight control malfunctions for example (which I’m guessing is one reason the FAA is addressing this). A manufacturer tried to make an aircraft affordable, with safety improvements which take the pilot out of the picture, and it ended up being more of a problem than a solution. They certainly had good intentions, but technology seems to be outpacing human ability. The man-machine disconnect is leaving inexperienced pilots with surprises they cannot process. Now, the company potentially has billions in liability and the FAA is addressing declining pilot skills. Should we all be looking at ourselves instead of trying to pawn off blame to someone else for safety shortcomings? Admitting our own mistakes is painful, but it is free. Placing blame costs everyone lots of money.