Generation gap?

September 5, 2013 by Bruce Landsberg

757It was only a matter of time before the generational differences between baby-boomer pilots versus Millennials and Gen X-ers (who comes up with these monikers, anyway?) came up as a potential factor in the recent spate of air carrier accidents.

Martin Rottler, an avowed “avgeek,” and a lecturer at the Ohio State University Center for Aviation Studies in Columbus, Ohio, wrote on AOPA’s new opinion leader blog area:

Are the recent airline accidents a direct result of a lack of stick-and-rudder skills amongst younger pilots? A look at the demographics of the flight crews tells a different story. The two captains in the left and right seat onboard Asiana 214 were 48 and 45 years old, respectively, and the relief crew was 41 and 52 years old. The captain of the UPS aircraft that went down in Birmingham was 58; the first officer was 37. Air France 447’s crew had the youngest first officer (32 years old) amongst these major “automation interaction” accidents; the captain was 58 and the relief first officer onboard the ill-fated flight was 37. Without getting into the training priorities of each airline and nitty-gritty of procedures relating to hand-flying, it would seem that more of our accident-prone problems today stem not from a lack of stick-and-rudder skills of the millennial first officer, but (to borrow a colloquialism) teaching our old dogs new tricks and displays in the cockpit.”

Read his thoughts and then come back here if you’re inclined or just plunge ahead. While Martin makes some good points regarding the button-pushing prowess of younger pilots, he also notes that the airlines’ young new hires have difficulty with basic instrument flying skills. The age statistics cited here are skewed in my warped view because there are relatively few newbies flying big iron internationally. So just on exposure alone, there will be a disproportionate representation of “mature canines.” Are they good stick-and-rudder pilots or do they spend too much time in automation and flight level mode?

Basic flying skill really is timeless, and ageless regardless of machine. The USAF Academy has started their aviation cadets in gliders to teach them the essence of flight. I learned in the essential LSA (J-3Cub) before moving to the “big” airplane, the Cessna 150. That experience has served me well, at least so far. As for new pilots having trouble with basic IFR skills—that’s troubling and, automation or no, does not bode well for the future.

I’d love to see a real double-blind experiment of starting one group of students off in really basic machines to master stick and rudder before moving to glass, versus a glass-only regimen.

Rest assured that the automation issue will be thoroughly discussed, and no matter whether you’re an old dog or a pup there are times when in a dogfight with an aircraft, you’d better prevail.

Too much automation or too many Luddites? Stick and rudder first and then glass or glass all the way? What say you?

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Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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    ATPs or any other pilot need to train to a higher level, this means a higher learning curve cost. The new generation of pilots is confronting the extremes, that is to say, lacks in “stick and rudder” skills and deficiencies in understanding complicated computerized (fly-by-wire) systems management.

    Automation errors, such as in the A330’s AF447 and Asiana 214 flight, or even in light glass deck aircraft, have increased because of ineptitude, fatigue and confusion. Accepting “glass panel” and “fly-by-wire” technology as intuitive and simple to understand is a gross error, and this is what is selling new aircraft and systems. To improve airmanship and safety one needs time and good practice, this means more money, the airlines and GA don’t want to hear it. We are allowing pilots to fly with minimum training. I say, increase “stick and rudder” training first then the “glass”.

  • http://AOPA Jim Borger

    As a 37,000 hour 135 pilot I see good, highly motivated young guys coming into the workplace with the ratings but no actual IFR experience and starting out with all the automation. They put 100% faith in the computers and don’t have a clue how to work without it even though we train in a sim twice a year. We old guys started with steam gauges and hand flying ADF and A-N ranges so we don’t have a problem when things quit working. We’re a little suspicious of all that gee whiz stuff and don’t trust it so we keep a lot closer eye on it than the young guys do.

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