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Automation is a routine part of our lives now, dictated by sweeping new technologies and consumer preferences. Arguably, the trend toward automation began in aviation in the 1970s. It has been debated and resisted by many in the aviation community, but the game has recently changed for both the airlines and general aviation. Yet, our culture is still firmly grounded in the Lindbergh white scarf era, aided and abetted by a pilot training system with roots traceable to the period just after that epic flight. 

Recently, a growing awareness has come to the fore: Our training regime hasn’t changed to accommodate the new equipment pilots are being forced to use. One individual noticing this include Flight Safety Foundation President Bill Voss.  

“Five years ago we passed the point where automation was there to back up pilots. Clearly, today, the pilot is there to back up the automation,” said Voss at the Corporate Aviation Safety Seminar (CASS) in San Antonio in April 2012.

It isn’t hard to understand why industry experts like Voss are making statements on this dilemma in public forums. It boils down to safety and money.

Situational Awareness

Let’s look at the impact of two high-publicity airline accidents, the Colgan Air 3407 crash in Buffalo, N.Y., on February 12, 2009, and the Air France 447 crash in the equatorial Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009. In both cases, their crews flew the aircraft into a stalled state resulting in a crash. These accidents drew great interest from the aviation community, the FAA and the press. Congress stepped in and legislated a requirement for first officers to have an airline transport pilot certificate, dramatically increasing the amount of flight time needed to get into the right seat. This was in addition to arguments for more good old-fashioned stick-and-rudder skills with greater emphasis on stall recoveries and upset training.

This is all well and good but obscures what, in my humble opinion, is the true root cause of both the Colgan and Air France accidents: a massive but subtle loss of situational awareness (SA) by the flight crews. I will note right now that I consider good SA to be a higher-order pilot skill, rather than a stick-and-rudder skill, and it depends as much on understanding the automation as it does on stick-and-rudder prowess. A stalled condition of both aircraft was perhaps the last event creating the smoking hole in the ground (or water), but it was a loss of SA that precipitated these tragedies.

Furthermore, a fundamental timely adherence to an even more fundamental skill—“pitch plus power equals performance”—would have saved the day for both aircraft. The Colgan crew merely had to add power. The Air France crew needed to reduce the jet’s angle of attack to save the day.

Meanwhile, operators at all levels are becoming increasingly concerned their bottom line will be the next victim of faulty crew performance precipitated by deficient pilot training. Primarily for scheduled operators, increased first officer requirements will drive up costs at about the same time a pending rash of mandatory retirements hits. Crew shortages could develop and/or operators may need to increase starting salaries to ensure attracting qualified candidates. Additional training requirements are one thing, but the airlines are concerned about pilots getting the right training. With all the emphasis on stall recoveries and upset training, they’re probably worried that better automation training will get lost in the shuffle.

It isn’t just the safety implications of automation training that has the airlines worried. They are betting the farm that new flight technologies such as required navigation performance (RNP) will help reduce their fuel costs, and they expect tech-savvy flight crews using the latest automation will be able to harvest these gains. Other technologies that are part of the FAA’s Next Generation Air Traffic System (NextGen), such as automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B), will also figure into this equation.

The problem in the airlines’ view is these technologies and automation in general are poorly covered or not covered in typical ab initio pilot training programs. In my view, their fears are justified.

Safety Vs. Utility

Most of these benefits can be obtained by modest levels of automation, including portable equipment. Each pilot needs to decide what is affordable for his or her own situation. In my own case, I fly a 1980 Beech V35B Bonanza that basically comes with the avionics it was born with, which were state-of-the-art in that year. The exception is that little piece of portable glass affixed to the control yoke. I use this airplane for virtually all my intercity travel for my consulting practice and other business transportation. The portable device increases the “safe-utility” of my operations. That term probably requires some explanation. 

Some people in the general aviation community fear we have used the new technologies solely to expand the utility of our operations and that many pilots push the envelope further, and thus do not achieve a safer operation. These folks cite the Cirrus safety record as proof new technologies haven’t improved safety. Indeed, the Cirrus fatal accident rate is a bit worse than other high-performance general aviation aircraft. It’s also true, however, that many Cirrus owners fly their airplanes on long missions and are in the IFR system, and IMC conditions, a lot more often than most general aviation aircraft. Thus, they may in fact be exchanging their level of safety for expanded utility, as the accident record suggests.

Is it possible to obtain more utility while simultaneously improving safety? Of course it is. One group of Cirrus owners, represented by the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA), claims their members have a safety record three times better than Cirrus owners as a whole. The COPA mantra centers upon training as a way to simultaneously improve safety and utility, and most of this training centers on higher order pilot skills such as risk management and automation management. For example, their Critical Decision Making (CDM) course emphasizes risk management techniques.

GA’s Automation Debate

The simple model I just described is intuitive and should be easy to grasp. Yet, some members of the GA community just don’t get it. Some of them write frequently on this subject (though not often in this publication). In one column, the writer brags about how he shuns all forms of technology and extols the virtue of navigating without radio aids. That’s fine, as far as it goes, since J-3 Cub drivers and the like do this all the time. I understand this, having years ago soloed in a Cub and operated a Cessna 120 all over the Western U.S.—neither of which had radios. I will add this type of flying or flying experience has limited appeal to the new tech-savvy generation that we need to recruit if GA is to sustain itself.

Far more worrisome to me is the columnist who downplays “electric maps” and emphasizes that pilot- age navigation should rule, even in a Cirrus. It’s time for us to recognize that such techniques are reversionary forms of navigation, not primary, in aircraft like the Cirrus and other TAAs. The technology has evolved that much and it’s that good. It’s not free, and many valuable aircraft don’t need it. This “do it the way we’ve always done it” mentality has its advantages: It’s inexpensive, reliable and always available.

But this new-vs.-old debate has been around since low-cost VOR receivers first appeared around 1949; we need to lose the Lindbergh aura and move on. Yes, we need to teach basic navigation concepts like time-speed-distance and teach pilotage as a reversionary form of navigation in most applications. For those who stay in simple aircraft, even those without electrical systems and radios, their transition training should include pilotage as the primary navigation system.

While I’m at it, I’ll assert that the primary mode of operating the Cirrus is on the autopilot, except when landing, taking off and maneuvering in the pattern. Heck, that’s how I operate my Bonanza, except for periodic proficiency to maintain my manual flying skills. I’ll go further and say that an inoperative autopilot is a huge risk factor in any high-performance aircraft. One’s absence requires mitigation, such as higher minimums, shorter trip legs and/or a co-pilot. The other bromide I constantly read is that everybody should “always keep your head out of the cockpit, where it belongs.” Yes, there are times when that’s true (like in the pattern) but it sure won’t help when you’re in solid IMC. The NTSB in a few recent accident reports has scientifically discredited the effectiveness of “see and avoid” in many settings. If you’re flying VFR in the Los Angeles basin when it’s four miles in haze and you are depending totally on see-and-avoid for collision avoidance, you are taking some extraordinary risks. When I have to operate under these conditions, I always use some form of risk mitigation, usually by operating IFR to reduce (but not eliminate) the risk. I’ve recently advanced in priority adding collision avoidance equipment to my Bonanza. However, even this equipment has limitations and may not detect all traffic threats.

This discussion is bound to turn off some readers, but I respectfully urge you to consider what Bill Voss and others are saying indirectly about general aviation when they complain about how we train pilots today. It is time to move on with training reform.

21St Century Skill Sets

To be sure, automation management isn’t the only higher order pilot skill you should be focusing on. Also, don’t despair: Basic physical maneuver-based skills will be crucial for some time to come. Someday this could change, given the progress being made with drones and other technology, but I don’t expect it to happen in an affordable way in my flying lifetime. That said, I have no doubt that the Jetsons will eventually rule.

As for the complete inventory of higher order skills, they collectively come under the title of single pilot resource management (SRM) and include the following elements:

  • Risk management
  • Automation management
  • Task and workload management
  • Situational awareness

Some members of the community also include aeronautical decision making (ADM) as one of these skills. The ADM concepts have been around awhile, but I prefer to think of them as the theoretical origins for actual practical SRM techniques that you can and should be using in all of your flight operations.


Regardless of the type of aircraft you operate, your training and proficiency program and normal flight operations should include a mix of traditional physical flying skills and higher order skills. I recommend the following emphasis areas.

  • Take a risk-management course and use the suggested techniques in all of your flight activities.
  • Know your automation cold. That includes autopilots. You should be familiar with all the procedures and limitations in the owner’s manuals for all of the equipment you have, including portable equipment. Take supplemental equipment-specific on-line training to enhance this knowledge.
  • Alternate your use of automation and manual flying. For example, it’s okay to fly coupled approaches but consider hand-flying every other approach.
  • Even though your airplane may be automatically flying the “magenta line,” you need to stay constantly in the loop. That means being continuously aware of your position and your proximity to weather, special use airspace, terrain and other hazards.
  • During flight reviews and other proficiency events, ask your instructor or training provider to structure the event around a scenario that emphasizes both conventional and higher order pilot skills.

Automation is Staying

The simple fact is that greater—not less—automation is in our future. Pilots who use personal airplanes for transportation and commercial crews will see more and more of it. It allows more efficient operations, better presents critical and advisory flight information and relieves crews of the need to constantly mind the store as well as fatigue.

That last point is important. When automation insulates pilots from the constant need to manipulate the flight controls, we can tend to become disengaged from what the airplane is doing and where it is going. In the Colgan accident, the twin turboprop got too slow due to the captain’s “failure to effectively manage the flight.” Sadly, the pilot's were not fully aware of what was going on in front of them and lost situational awareness.

This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Aviation Safety magazine.

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One of the hardest parts of flying instruments is making the transition from on-the-gauges to visual flight at the missed approach point. Visual and instrument pilots also have difficulty at times landing in the proper touchdown zone because they're too fast or too slow on final. One way to make safe, consistent landings, and to fly to tighter instrument tolerances, is to fly a stabilized approach ... modified for the realities of flying light airplanes.

What's a Stabilized Approach?

We hear the term a lot, but it's not precisely clear what is meant by a "stabilized approach." The strict definition of a stabilized approach is somewhat elusive; most educational materials focus more on what is not "stabilized" than what is. For example, the Flight Safety Foundation's (FSF) Approach and Landing Accident Reduction (ALAR) Briefing Note 7.1 -- Stabilzed Approach(65 KB PDF) nods to the fact that "stabilized" means different things to different operators, saying,

An approach is stabilized only if all the criteria in company standard operating procedures (SOPs) are met before or when reaching the applicable minimum stabilization height.

FSF's Briefing Note calls unstabilized approaches those "conducted either low/slow or high/fast." It provides a recommendation that the airplane be stabilized within 1000 feet of the ground in IMC or 500 agl in VMC. FSF cites unstabilized approaches as being a "causal factor in 66 percent of 76 approach-and-landing accidents and serious incidents worldwide in 1984 through 1997." The airline pilot chat lines -- filled with commentary by pilots whose work evaluations hinge on whether an approach is stabilized -- show that even the pros are confused about what the term means.

A stabilized approach to most pilots means something that looks like the figure at right. The aircraft is put into landing configuration (gear down and flaps set) prior to reaching the let-down point (final approach fix or leaving the traffic pattern altitude), and airspeed is reduced to VREF or some target just above VREF. When time comes to descend, the pilot flying (we're talking primarily large, turbine airplanes here) adjusts attitude and power to establish a descent while maintaining airspeed. The aircraft is flown in this configuration and attitude all the way to touchdown (no wonder airliners often have such "firm" arrivals). Although this technique may be desirable in turbine airplanes, small airplanes don't fly like large, jet transports. And weren't we taught something about a "round-out" and flare that is more appropriate in light aircraft?

A Better Approach

The FAA's Airplane Flying Handbook(AFH) provides this definition of the stabilized approach:

A stabilized approach is one in which the pilot establishes and maintains a constant-angle glidepath towards a predetermined point on the landing runway ... the point on the ground at which, if the airplane maintained a constant glidepath and was not flared for landing, it would strike the ground.

Aha! The AFH is giving us a different concept of what it means to be "stabilized." This is not a criticism of airline operations or the stabilized approach concept -- as we'll see in a moment, it saves lives -- but instead points out that the concept as commonly described does not apply directly to flying light airplanes. AFH's Figure 8-9 (below) shows how an approach may be flown stabilized to the point where the flare begins.

Airplane Flying Handbook Figure 8-9

Why Everyone Talks About Stabilized Approaches

Airline-style or lightplane-appropriate, why does everyone talk about stabilized approaches? The concept evolved to meet these goals:

  • Predicting aircraft performance by using the same technique every time;
  • Increasing situational awareness by allowing the pilot to focus on instrument or outside references, as appropriate to conditions, instead of diverting attention to changing trim, power and configuration settings during final approach;
  • More easily detecting and correcting for glidepath deviations;
  • Increased ability to establish crosswind corrections; and
  • Landing in the touchdown zone at the proper speed to ensure landing performance.

Common accidents where a stabilized approach is notflown include controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), landing short, landing long and running off the far end of the runway, and stalls. Stabilized approaches, especially in heavy, inertia-ridden transport aircraft, save lives. Notice that these causalities are related to distraction and improper airspeed control -- two things a stabilized approach are designed to avoid. The stabilized-approach philosophy in airline operations appears to have saved lives.

Stabilized Approaches In Light Airplanes

So how can we gain the benefits of the stabilized approach concept while flying with the characteristics of light airplanes? First, consider that the goal is to arrive at a known position relative to the touchdown zone while at a known configuration and airspeed. We want to be established in the known configuration and on that known airspeed in time to reach that final, known position where the flare begins. Instrument Approaches: On an instrument approach, fly in a stabilized condition from just inside the final-approach fix (FAF) to the missed-approach point (MAP). You may decide to become stabilized outside the FAF -- the difference is primarily when you'll extend the landing gear in retractable-gear (RG) airplanes. I personally teach extending the gear at the FAF as the means of initiating final descent. So many times pilots forget to extend the landing gear, and if you're conditioned to initiate descent with a power reduction, on the day you forget the landing gear you'll have nothing to directly remind you at this point (in all fairness, almost no gear-up landings happen out of an instrument approach). You may fly a type of airplane that extends gear asymmetrically, with varying drag causing yawing motions when the gear is in transit. In such airplanes, it's probably better to extend the gear outside the FAF to be stabilized for the remainder of the approach. That's OK, too. What's more important is that you remain in a single configuration as you descend down the glidepath until you either break out to land visually or power-up to miss the approach. When "going visual" out of the approach, you'll be in a known configuration at a known speed, as well as a known (from the instrument approach procedure flown) position relative to the runway. If you have enough altitude to transition to a new, stable, visual, approach configuration, that's great. Some pilots like to maintain the configuration used for the approach all the way to landing to minimize pitch and trim changes before beginning the flare. That's fine, and may even be the best way to go if you break out right at minimums. Remember: You'll probably use more runway than in a visual landing if you use this technique. Visual Arrivals and VFR Traffic Patterns:When arriving visually, whether as part of an instrument arrival or by flying a VFR traffic pattern, aim to be stabilized on configuration and final-approach speed within about 400 to 500 feet of the ground. This is the usual height when rolling out onto final approach, unless a control tower directs a wide pattern or a straight-in approach. This is the point where I'll usually extend the last notch of flaps, confirm my gear is down (in RG airplanes), and aim for the "book" final approach speed.

The Ultimate Unstabilized Approach

Many airline pilots and GPS developers will tell you that step-down instrument approaches are patently unsafe. They fly in the face of the stabilized approach concept, because they require a power change and interrupt the constant-angle-of-descent-to-touchdown precept. Historically, airline crews have had difficulty with step-down approaches in the turbine era; the whole idea of GPS WAAS glidepaths is to do away with "dive and drive" approach profiles in the hope this will reduce CFIT accidents in all classes of airplane.

You can still think of the step-down approach as being stabilized, however, in the manner addressed in the Airplane Flying Handbook. The airplane is placed in configuration and on speed prior to reaching the FAF. A fairly big power reduction is necessary to descend to the minimum descent altitude (MDA), and power must be added to level off at MDA. The airplane is still on speed and in configuration, with power being the only variable. At the MAP the pilot must do one of two things: Reduce power, if the runway environment is in sight and a landing can be made using "normal" descent technique; or miss the approach if either of those criteria are not satisfied. However, if arriving visually, the airplane isin a predictable position relative to the runway, while at a predictable airspeed and configuration that allows a stabilized descent from there to the point where the flair begins. Viola! It's not as "unstabilized" as it seems. Even a circling instrument approach should be flown "stabilized" if we define stable as being on speed and configuration to the MAP, and then again within 400 to 500 feet of the ground when on final approach.

Semantics, or Safety?

Are we concentrating too much on a buzzword, or is a stabilized approach -- as defined for lightplane flying -- a better way to go? Flying on speed and configuration from the FAF to the MAP when in IMC makes it far less likely you'll deviate from the approach course or bust altitude. Once going visual -- or if you're making a VFR arrival -- establishing a stable final-approach speed and configuration from when about 400 to 500 feet of the ground until the point you begin your flare makes it far easier to touch down where you want at a speed that permits easily stopping on the runway. If you find you are unstabilized inbound from the FAF or within a few hundred feet of the ground when visual, miss the approach or go around and set up for a stable approach next time. Flying stabilized approaches in all classes of airplane results in smoother, easier, more passenger-friendly flight ... and more importantly, it's safe. Fly safe, and have fun!

Thomas P. Turner's Leading Edge columns are collected here.
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On a swing through Continental Motors’ factory in Mobile this week, I spent a couple of hours touring the company’s new Zulu Flight Training center in nearby Spanish Fort, Alabama. We first reported on Zulu a year ago and my visit coincided with its one-year anniversary.

Zulu, you may recall, juxtaposes an intimate little flight school—simulators only—in an urban store front, the theory being that it will draw would-be pilots who wouldn’t necessarily trot out to the airport. The training, even for the private certificate, is sim heavy, using three Redbird motion machines and a couple of tabletop ATDs. The students learn and practice the maneuvers in the virtual world before trying them in the airplane.

So how’s it working? So far, so good, says Zulu’s general manager, Gloria Liu. We’re not talking huge numbers here, with a client load of under 40 customers in various stages of progess. But if Continental posited that professional customer service and a bright, clean facility will encourage students to stick around, they seem to be on to something. Liu said the retention rate is about 90 percent, which is another way of saying that only one in 10 customers who sign up for a program or a flight lesson of some kind doesn’t come back. Not many conventional flight schools can make the same claim. Continental CEO Rhett Ross says the business is growing sufficiently fast to consider opening centers elsewhere.

While it may seem odd for an engine company to get into front-end flight training, Ross seems to be acting in enlightened self interest. If there aren’t more pilots, Continental isn’t going to be selling many engines, visions of global business strategies not withstanding. As I said of Redbird’s efforts in the same direction, I see these programs as creative, effective ways to get customers in the door, train them and retain them until the training completes. Treating them like actual customers rather than voice-controlled wallets is unique to all of aviation. We’ll just have to see if such business models can be profitable enough to sustain over the long haul.

For a private certificate, Zulu quotes a flat rate of about $8500. That’s competitive with conventional flight schools, so what Zulu is clearly selling is a friendly, fulfilling customer experience that extends from the moment you walk in the door until you leave the airport after a flight lesson. Stipulating that they’re doing that, I’m less worried about what kinds of legs the concept has than I am what comes next, specifically keeping new pilots engaged by making aircraft access affordable. I noticed on the price sheet that Zulu’s airplanes—new, G1000 Cessna 172s—rent for $155 an hour. Surveying around the country a bit, I find that rate is on the low side of competitive. These airplanes rent for as much as $185 in some locations.

That’s a hit for the freshly minted private pilot who might want to fly a modest 50 hours a year in a rental airplane with a glass cockpit. When new pilots see those numbers, I wonder if a little timer goes off in their heads suggesting they can do this flying thing for awhile, but not a very long while. So to me, what’s more important than how well they’re trained or at what cost than how many of them stick around as active pilots for two years, five years or 10 years. That’s the most important retention rate.

We’ve pulped the deceased horse to a red puree on discussing how much the cost of airplanes and fuel affects retention. It’s certainly a factor, although how big a factor, no one really knows. As Zulu (and Redbird) progress in an age when we track everything from your pulse rate to the brand of yogurt you bought at Safeway last week, we ought to have some meaningful data in a few years for this subgroup of new-age pilots who are, after all, the future of aviation.   

If the cost of flying doesn’t at least moderate, they’ll have to be made of stern stuff to stay in the game or, as seems to be increasingly true, be limited to high income earners. There are efforts to arrest the spiraling cost of getting airborne and Continental is involved in two of them: its newly certified TD300 diesel has proven economics and while it may not be cheap to operate, it’s certainly less expensive than a gasoline engine. (I’m basing this on economic analysis of limited experience with the SMA SR305, which served as a technological base for the TD300. )

Second, Continental recently raised TBOs on some of its popular engines by 200 to 400 hours. Of course, Part 91 operators can do that on their own, but having an engine company get behind it is another step in the right direction. In the larger world, we’re told that the revision of FAR Part 23 will reduce certification costs and thus aircraft costs, too. We’ll see how that plays out. Right now, it’s too nebulous to judge.

But the fact that these developments are afoot is encouragement enough to be hopeful.