Are you sitting down? There’s breaking news in the world of aviation research. The FAA has discovered that poorly trained pilots are a problem and that if they don’t hand fly enough, their hand flying skills deteriorate! FAA will publish a report later this year that purportedly sees a connection between accidents and inadequate training of pilots.
The head of FAA’s human factors group and a team of HF scientists have studied “Operational use of flight path management systems”. Acknowledging the capability of today’s sophisticated flight management systems, the study examines how successful pilots are at using them and the effect they have on pilot performance. The initial findings were presented at a Flight Safety Foundation safety symposium last fall in Milan, Italy. Boeing, Airbus and one of the pilot unions also apparently noticed that when pilots don’t hand fly enough, the basic motor skills decline. Pretty amazing correlation!
Kidding aside, having flown aircraft with very sophisticated automation and those with none, I have a few observations. The automation is wonderful in easing workload most of the time. Sometimes, however, when the programming outstrips the workload just manually put the aircraft where it’s needed instead of playing with the box. The other critical thought process is the demand-response mentality. Think of the automation as a crew member. When you program the automation to perform a task, verify that what you asked for is what it’s actually doing. For example, don’t give up altitude awareness, just because the box is programmed to level at 2,000 feet. Actually watch that it does level and the altitude hold actually is holding – What a concept!
On long trips the A/P is a wonderful friend and greatly reduces fatigue. But “Gear up, autopilot on” to “Runway in sight, autopilot off” takes the human so much out of the loop that those hard acquired flying muscles naturally atrophy. Why FAA needs to have a full-blown study on such a topic is perplexing. It sounds as if industry had already figured this out and not on the taxpayer’s nickel.
My regimen for staying somewhat aeronautically in shape is to periodically hand fly the departure to altitude and likewise, the descent and full approach. There’s not much useful practice in the enroute phase. Should we periodically practice missed approaches, stalls and VFR go-arounds ? Rhetorical question.
Perhaps the next study should review if pilots make more mistakes flying approaches when fatigued. I’ll be bold in predicting the outcome of that one.