News Flash: Stick & Rudder Skills Are Important

September 11th, 2013 by Ron Rapp

AVweb’s Glenn Pew interviewed Embry-Riddle professor and former Northwest captain Jack Panosian in a podcast entitled “Avionics — Good Pilots Not Required?”.  It’s an inflammatory title, no doubt to encourage people to dive for that “play” button.  Obviously it worked, because I listened to the whole thing.

Panosian has an impressive resume:  20 years at Northwest, 5 years at ERAU, and he’s got a Juris Doctorate as well.  Nevertheless, while I agreed with some of what he said, certain portions of his thesis seem way off base.

I’ll summarize his points:

    • automation used to monitor human pilots, but today it’s the other way around: we are monitoring the computers these days, and we’re not very good at it
    • computers are good monitors, they do it the same way every time, with the same level of diligence
    • stick & rudder skills are less important than avionics management skill and we need to teach with that in mind

The first two points may be correct (I’ll get to the third one later), but computers don’t “monitor”, they simply execute programming.  There’s a big difference there. It’s true that when people monitor the same thing over and over again, we cannot maintain the same vigilance ad nauseum. But when humans monitor something, they’re capable of doing so with thoughtful and reasoned analysis.  Humans can think outside the box.  They can adapt and prioritize based on what’s actually happening rather than being limited by their programming.

Computers are not capable of that. Remember, system failures are not always covered by the aircraft operating procedures or training, and that’s why safe flight still requires human input and oversight. We are also capable of putting more focus on our monitoring during critical phases of flight. For example, I watch airspeed and flight path with much greater attention during approach than I typically will during cruise.

It’s also worth considering that, despite all the automation, humans still manually perform the takeoff, landing, taxi phases, as well as fly the airplane when the computers get confused or take the day off.   These are the areas where most accidents happen.  Air France 447 stalled up in the flight levels and remained in that state until reaching the ocean.  Colgan 3407 was another stall accident.  Asiana 214 was a visual approach gone wrong. Better manual flying skill might very well have made the difference in at least some of these accidents.

Glenn Pew asked, “How much of flying the airplane is flying the avionics?”, and Panosian replied that “the greatest innovation was the moving map”, giving an example of synthetic vision showing terrain at night.  In my experience, a moving map is no guarantee of situational awareness.  I’ve trained many pilots to fly VFR and IFR in glass panel Cirruses, DiamondStars, experimentals, and so on.  I can’t tell you how many of them had no idea where they were, even with a 10″ full color moving map directly in front of them. When asked the simple question, “Where are we right now?”, you’d be surprised how many have a tough time coming up with an answer.

Does that seem odd to you? It shouldn’t. Situational awareness is not about the map in front of your eyes, it’s about the moving map inside your head.  If you want evidence of that, look at the 2007 CFIT crash of a CAP Flight 2793, a C-182T Skylane which ran into high terrain near Las Vegas.  That flight was piloted by two highly experienced pilots who were familiar with the area, had a G1000 panel in front of them, and still managed to fly into Mt. Potosi.

Panosian made the point that the Airbus was designed to be flown on autopilot “all the time — it was not designed to be flown by hand.  It was designed so that it’s a hassle to be flown by hand”.  Some business jets have similar characteristics. Who would want to hand fly the airplane straight and level for hours on end anyway? The light GA arena has an equivalent as well, the Cirrus SR20 and SR22. I enjoy hand flying them, actually, but the airplane has a somewhat artificial feel due to the springs in the flight control system. It was purposefully designed to fly long distances on autopilot. It’s very good at that mission. It’s well equipped, and has plenty of safety equipment aboard. TAWS, traffic, CAPS, a solid autopilot, good avionics… and yet the Cirrus’s accident rate is not better than average.

I don’t believe the answer is to make the pilot a better manager of automation. This will not stop CFIT, stall/spin, weather, and takeoff or landing accidents.

“The Good news is that we have a generation of pilots that have grown up with this technology, these tablets, etc. and they grab hold of these things better than the older pilot who was trained on the round dials.  That’s a good thing because now you’re just molding them into the aviation world and this is how you’ll operate the aircraft.”

I’m a big proponent of glass panels, tablets, and technology. They’re great. But they do not make one a good pilot. If you want a better pilot, start primary students off in a tailwheel airplane and ensure they know how to fly before doing anything else. Everything should flow out of that. I wouldn’t expect this to be a revolutionary idea, but perhaps it is.

“You are not going to be hired because of your stick and rudder skills.  You will be hired because of your management skills.”

A good aviator needs both sets of skills.  Management ability is important, but no more so than stick-and-rudder capability.  If you can’t physically fly the airplane during any or all phases of flight, you don’t belong in the cockpit because any equipment issues during those phases can leave the aircraft without someone capable of safely operating it.  Pilots who can’t proficiently hand-fly are passengers.  Console operators.  Button pushers.  System monitors (dog not included). But they’re not pilots.

“In other words, can you manage all these systems, can you manages the information you’re getting and make sure that the airplane is doing what it’s supposed to do?  The fact of the matter is that we’ve see this in other industries.  It’s hardly unique to the airline industry.  A robot can do a better job of welding than a human.  An autopilot has many more sensors than a human hand does.  They can be done better and safer than a human being, but they must be monitored properly. That’s where the training comes in.  We have to change from the stick & rudder skills to the manager skills.  That’s what we’re trying to do.”

The problem with his comparison is that flying an airplane is not like welding.  Welding does not require you to manage the energy state of a large chunk of metal hurling through the air while maintaining situational awareness, staying ahead of the aircraft mentally, and adjusting for countless variables ranging from weather to traffic to equipment failures to controllers, often all at the same time and at the end of a long work day. Doing all those things does constitute “management”, but I don’t think it’s the kind Mr. Panosian is referring to.

And as far as the autopilot is concerned, it’s extraordinarily simplistic to compare a full autopilot system to a single human hand.  What about the rest of the body? What about the vestibular labyrinthine system and resultant equilibrioception?  There’s proprioception, thermoception, etc. (Look ’em up — I had to!). And that’s to say nothing of our sense of sight, hearing, touch, and smell.  We use those when we fly, even without direct knowledge of what our body is doing.  How many times have you noticed a subtle vibration from a prop or engine, the sound of a leaking seal around a door, the sense of something just not being quite right?

Autopilots do some things better than a human. Automation is helpful and absolutely has it’s place. But it is no substitute for a flesh-and-blood pilot who knows how to fly the machine.

What say you, readers?

Ron Rapp

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 7,500+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

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The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • Brent

    I was just writing an article on S n R for my blog. I’d do better to delete the draft and point my readers to this great piece!

    Good work my friend!

    • Ron Rapp

      Thanks Brent — but don’t sell yourself short, I think your readership (myself included) would be interested in reading your thoughts on the subject. Likewise, it helps to have as much focus on the topic as possible, because this was not the first time the idea of putting automation management above manual flying skills has been proffered, and I doubt it will be the last.


      P.S. For a moment, I thought SnR was “Search & Rescue”!

  • Bill Robinson

    I am a 9000+ hour pilot, CFI, 135 pilot, with a good grounding in tailwheel airplanes since my student pilot days. I was privileged to fly with a former WWII Navy pilot, Jack Dunn at Lincoln, IL. He gave me much knowledge and skill in taildraggers. As a presessional CFI I have always urged my students to read the book Stick and Rudder. Those SnR skills have literally saved my face and perhaps my life several times during my career. After a time of flying inactivity I experienced the “shock” of learning to push buttons and operate the various GPS systems that had come into use. But the SnR skills just popped right back into action due (I believe) to good primary training and experience.

    • Ron Rapp

      Primacy of learning at work there, Bill. If we could ensure each student got their training from a Jack Dunn, is there any doubt that flying’s safety record would improve?

      You’re one of many who recommend Stick and Rudder. In some ways the tome is more vital today than it ever was!

  • John Schubert

    A fabulous essay. If you can’t fly the airplane, you can’t (always) manage the systems to fly the airplane for you.

  • Herb Kilian

    What a delight to hear that hand-flying skills are still valued and necessary. I might add that flying gliders is about the best training for stick and rudder skills that one can get, from the tow to the landing – even more so than training in tail-draggers. The Korean Air botched landing at SFO is a prime example for what is at stake. A pilot who cannot land his plane in VFR conditions should not be at the controls, these particular pilots should face in my opinion negligent homicide legal charges.

  • Manny Oro

    I am a 56 year old “New” pilot having just received my license. I’ve read the book “Stick and Rudder” and believe it is an exquisite word set describing the ART of flying. Every pilot should read it and combine this knowledge with the SCIENCE of flying. I am also an electrical engineer and have learned to hate computers and how they have been marketed to take over our lives- everywhere. Back to basics I say!

    • Ron Rapp

      (sound of wild applause from the crowd)

  • Dave Scott

    I could not agree more. When I first started flying, I was doing it for “get me from here to there” transportation. I loved flying, and I had the benefit of a father who was a WW II instrument instructor and the FBO where I first flew out of was had a fairly large air taxi service so I spent considerable time around seasoned charter pilots. It was clear to me that if was going to use an aircraft for transportation I needed to have the skill and judgement of a person who flew for a living.

    The best advice they gave me was “Don’t shoot approaches with you autopilot. It will fly the easy ones and leave the hard ones to you.” I followed that maxim all the time I flew. I also did the same thing – most of the time – when taking off. I only used the auto pilot for in-route and setting up for the instrument approach. I have never landed a jet or turbo prop, but my last aircraft was an Aerostar 601P – a great aircraft, but one you definitely did not want to get behind on.

    I understand that the equipment in todays transport aircraft is much more sophisticated than in anything I flew and I also understand that there are passenger considerations that might make one use an autopilot controlled instrument approach, but I see no reason why auto pilot and auto throttles should be used in the final stages of an approach to landing – even if the runway is not is sight until breaking out of a 200 foot ceiling. There appear to be a series catastrophic results as a result of what appear to be good well trained pilots relying on their auto throttles. The botched landing at SFO and the recent U.P.S. crash. I am very familiar with the UPS program. I know their training was excellent.

    In the same vein – I have seen lots of bad results where a pilot allow him or herself to get distracted from their primary task – flying the aircraft.


    • Ron Rapp

      The primary reason we use the automation in the latter stages of the approach is because it flies extremely smoothly and keeps the approach very well stabilized. It also reduces work load and leaves us free to monitor, run checklists, look for traffic, etc. The folks in back pay a lot of money for charter flying, and they want it to be as smooth as possible. We also take pride in giving the best possible ride to them. Also, the configuration changes as flaps, slats, etc are added and the stabilizer moves can cause it to be less smooth than if a human was flying.

      Having said that, I agree with you that some of those approaches need to be hand-flown. My recurrent training does require hand-flying some of the approaches with the weather at minimums, but it’s still not the same as doing it in real life. I’d think hand flying maybe one out of three actual approaches might help.

      Don’t sell yourself short as it regards the Aerostar 601P — single-pilot IFR operation of a high performance piston twin is nothing to sneeze at. Your workload was probably higher than what we experience in the jet. Engine management alone would put you in that category, I think.


  • Graeme Robinson

    The focus on systems management seems to assume that all pilots are training towards commercial and ultimately ATP careers. I wonder if that is true.

    I got my PPL a little over two years ago whilst in my late thirties with no ambitions for flying to be anything other than a hobby or occasionally convenient way of commuting for work. A significant number of students I met during training were in the same boat. That being my reality, I really don’t care whether the autopilot or human pilot makes a better job of flying an airbus. Automation in the 1970’s Pipers and Cessnas I now fly means digital flip-flop radios, and if I’m going to need an autopilot to land the plane, well that’s a problem. The parts of my training where my CFI was giving me hell if he suspected I was using the pedals as foot rests were way more important to the flying I do than learning how to use G1000 to look up an ATIS frequency at a destination airport.

    • Ron Rapp

      Your instructor sounds like a wise individual!

      System management was once reserved primarily for the jet guys. But over the last decade those systems have been making their way into the GA cockpits. I’ve seen Waco biplanes with full glass panels. There are homebuilts with better avionics than you’ll find in the Gulfstream IV that I fly. The G1000 is the “default” avionics suite for almost all single engine Cessna, Piper, Beechcraft, Diamond, and Cirrus airplanes now. And the older airframes will eventually need retrofitting, too. The only thing available is going to be glass.

      We need to be aware of how this automation can relegate our stick-and-rudder skills to the back bench, and respond accordingly. It sounds like you’re on the right track with your flying.


  • allen morris

    Of the many articles and discussions of the burgeoning “stick and rudder,” issue this presentation by Mr. Rapp is head and shoulders the most advanced. I spent 36 years flying steam gauges (22 in the 727). After one sim session in the A-320 I got up and left. Many of the pilot skills I had developed in the previous 34 years were of very little value. I was proud of my pilot skills and wanted to continue to utilize them. Very luckily for me, my airline, TransMeridian, recalled me a few months later for their revived Boeing 727 operation.

    I think that Mr. Rapp’s brilliant editorial on the nuances of the essential skills of a professional pilot should be disseminated to everyone in the aviation business, particularly the young aspiring pilots, as well as airline training departments.

    Allen Morris/a.k.a. Ace Abbott (pen name)

    • Ron Rapp

      Thank you for the very kind comments, Allen! I understand your disappointment with the pure automation of the 320 cockpit. In some ways, though, an airplane like that needs a good stick-and-rudder pilot more than even the 727. The Boeing could not be flown without those skills, so the pilots who flew them always had that capability, whereas the Airbus might not demand them as often, but when it does they will be the difference between a safe landing and a newspaper headline. Sullenberger comes to mind.

      Anyway, I checked out your web site and was intrigued by your book and blog — I can’t wait to read it! Every time I see an F-4 Phantom up close, I marvel at the fact that something so large was able to land on a carrier deck.


  • Glen Keen

    Thank you Ron. Like you, after listening to this audio, I had more questions than answers. As a graduate student, which requires a tremendous amount of time doing research, I was a little disappointed to not hear one reference to formal findings, study, or data that supported the claims. However, I am aware that research data in the field of aviation isn’t as vast as compared to other fields, so it is difficult to validate or qualify everything. This highlights or leads into why automation, advance avionics, or management thereof is not more important or will necessarily increase safety.

    We have had these systems in place for decades, and each improvement in design has had a relatively minor affect in decreasing the number of accidents. The only real significant impact in reducing accidents was when the airlines implemented and trained pilots to use CRM. Now we have two high profile accidents where highly experienced flight crews allowed TAA aircraft to fly themselves into the ground. What about the thousands of operations that do not fly themselves into the ground that occur daily in TAA aircraft? Are there any other similarities to other accidents? There were two pilots in each of these aircraft, all of which had thousands of hours flying TAA aircraft. Should we conclude that on those fateful flights, the sole reason for the accidents, was that all of those pilots somehow forgot how to monitor their display screens and act accordingly and therefore we need to re-prioritize our current training regime to make better screen and box monitors? To me, even though I am a somewhat new researcher in the world of academia, I would theorize that we need to look at human factors with relation to CRM, or SRM, and reviewing why the “change or take action” element of THOSE systems is not being utilized when it needs to be.

    From a practitioner standpoint, I can see the importance of automation and advance avionics. I have the pleasure, and sometimes not, of flying one of the more state-of-the-art aircraft in general aviation , the Global Express. I also have the luxury of comparing older (even with some steam gauges) and the newer version avionics in later model Globals and other aircraft. From my experience, I can tell you that while the engineers have the best intent in designing the avionics to be intuitive and highly self monitoring , they are still a lot of “Why/What is it doing that?” and “Where is it going now?” statements being made in the cockpit. What I mean by this, is that these systems still find new ways to do something other than what you told them to do or that they are programmed to do. Yes, there are times when they are doing exactly what the pilot, in error, told it to do. As I turn off the automation and hand fly it, I realize that I am very lucky to have had the basic flying skills INGRAINED in my head, so that I can fly the airplane, while the other pilot fixed or tried to fix the problem. In those cases, the devil I knew, that being stick and rudder flying, was always better than the devil I didn’t know. In training pilots to be better system monitors over hand flying skills, we will reverse that thinking and de-emphasize a very crucial and valuable safety skill. While it may be fine at cruise altitude, it is not fine when you are on an approach descending to terra firma.

    Reason said it best “If you are going to have humans in your operation, you are going to always have accidents due to human error”. Humans design, build, install, and operate the avionics. There will be error no matter how much you train pilots how to better monitor it in order to mitigate it. Training pilots to be better system monitors over stick and rudder skills only removes a slice of Swiss cheese.

    • Ron Rapp

      Great thoughts, Glen. I see the “What’s it doing now?” thing in the Gulfstream on occasion. Done it myself. You’re right, the number of accidents in the airline and 135 industries has fallen since the advent of advanced elements ranging from automation to CRM. But safety will never be absolute unless we all stop flying tomorrow. And as automation continues to advance, any breakdown of that stuff is going to create greater chance of an accident if the pilot(s) aren’t up to snuff on basic flying skill.

      From my experience — and probably yours too — the automation works well enough often enough that it’s easy to become complacent, and that’s probably what happened in a bunch of these cases. It’s not that the Asiana crew couldn’t land their plane or fly a visual approach. Of course they could. But when things didn’t go perfectly on that day, they didn’t respond properly or timely enough to prevent the accident.

      I think our training could use improvement. Jet pilots train frequently, but it’s always the same profile and scenario. It’d be great to see a wider variety of scenarios and better simulation of serious upsets and situations that are, as they say on Law & Order, “ripped from the headlines”. Every accident is a new scenario that should be added to the simulator database. Between that and some tailwheel and aerobatic training, this problem could be largely eliminated.

      I love reader comments because often they summarize my thoughts in better — and fewer — words than I do. Your last sentence said it all. “Training pilots to be better system monitors over stick and rudder skills only removes a slice of Swiss cheese.”

  • Larry M. Coleman

    Without good “old fashioned” stick and rudder skills and aviation sense, how do you know the airplane is doing what it’s supposed to be doing in the first place? A welding robot will happily weld two pieces of metal together, one piece of metal to the air, or a cat and a dog together; it doesn’t know what the final product is supposed to look like. That’s what the human is for. Automation is great as a workload reducer, but not as a thought reducer.

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  • Brendan @

    Being a total VFR bush pilot, I can’t relate heavily to autopilots or automation except for a few flights in a Cardinal I’ve enjoyed and a Diamond DA40 both with autopilot. Flying a high lift, wind-sensitive bush plane in heavy thermals takes a lot of energy – to release that work to the autopilot in the Diamond for example was incredible – it helped get my mind out of the operations and into the bigger picture. Is that valuable in aviation? Well sure…… but even in GA, the minute we start misusing the mental time-slice we have GAINED thanks to simple autopilots, we are ‘costing’ situational awareness or other important tasks. Thanks for the great article Ron!

  • Peter L Collins

    I’m almost 76. I took my first lesson three years ago, and I only have 600 hours, mostly in a VFR, 100hp IBIS microlight (think minature 152). Here in New Zealand much of the country is alpine, usually with cloud around the tops, and of course you have to hand-fly the river gorges under the ceilings. I know that many ATP who retire or for fun get into the “small end” of aviation, are surprised at how much they have to learn (or re-learn) before they get comfortable again. Sometimes I toy with the idea of AP, but it would only be used when I had a long transit to make up around 8000′ or 9000′. However, a nice, stable plane, like mine, properly trimmed, flies itself straight and level, hands off, with only a slight nudge on the pedals to deal with the odd gust. But then, I’ve nothing else to do except make my regular position notes on the VNC. If I were to be at it for hour after hour I’d want the AP for sure.
    The thing that worries me on an airliner is this: does the flight crew get the chance to keep practiced at coping with ‘things going wrong’ that the AP can’t cope with (for I gather if it all goes to custard the typical AP says ‘fuck it’ and shuts down)? I regularly ‘fling’ my wee plane around this way and that (+ve g, always less than 2.5g, never past 90 degrees) in and out of clean stall, ‘point-of-stall’ glides in landing configuration practicing ‘busy feet’, (all as instructed) keeping myself ready to respond almost intuitively to pull the plane back into the envelope when conditions try to push it over the edge.
    But do aircrew ever get the chance to retain that sort of familiarity with their big machines? From some horror stories you’d think that except for the rare happy event, most times the basic “fly the thing” gets forgotten – or done wrong – when it all turns to custard and sometimes they end up fighting the AP or thinking it’s still doing the driving – or some other unexpected circumstance or unusual attitude hits them. Thankfully the systems are becoming very robust, but, am I right to fear that the captain who can belt the heavy iron around like a big glider is far too rare these days? Because I can’t see hand-flying ever becoming totally unnecessary, and when the need hits, that’s surely when the skill level and currency requirement will be at its most demanding!

  • Kayak Jack

    It obviously takes a lot of mental ability to manage the automation, but it removes the pilot at least one – if not more – steps from reality. When hand flying a plane with cables and rods to the flight controls, we are already one step removed from reality what a real bird experiences. Hydraulically/electrically operated controls remove us another step, etc.

    Perhaps it’s just our human pride that has us hanging onto the human element in flying? And, perhaps it’s the fact that we CAN do it – we can meet and beat that set of challenges – that lets us be proud. I’m not at all ashamed of being proud of myself for the ability to meet challenges and beat them, albeit not perfectly.

  • Robert Reser

    The first five to ten hours of basic flight training is “when control is taught”. Everything after that is “what to do with the machine”.
    To date I have found no text that correctly tells how to control an aircraft.
    We really need to consider what happens during those first hours. If correctly taught, it’s like riding a bike, you never forget.

  • Jeff Starr

    I agree, both skills are important. One should be able to operate the equipment in the aircraft. You should also have very good stick and rudder skills, before you learn a new aircraft and its modern avionics and flight systems.

    I fly a Boing 777 for an airline and I enjoy the capabilities and performance of the 777. While it is fun to use and operate the various autopilot and systems on this 777, it is even more fun to hand fly. Whenever I can on an approach (unless an auto land is required), I disconnect the autopilot and auto throttles and hand fly the approach. One of the most fun approaches I like to fly is when we are down wind of the runway, 3 thousand feet or so above the runway, clear as a bell day, runway in sight, and the controller says cleared for the visual approach.

    I do not want to be dependent on automation, Nor do I want to loose any of my stick and rudder skills. That is why I feel it is important to disconnect this stuff (when weather and workload permits) and hand fly the aircraft.

    One other thing that I believe helps keep your skills up is flying small aircraft. In my case I fly a tail dragger at my home airport.

  • Dan Winkelman

    This article sums up why I dislike the fundamental Airbus design philosophy and strongly prefer the Boeing philosophy.

    Airbus build airplanes that fly themselves, and the “pilots” are in fact systems administrators. The “pilot” is allowed to fly the airplane, but only when and in the manner the airplane systems dictate is okay.

    Boeing builds airplanes that are meant to be *flown* by actual pilots… the systems in Boeing products are designed to aid the pilot, reduce workload, etc (with varying degrees of success). But ultimately, the Boeing airplane is made to be flown by a human.

    As long as Boeing maintains this design philosophy, I will continue to prefer Boeing products.

    I’m only 30, raised around technology, and work in the electronic side of aviation. But I am proud to be doing my primary flight training in a Cub. No electrical system… no fancy avionics (VFR minimum legal instrumentation), and even hand-prop it to start. Talk about stick-and-rudder skills: you must stay lively on the rudder pedals from startup to shutdown. I recently did a VFR cross-country in a 172, and the skills learned in the Cub made the 172 a cakewalk to fly. If only more pilots took the time to keep current on their stick-and-rudder skills, I think we would see less of the Asiana-type wrecks. Regardless of what systems you *think* are operating, there are some basics you gotta watch on approach. The Asiana crew failed to stay on top of those critical parameters (airspeed, anyone?), and failed to stay ahead of the airplane.

    Anyway… thanks, Ron, for an excellent article. I very much agree. SnR skills should *not* be relegated to the dustbin. Systems admin or systems management cannot safely replace SnR. They should be complimentary skills, not mutually exclusive.

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