Research Discovery!

March 2, 2011 by Bruce Landsberg

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.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Bridgette Doremire

    Poorly trained pilots are usually the ones that show for a 1.0 BFR, with nothing wrong, they fly perfectly, just ask them. Poor training can stem from a poor instructor, which I’ve seen at all price levels and instructor experience levels, fortunately less frequency as the instructor’s experienced increased. Most likely, though, the poor training comes from a poor attitude, and a deeply embedded desire to do the minimum possible. However, even highly trained pilots can have their hand flying skills deteriorate if they don’t hand fly. Review the FAA’s accident and incident rate for those pilots that have not flown in 30, 60, or 90 or more days, the 90+ rate increases exponentially, which might be an area for the FAA to further focus. Are these 90+ guys a year out of date, six months, or was the Investigating Inspector too busy to inquire further?

    While private pilots were at more risk to show in the 90+ column, I have reviewed both commercial and ATP levels in the incident reports. With the attacks against owning corporate aircraft a few years ago, there are tons of professional pilots out of work. As they lose currency from not working, does their risk level increase as rapidly as a private pilots? On the more experienced professional pilot level, I was honored to observe a sixteen year airline captain perform a near-perfect IPC after having he had been furloughed and not flown for over three years. I had to work hard to find anything that needed improvement.

    Thoughts, anyone?

  • Sam Singer

    Hi Bruce — as you know i am a VFR pilot only with over 1,000 hrs — by the way this does not make me a bad pilot — but both of my planes have auto pilot to GPS and i always hand fly to altitude and hand fly to approach — for me it is just much more fun — at cruise it is usually auto-pilot all the way — have fun guys!

  • Dave

    Bruce, your sarcasm is out of place. There’s obviously a disagreement over the safest way to use automation or there wouldn’t be different teachings on the matter. Resolving that disagreement has to start with research to quantify the actual safety impact. If that confirms what you already suspected you should welcome it, not ridicule it.

    Moreover, it was just a few months ago that Tom Haines wrote that we should stop being so mean to our fellow aviators. Or did you interpret him to mean that others should be less mean to you, not that you should be any less mean to others?