Today’s Pilots? Gone to Hell in a Handbasket?

March 18, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg


Had an interview the other day with another writer who’s putting together a piece regarding some of the problems of professional pilots. The premise is that many have lost that lovin’ feeling when it comes to actually flying the aircraft. The automation pretty much does it all.

There are some cultural things happening. How many of us drive cars with automatic transmissions these days? They are much easier and often more durable.  Do you use a tax prep programs to navigate the horrendously complex tax code or do you tough it out on paper? Who uses calculators? Cromagnon man was in much better physical condition than any one of us according to anthropologists but could he save money on car insurance?

It’s a good topic and got me to thinking.  In jets the autopilot flies the machine most of the time. In today’s high workload cockpits in light aircraft flying without the AP has become an abnormal procedure.

To be sure, the automation is more precise and consistent – assuming it’s programmed well but what about our hand flying skills? I’ll voice three inconsistent thoughts and you can chime in.

1. I think primary flight training, even if you’re ultimately going to fly the Boeing or the Bus, should focus on physical flying skills. Learn crosswinds, learn trim and in IFR training, be able to hand fly an approach. Perhaps too much glass is being introduced too early.

2. Even though many of us walked to school in two feet of snow uphill, both ways, we need to adapt to the times and so there’s a balance. Automation is improving our capacity to handle basic flying tasks while improving situational awareness. Altitude preselect and nav tracking  is extremely handy for single pilot operation.

3. I exercise by handing flying departures and arrivals, when  not too busy, and to hand fly approaches regularly but am not the least reluctant when feeling fatigued or mentally slammed to let George do the honors.


Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Scott

    It’s funny you posted this. I have always thought of my self as a competent pilot, I have never flown a plane with Auto Pilot or a glass cockpit. Recently, I began working on a tail wheel endorsement and have discovered I’m not as good as I thought I was.

    I fly out of Deland Florida an uncontrolled field near Daytona Beach and Embery Riddle University. Embery’s pilot’s not only enjoy reduced minimums through there experimental programs; some of there pilots are reaching CFI, CFII, MEI within 150-200 Hours TT. The few hours they fly are in brand new glass cockpits most never seeing round eye dials except in pictures.

    I really feel like the pilots today are losing not only there adventure, but also there stick and rudder skills not to mention there decision making ability. To illustrate this I will relate a story my tail wheel instructor told me a few days ago.

    He was flying a 46 Champ out of Deland on a calm mourning the winds were reported calm on the ATIS.

    In Deland they get a lot of flight training so in the AFD and on there ATIS broadcast is very clearly states that if there are low winds to use runway 5 for noise restrictions.

    As he taxied to runway 5 a riddle plane began to enter runway 23. My instructor asked them why they were going to 23 when the winds were calm, and reminded them that we are suppose to use 5. There response was “Do you have a G1000 in that THING? Cause we do and there is a slight wind favoring 23.”

    Glass cockpits are a wonderful thing for safety of both new and old pilots however today’s puppy mill pilots are beginning to obey the systems and not think about what’s going on.

    So next time you see one of us young guys do something stupid call them up and ask them if they have a G1000…

  • Peter Row

    It is an interesting balance. Recently, I moved up to a Beech Baron – this is the first plane I have flown which has an autopilot. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had always considered flying on autopilot “cheating” – i.e. if you’re not flying the plane, why are you logging the time?

    Having recently come up-to-speed on the autopilot, I enjoy using it, and think it enhances safety. One of the times I especially like it is that period when I have to unfold and then refold my maps. Before autopilot, I carefully trimmed the airplane and re-checked the attitude and altitude between each fold. Usually some corrections were required by the end of folding. With the higher speeds of the Baron, those corrections are naturally bigger. The autopilot keeps the flight safe and on-target throughout that process, or any other attention dividing or high workload process, such as reprogramming the GPS for a new routing.

    I think that another good use of the autopilot is to give the single pilot a break on long flights. This allows you to arrive fresh for the high-workload environment of the landing. Four to five hours in IMC hand flying the airplane can be tiring, and that fatigue might compromise the approach. A little rest can be a good thing.

    That said, I still fly the airplane by hand most of the time, because George may have a heart attack some day, and I’ll have to do it all myself.

  • Pat

    Autopilots are a wonderful thing. Like all of the technology we have as pilots the question is how to best incorporate this into our training. I think this issue is a symptom of the current training enviroment ,where too many flight schools and instructors, try to make the student fit the ‘mold’ of the training curriculum instead of the other way around.
    The first question a flight school or instructor should ask themselvess is “Why is this student learning to fly?” If its a student with ‘career’ pilot aspirations then the autopilot doesn’t get turned on until much later in the training curriculum. If the student is a business owner who has realized the value of using general aviation in their business, and is getting ready to step into a new high performance or turbine aircraft for the business, the the training curriculum should incoroporate the technology earlier in the training.
    It should be about ‘molding’ the training curriculum around the students goals, instead of trying to make the students goals fit into the curriculum currently in use.

  • Jennifer Christiano

    I have nothing terribly against automation and glass – they are useful- but I do resent the swaggering attitudes of many of the pilots who are now GPS and glass-dependent. I learned on the dials, and thank Heaven! Yes it was scary, and difficult, because I was “directionally challenged” in a substantial way until late in my instrument training. However, if I hadn’t been forced to understand the OBS and ADF indicators (ie, if I had had the “blessing” of flying GPS from the get-go), I probably would never have really learned how to mentally position and track myself and other objects in three dimensions. That’s a skill that has come in handy in many facets of my life, not just flying. Likewise, if I had had the “benefit” of GPS convenience when learning navigation, I would never have become comfortable with the basic skills of interpreting a map, flying the trip in my head, then tracking my position by looking out the window (anybody do that any more?) and reading my watch. In short, high technology would have made me a less safe, less skilled, and less confident pilot. I would also be less competent as a person, because the lessons learned in acquiring the basic processes translate far beyond the cockpit.
    I got into flying to be challenged. I wanted to find out what I could do, NOT what the A/C could do FOR me! If I want to push buttons, I can do so safely (and with liitle excitement) from a flight simulator on my computer. Not to say that there is no benefit in modern electronic systems – there is! – but in typical fashion, we tend to think that if a teaspoon of something is good, a bucket of it must be better. I don’t think this is necessarily the case. When we are being introduced to new technologies, because we are initially allowed to discuss only their benefits, and not their inevitable downsides, we get “surprised” when entirely predictable problems, such as a deterioration of common sense among the growing segment of pilots who look for ease instead of self-development, start rearing their ugly heads. We create crises by always pushing what’s new as “better”, without asking what we will be shoving aside that worked.
    In the end, I’m OK with AP and glass, but only as long as they are used properly as supplements to hand-flying, not as replacements for hard training in the basics. Students who care more about technology than technique, or ease over mental growth, should be weeded out of the population as dangers to the rest of us, in my opinion.
    As for myself, I’ll probably remain a proud hand-flyer for the rest of my days. I don’t eschew new conveniences, but I’ll rely first on the basics because using them makes me both a better pilot and a more competent person in general. GPS, AP and glass will all come and go, but the fundamentals had better never become obsolete, or aviation will become just another dumbed-down, throw-away activity made safe for “everyman”, and no longer of value for those seeking something beyond easy amusement.

  • Cary Alburn

    I learned some 37 years ago in very basic 150s at an Air Force aero club–being “equipped” meant a single navcom and in some of them a transponder. For many years, I either owned (with partners) or had access to much more sophisticated singles, including the most over-equipped Mooney 231 one could imagine and a T210 with almost as many bells and whistles. All this was pre-glass, of course. Both the 231 and the T210 had 3 axis autopilots with altitude hold/capture and could fly any ILS with ease.

    But on one occasion, the Mooney’s autopilot glitched in night cruise flight and suddenly commanded a hard over right turn, during which I lost about 1000′ before I reacted–admittedly a bit slow on the draw. That was the last time I complacently cruised while Otto flew. From then on, except when I needed to fold a chart or make some notes, I flew.

    Now I fly a very much modified P172D–which Cessna called a “Skyhawk Powermatic”, converted to a 180hp Lycoming. It has enough panel doodads that I can legally and safely fly in the system, and I do (or at least, I will as soon as the FAA decides I am again medically fit to fly). It lacks a panel GPS, but otherwise it can handle most more traditional approaches including NDB, and so can I. It also can get into and out of backcountry airstrips, which a good many G1000/Avidyne glass panel hotrods can’t. And it has no autopilot.

    The longest flight I’ve ever flown in one day was to Killeen TX from Ft. Collins, CO and back, nearly 12 hours in the air–in the P172D on an Angel Flight HSEATS mission. I was tired, but it’s not the horrific situation that those who rely constantly on their autopilots believe, nor did I have to fly more than a very few miles out of the way due to no IFR GPS.

    I’m a firm believer that autopilots and glass do not add to the safety of flight, if the pilot cannot otherwise fly the plane. The size of the wallet, and the impressiveness of the panel, are not the proper judging criteria nor a rational substitute for the skill of the pilot. I may not be the very best pilot around, but I know that I can fly safely with no panel at all (VFR, obviously), because I’ve done it. I know that I can fly safely without an autopilot and with a legal but relatively basic panel all over the US, IMC and VMC, because I’ve done it. And all pilots should be required to have the skills to do that, also, with or without excessive bells and whistles.


  • Rob

    There will always be two camps of pilots out there, on EVERYTHING! LOP ops, autopilot, GPS vs. VOR/ADF/RMI, realworld flightplanning, the whiz wheel. Opinions are many, but thought out arguments are few! I am on the front line of aviation, I teach out of TAA and old busted joints alike. I am the guy who teaches you to be safe, I am also the guy you see every couple of years to discover all the rust you didnt think you have accumulated since the last flight review. Allow me to make an observation. Forget your preconceived notions, your what ifs, your examples of technology gone wrong as a means of why the old way is better. GPS is a great tool. My students know how it works and how to use it. They also know how work the autopilot. They can do things with a G1000 that would boggle your minds. They can also look at a chart, and divert by pilotage. They can find their way using dead reckoning. If those things dont work, they know how to use radio navigation including the RMI feature on the G1000 HSI while tracking VOR 1. When the system completely fails and all that is left is paper and a whiz wheel they soldier on like any great pilot. When I send them out for their XC I dont worry about much, because they are better equipped to find their way than old pilots with steam guages, and they are using pilotage and dead reckoning while doing it! ALL while actually touching the yoke and throttle. Does that make them better? No! It just makes them better equipped. My current student, after departing KOCF southbound was told that his engine was running rough on our night xc. I told him that KOCF had been closed because of an aircraft accident and that we could not go back. While all the wizbangs and gadgetry was available to him, he looked at his map and we diverted. When I simulated the failure of that engine 4 – 5 miles away, he did not use auto pilot. We landed at night on the active which was considerably smaller than what he is used to. His performance was that of many of who will read this or better than in some cases. He could have and would have done the same thing in an old skyhawk instead of the new one.. He has less than twenty hours tt. Technology didnt allow him to do this, training skill and ADM did. Todays technology is there for a reason. When things go wrong we can use it to help us make the right decisions. For every theoretical situation you can come up with making it seem as if a pilot had been trained in steam guage instead of NAV 3 airplanes he would be better off, I can show you a stack of NTSB reports that technology could have prevented. Very few pilots are dependant on autopilots or gps systems, they all can use stone age techniques when they are needed. They can hand fly an approach just like other pilots of less equipped aircraft, even if their AP has done it the past four times. They can all take a look at the map and figure out where they are, just like any other pilot if they so choose. The difference is that they have a wealth of information available to them to help them out. Does this make them better than you, no? They just fly with more situational awareness. Mulittasking is made a little easier with the AP. Fuel awareness is second nature, as is leaning the engine properly. If you stick these people in a tailwheel aircraft, their rudder usage or misusage will be the same as a barebones cockpit pilot. Opionions are opinions, and facts are facts. These people learn the same things, that the previous generations of pilots learned. They perform to the same level as previous generations of pilots had to perform at. I can say this with certainty. I have trained students, IFR pilots, commercial pilots. I train them in both NAV 3 airplanes, as well as NAV 2 and barebones aircraft. I dont make better pilots in barebones cockpits, I make the same quality pilots, the only difference is the information available to them. What you fly doesnt have any bearing on how you fly.

  • Chris O’Callaghan

    Perhaps I can act as a test subject. I’ve logged nearly 7,000 hours of hand flying. In fact, I’ve only flown in two GA airplanes with autopilots, once in the right seat and once in the back. However, I’ve decided an instrument rating is in my future, which means I’ll need to adapt.

    Yeah, I can fly. I can’t think of an attitude I’d call unusual. And I often fly in conditiions that might quickly outpace all but the very best autopilots. But my challenge will be to keep my head in the cockpit long enough at any one time to manage all that expensive hardware. I’m habituated to looking out, even if the view is occasionally scary.

    I’ll report back.

  • Jim Goudy

    When I read about mid-air collisions, the first thought that goes through my mind is “Was one of the airplanes on auto pilot?” It seems to me that the AP would be a good distraction to put the head down (i.e. on radios, gps, etc) and not out the window. When I am within 10 miles of the pattern, my assumption is that the other guy is on auto pilot with his head in the cockpit – which makes me very diligent in “see and avoid”.

  • Bradley Spatz

    I too learned IFR in an older round gauge aircraft with 2 VOR and 1 ADF. Now I fly a 182S with IFR GPS, moving map, and KAP140 (2 axis with Alt preselect). The AP is great for longer trips, folding maps, or single-pilot low IMC days when you’re really looking outside more to find that runway environment.

    The GPS/AP capability is substantial to me but it takes more time to learn and stay proficient. I’ve tended to focus on the hand-flying skills for departure and approach — attitude instrument work. But I find now I must balance my practice with using the AP as well. That’s difficult because it seems like twice the amount of practice.

    But I firmly believe I’m better off practicing both the hand-flying and AP-centric skills. Heck, I love my HP calculator but I try some long division by hand once in a while too.