Maybe Man Wasn't Meant to Fly

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

Remember the movie, Wall-E, a Pixar animated tale whose subtext was that technology eventually evolved to be so all enveloping that humans were reduced to quivering mounds of fat conveyed in bins attached to a mechanical belt? If that future awaits us all, are airline pilots leading the way?

In the midst of its investigation into last summerís Asiana crash at San Francisco, the NTSB has once again raised concerns about airline pilots relying on automation to the extent that their hand flying skills diminish. If this is true, I think itís been going on for a number of years but maybe weíre just now reaching some sort of critical mass. Whatever the case, itís alarming to me to hear anyone supposedly qualified to sit on the flight deck of an international 777 say heís really uncomfortable hand flying a visual approach. The only rational response to that is: seriously?

In general aviation, we have a related problem, but it may be due to too little automation rather than not enough. Bluntly, some people just fall apart at the man-machine interface and simply lose control of the airplane. And Iím not talking about, say, skidding off a slick runway or botching a crosswind touchdown. Weíve all done that. Iím talking about flat out losing control of a perfectly functioning airplane on a clear, VFR day and driving it into a smoking hole. Or losing it on landing and taking an excursion through a line of parked aircraft before coming to rest in someone elseís hangar, co-habitating uninvited with the current resident.

This sort of thing isnít rare. In fact, it happens every week, if not every day, in some form. Just the ground chaos is enough to fear for the future of civilization. Every time I go to the airport, it seems, something else has happened. Last winter if was the runaway Malibu that sheared off its legs in a ditch after the owner decided it would be okay to prop it with the throttle open, the mags on and no chocks. The other day, Iím told, a pilot lost control of a golf cartóyes, a golf cartóand ran into the wing of a turboprop. And we havenít even gotten to the flying part yet.

Not that Iím claiming any immunity. While Iíve never lost control of an airplane seriously enough to bend metal, there was that incident with my truck on the way to the airport to fly an early a.m. charter. I needed gas and the pump was situated on the wrong side of the nozzle, so I backed into the slot, not seeing one of those big heavy steel bumpers they bury in 30 tons of concrete to protect the pumps againstÖ people like me. I backed into† it unseen and smashed the left tail light. I pulled forward to get a better position and hit one on the other side, smashing the right tail light. This was being observed by the kindly Indian owner of the store who I suspect was soon online booking one way tickets back to New Delhi. When I got to the airport, the line boy asked if I was aware that both my tail lights were broken. Yes, I was, but thanks for asking.

But back to the airplanes. In general aviation, loss of control is by far the most common causeóor perhaps resultóof GA accidents. The Society of Aviation and Flight Educators recently sent me a link to a resource page devoted to educating pilots about loss of control with suggestions about what they might do about it.†While Iím all for education and awareness and parting the curtains of ignorance, Iím doubtful that weíre going to move the needle on this in any noticeable way.

First of all, this problem has been with us forever, even during periods when pilots were averaging more than 100 flight hours a year. Now that weíre averaging half that, how can we rationally expect to do any better? While SAFE is doing good stuff, Iím not sure the will is there in the pilot community to do the training and currency necessary to build the skill base. And I definitely think itís skill deficiency. Some pilots will run into stuff no matter how much you train them; theyíre just inept with machines.

But I suspect most of us are inept only in certain circumstances and increased awareness and more practiceóyou know, actually flyingówould reduce the odds of catatonia in the cockpit when the slightest novel situation arises, say the airplane veers a little left when the power is applied or that noisy damn gear horn makes it so hard to think.†

The automation part is interesting. I think itís different for GA pilots than for airline pilots. GA pilots tend to lard the cockpit up with more digital stimuli than they could possibly ever need and so the problem may be distraction. The airlines have achieved a remarkable safety record partly because relying on automation can reduce errors like busting altitudes or wandering off headings. And we all know a coupled approach will almost always be more precise and safer than a hand flown one, which is why airline training emphasizes the automation. The NTSB questions whether thatís gone a beat too far.

A couple of weeks ago I reported on the research done by Carolina Anderson at Embry Riddle that revealed some interesting points in the accident scatter plot.†She concluded that older aircraft certified under CAR 3 are overrepresented in loss-of-control accidents, quite possibly because the FAA has made it too difficult and expensive to install autopilots in those airplanes. In other words, regulation has retrograded safety. I donít doubt the theory. As explained in our previous coverage, the ongoing revision of FAR Part 23 is supposed to make it easier to install avionics in general and autopilots specifically in older aircraft. If that eventually leads to installations of Garminís new line of experimental autopilots in certified airplanes, that might represent meaningful progress against loss of control by GA pilots. But it may be years before we can measure the results.

In the meantime, my strategy is two fold: Iím flying as much as I can with an emphasis on landing skills and I always use a guideman when backing my truck for fueling. It seems only prudent.

Join the conversation. †Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (21)

Paul, lot's of complex interaction going on here as well as a dichotomy in philosophy. In my role as an instructor at a 142 school the mantra in the new generation of fly by wire business jets (Falcon 7X, Gulfstream 650) is "don't touch anything pilot. The computer knows better than you." In contrast the traditional round dial aircraft lack advanced automation. It seems the "middle class" is non-existent. Pilots are no longer taught (or maybe never were) to balance automation with flying skills to maintain or regain situational awareness and aircraft control. In many cases the automation is a crutch that masks poor or degraded flying skills.

Posted by: Shannon Forrest | December 29, 2013 10:54 AM    Report this comment

As long as pilots fly, pilots will crash. But any "pilot" who is "very concerned" about hand-flying a daylight visual approach in excellent weather has no business being in the cockpit - as long as anyone other than the pilot and his/her instructor is on board.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | December 29, 2013 1:03 PM    Report this comment

It would be interesting to learn what changes if any the airline has made to its recurrent training standards as a result of this accident.

Posted by: Seth Blumenthal | December 29, 2013 3:00 PM    Report this comment

I agree with Paul and the above comments. I can even see where having automation in the form of technologies such as a Cirrus ESP type system, stick shakers and, stick pushers can reduce LOC accidents for the GA pilot. However, there needs to be a balance between automation in the form of sophisticated autopilots and basic flying skills. Pilots, especially future jet drivers are trained how to manually fly the airplane first, but the disconnect seems to be introducing automated systems and big screens without the right training, rules, or common sense on how/when it is appropriate to use it. This makes us too reliant on the machine to do things and we become essentially airborne computer monitors (this could be a problem when things go wrong and the automation isn't there to help anymore). Example, at the 141 flight school at my university I know friends that fly entire checkrides in Cherokees with the autopilot on, also some fly VFR looking at the big screens for 16 seconds and outside only 4 seconds. Think that they will be flying the CRJ you're on in 3-4 years. And as stated above, the notion that "the computer does it better than you" becomes a crutch, and over time will lead to diminished flying skills which will eventually cause more airliners to fall out of the sky due to pilot error. This automation in aviation is an interesting discussion topic because it has the power to save lives, but can take them as well.

Posted by: Joshua Waters | December 29, 2013 3:21 PM    Report this comment

The too much/too little automation question seems the like the tip of an iceberg of issues all related to the more general question of currency. From the realm of be-careful-what-you-wish-for, I almost think it's time to make recurrent training part of what safe pilots do as a matter of course. If the best insurance rates were tied, by statute, to accomplishing periodic 6-month flight reviews (maybe something like the WINGS program, maybe something new), I think there would be a positive impact on the accident rates, especially as they relate to the sorts of errors you are referring to.

Why would the effect be any better than the current requirement of every 2 years? Have you ever talked to (...or been...) someone who's just completed one of those reviews? For those individuals who are rusty enough to need it, the experience seems like one of those college tests that you just eek through. I think recurrent training ought to be more routine, more expected and less (for lack of a better word) "suspenseful". To take a line from the PTS: the outcome of the flight must never be in doubt.

Periodic review with a competent instructor needs to be more like a gym workout, and less like a final exam.

Posted by: ANTHONY NASR | December 29, 2013 4:29 PM    Report this comment

Maybe they should start off with aerobatic stall/spin training.

Posted by: Matthew Lee | December 29, 2013 8:24 PM    Report this comment

If you haven't seen it, go on youtube and search for "Automation Dependency". It is a 1997 lecture at the American Airlines Flight Academy. In 1996, an AA plane flew into a mountain in South America because the wrong fix was entered into the computer. This lecture is even more relevant today. The video is about 20 minutes long and well worth it.

Posted by: Charles Haubrich | December 30, 2013 6:29 AM    Report this comment

The video is sometimes referred to as "Children of the Magenta Line". One of Van's (the instructor) observations is that pilots have become dependent on the magenta (future aircraft state) indicator to fly. Another is that pilots diagnose themselves out of a problem rather than assume immediate control and correct the undesired state manually. The video was also used for Crew Resource Management training for KC135 pilots and boom operators at Altus, AFB. As you state the material is still relevant.

Posted by: Shannon Forrest | December 30, 2013 7:17 AM    Report this comment

If you cannot pass an IPC using partial panel, something is lacking. That demands a real connection between pilot and aircraft. My CFII had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of instrument covers. We would hardly be moving when she would slap those things all over the place. Over half of my instrument training time was partial panel, and involved everything including holding, unusual attitudes, and approaches.

As for the Asiana flight the rules of Power, Pitch, Performance along with attention to the apparently stationary spot on the runway would have gone a long way to preventing that disaster in a VFR approach. Basic stuff. Surely it works in heavy aircraft, if a bit more ponderously. The unknown in this case was the cultural effect that inhibited offers of help from lower-ranked others on the flight deck. Korean Airlines finally did something about that several years ago.

It could be that we need to separate the basic (un-automated, steam-gauge like training) from that with the EFIS displays and other automation. Possibly they should be separate ratings/endorsements, with the classic requirements being a pre-requisite. Every avionics manufacturer has their own idea as to which knob does what. That does not help either.

Before anyone jumps on me, full disclosure: I'm from another era, and yes there are aircraft that might be, or are not controllable without automation, but that does not take away the possibility of a re-think for those of us flying the rest.

Posted by: David MacRae | December 30, 2013 12:20 PM    Report this comment

All pilots - and in particular - all part 121 and 135 pilots, absolutely must be able to hand fly any aircraft they are rated and/or typed in during all phases of operation (T/O. landing, VFR, IFR, etc). Period.

The commercial operators need to expand the training regimen to ensure their people are proficient, and maintain proficiency, in this regard. How the industry has come to this is simply astounding. Technomyopia!

Posted by: Michael Pastore | December 30, 2013 1:01 PM    Report this comment

There's no doubt that automation makes flying safer, it's just not clear that it makes pilots safer. Carriers and charter operators have the wherewithal to insist that pilots are proficient at hand-flying under any conditions, and it makes sense that they do so.

On the non-professional side of aviation, side we're at the point where, sadly, proficiency is the moral relativism of aviation -- there are more pilots who think they are sharp than in fact are sharp. Give them moving maps, et cetera, and you're lucky if you can get them to look out the window, let alone fly the airplane.

Six month re-currency training in all aspects of flight is not a bad idea.Perhaps insurance companies are in the best position to lead the way on this. Yes, it will cost money, but I am confident there are plenty of well-meaning aircraft owners and renters who with a slight push will respond well to a re-currency mandate.

No doubt there are many non-professional pilots who, like Paul Bertorelli, have committed themselves to perfection of technique, and some of them will resent a check-ride every six months. I'm open to suggestions, but I'm not sure there's a workaround if we're determined to increase flight safety throughout the ranks of non-professional pilots.

Posted by: Jerry Fraser | December 30, 2013 3:54 PM    Report this comment

Airline pilots don't "fly" airplanes. Automation has turned airline pilots into poorly paid passengers.
GA is a prefiatdollar extravagance. I googled it.
20 years ago, the minimum wave was $3.35. Avgas was $1.25. A 37% ratio.
Today, the federal min wage is $7.25 and avgas is $5.85 .. an 81% ratio.
Numbers are much worse adjusted for inflation.
Staying proficient is going to be a moot point for the GA pilot when there are none.
The way I see it, the baby boomers are getting on in age and saving for retirement will be far more important than burning $5.85 avgas in the coming few years. When they give up flying in 10 years or so, I think the average number of hours flown per year will drop off a cliff. This will be a bad thing for GA, as there will be very few pilots left to defend against out of control FAA bureaucrats. The only thing free to fly will be Amazon drones and corporate jets. America's ultimate expression of freedom will be dead forever.
Happy new year.

Posted by: Andre Abreu | December 30, 2013 10:05 PM    Report this comment

Interesting discussion on the "hour cliff." A few years ago I was a member of a two aircraft flying club and one of the club instructors. When members approached me requesting a BFR I was shocked to see time flown in the last year averaged around 15 hours. Outside of the club, numbers were quite low as well. I typically see 35-50 hours in 12 months. In a glass cockpit airplane the "Direct to" button is worn out. When asked to tune in the VOR and join a radial or load an airway on an instrument proficiency flight, many pilots have trouble remembering it (use it or lose it).

Posted by: Shannon Forrest | December 31, 2013 7:08 AM    Report this comment

After reading and taking part in question of the week it seems 76% of readers see GA in for a rough ride and may not be able to survive much longer. What a shame. Just hope the authorities do not destroy GA completely through regulations and driving cost beyond the pockets of those wishing to fly. Started my flying by washing aircrafts for short flights and sometime the occasional "take the joystick" and do a take off or landing.
GA has and will always be behind the airlines. No way does anyone have the deep pockets that cooperates have.
Where would the airline cooperates be without GA - how will they choose the next generation of pilots if there is no GA. Maybe and hopefully the winds of change happen faster than expected.

Go punch a hole in the sky and love every second of it.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | December 31, 2013 7:22 AM    Report this comment

Maybe the "answer" lies in the two "incidents" of Jan 15th, 2009 and Feb 2, only 17 days later? When all went to --it in the Airbus 320, the Captain, reverted back to what was taught him in an earlier time - fly (hand) the airplane"! - ALL survived! And the poor soles in the cockpit of the Dash 8 - "what's happening here?" And sadly, ALL perished. MORAL OF THE STORY: Your either ahead of it or behind it!

Posted by: Rod Beck | December 31, 2013 3:39 PM    Report this comment

Nit picking, U referred to somebody at the airport as a "line boy". I have been blogging for years about the loss of "hand flying" skills by Airline pilots causing accidents, usually serious and killing all on board. Those at SFO got lucky. Some have derided me for my opinion. I am happy for your breath of fresh air. I require "needle, ball and airspeed" demo as well as hand flying, both with goggles on my flight reviews. (Old BFR). Dr. Jim.

Posted by: James Hodges | January 1, 2014 7:29 AM    Report this comment

Nit picking, U referred to somebody at the airport as a "line boy". I have been blogging for years about the loss of "hand flying" skills by Airline pilots causing accidents, usually serious and killing all on board. Those at SFO got lucky. Some have derided me for my opinion. I am happy for your breath of fresh air. I require "needle, ball and airspeed" demo as well as hand flying, both with goggles on my flight reviews. (Old BFR). Dr. Jim.

Posted by: James Hodges | January 1, 2014 7:29 AM    Report this comment

My super smart iPad thinks it is smarter than I an. Probably is. Anyway it replaced FOGGLES, with GOGGLES. Misteaks by computers, not caught, while flying, or even on the ground can kill. It all to frequently changes the id when I ask for ex. It just subed ex for ex. And again!!! Ain't confusers wonnerfull. Dr. Jim.

Posted by: James Hodges | January 1, 2014 7:43 AM    Report this comment

My primary flight instructor turned off the GPS for the first 15-20 hours of my flight training. I was taught
to use the basic 6 pack first before even seeing the GPS screen. Of the 3 aircraft I fly regularly, only 2
have even a wing leveler. So almost all of my flight hours are hand flown. I do enjoy flying other aircraft
with autopilots but still most of my enjoyment is hand flying. Sad to say that is not the way flying is going
any longer.

Posted by: Ric Lee | January 1, 2014 11:11 AM    Report this comment

I wish I could say I haven't bent airplane metal, but I have, once. My fault, had nothing to do with automation. But that particular airplane taught me not to trust automation on a different occasion. It was equipped with the most sophisticated automation available at the time, a King flight director/HSI/autopilot which theoretically could do coupled approaches as well as or better than I could. I had become accustomed to setting it and forgetting it, letting it capture altitude and heading and navigating, while I "carefully watched". I was motoring along in eastern Wyoming at night, "carefully watching" but really being complacent--a beautiful, starry, smooth as silk night will do that. Suddenly without any input from me, Otto commanded a hard right turn, and before I could react to shut it off, I'd lost some altitude and was heading way off course, enough that Denver Center called to ask if everything was OK. A trip to the avionics shop a week later showed no anomalies, at all--no explanation for what happened.

Since that time, I've flown that and other airplanes with autopilots, but I've consciously chosen not to use them except for the brief moments in which I needed a 3rd hand. I may not fly with the precision of a good autopilot, but it's hard for me to get complacent when I'm hand-flying.

Therein lies the issue. If humans don't do but instead watch others do, whether the "others" are humans or mechanical/electronic beasts, they soon lose the ability to do, themselves. That's why any good instructor, even if he/she instructs 8 hours a day, will also take the controls and do some of what the student is being taught to do--not just to show the student, but to stay proficient him/herself.

Automation which leads to complacency and degradation of fundamental skills has to be reined in somehow. Whether it's in airliners or sophisticated GA airplanes, part of the PTS and recurrent training must focus on what happens if the automation fails--and the pilot must be required to satisfactorily respond, not by pushing buttons or fixing it on the fly, but by taking over and flying the airplane. Instead of the scenario being reversion to partial panel when the gauges belly up or to the backups when the glass goes dark, the scenario needs to be "you've lost your automation--now what?"


Posted by: Cary Alburn | January 1, 2014 12:36 PM    Report this comment

Well stated and articulate commit! A few years ago, I was in a CFI renewal class and the fellow teaching it was a furloughed "commuter" pilot; not sure of the line he was with.
He began a "scenario' of a problem as if we (the class) here at 38K and had a "problem" I quickly yelled out; "THATS BULLSHIT - suddenly the room went silent - until a few of the "older" guys knew just what I was referring to. The instructor soon realized that he was talking to GA (piston) CFI's; not RJ captains/first officers! You don't go looking for the "answer" as to WHAT to do (POH - page 47) when your in the right seat of a C-172 and at 200 ft AGL and loss ALL power just past the departure end of the runway you've just taken off from - FLY the ----kin plane!

WHAT constitutes the order of "emergency" procedure(s)?
FIRST OFF: Treat the failure as if your NOT going to be able to correct if before ground contact; Another words, prepare for the WORST CASE SCENARIO by finding (immediately) a "place" on the ground (or water -see Airbus event of Jan 15th, 2009) with minimum loss of life and limb to all occupants of the aircraft.

1. Altitude (AGL) and area (ground) congestion The lower you are, the LESS distraction from "flying the airplane". 2.Urgency (critical ) fire (actual/smell of), rapid loss power/partial control or fuel, etc
2. Crew (number) on board i.e. first office/co-pilot can assist in solving/diagnosis problem
3. Concentrate and focus ALL the skill you have on maintaining control (as best you can) of the airplane and pray for a positive outcome!

Posted by: Rod Beck | January 1, 2014 11:45 PM    Report this comment

Add your comments

Log In

You must be logged in to comment

Forgot password?


Enter your information below to begin your FREE registration