Posts Tagged ‘automation’

Look Up, Look Out!

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013
Asiana 214 in an NTSB diagram of the accident sequence.

Asiana 214 in an NTSB diagram of the accident sequence.

This I know: if you see something with your own two eyes, you can avoid it. Happened to me just this morning. I began a turn off a road I use quite often (that’s important) and nearly encountered a concrete berm the engineers felt was important to add since I’d been there last. Fortunately for me, I was looking outside and forward. And lucky for me the car’s brakes are new. No damage done.

It works the same in an airplane. Even in instrument (IFR) conditions I scan outside the airplane as a cross-check of my instruments, looking for traffic, towering clouds I prefer to fly around and of course, the runway.

I do this even though I fly what the FAA calls a “technically advanced aircraft” (TAA). I’ve got nearly as much information in my cockpit as the Asiana Airlines guys who, despite more than 20,000 hours of experience and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of TAA allowed their B777 to fly into a rock berm at San Francisco International airport last July. After an all-day hearing on December 11, and despite the fact that the NTSB refused to state a cause for the accident (pending even more research) the reason these pilots hit that berm instead of landing is appallingly clear: they relied on their TAA and not on their pilot instincts; instincts borne in the seat of their pants and through interpreting what their eyes were telling them.

After reading a transcript of the cockpit voice recorder I’ll cut the junior first officer a break. He was sitting on the jumpseat, and pointed out the excessive sink rate and deteriorating airspeed to his captains no less than four times in the last three minutes of the flight. His comments were acknowledged, but no changes were made. Hmmm….

How does this pertain to GA flight? Consider it a cautionary tale. If you fly with what I like to call “pretty pictures,” more often known as EFIS, PFDs or MFDs, or even Garmin / iPad GPS moving maps on your lap or clamped to your yoke, please remember this: those are just representations of the world outside. GPS isn’t always reliable. Maps of terrain can be offset slightly (do you test this by occasionally flying directly over an obstacle?), RAIM can fail. I’ve seen the pretty boxes of my virtual glideslope on my EFIS not consider the trees that have grown up and into a runway’s clear zone. And ADS-B or even active traffic systems can’t pick up aircraft without transponders. I know from looking out my windscreen that plenty of traffic opt out. And autopilots, auto-throttles, FADEC and the like? They are only as good as the pilot’s knowledge of their intricacies and fallacies (this is what really bit the Asiana pilots in their collective butt).

Bottom line, my TAA gives me wonderful capabilities, but they are only as good as my complete understanding of how to use them, and when. Above all, I was taught to use my kinesthetic senses and my eyes looking outside the aircraft when I fly, no matter the conditions. Call me old-fashioned, but it works.

Oh, and I listen to my co-pilot when he tells me there might be a problem. Even pinch-hitters (non-pilot co-pilots who fly with you all the time) can perceive issues before they become big problems in flight. They are great traffic and ground-spotters, and they’ll tell you when they think you are fatigued, too. So listen and respond.

Want to know more? Don’t just read the pundits. Look over the raw NTSB records at www.ntsb.gov. There’s plenty for a GA pilot to learn there.

The automation challenge: A young person’s problem?

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013
Otto Pilot

Image Credit: Screenshot from Airplane!

In the aftermath of Asiana 214 in San Francisco and UPS 1354 in Birmingham (even reaching back to Air France 447 and Colgan 3407), much of the collective conversation, soul searching, and heated argument has revolved around the issue of cockpit automation and pilot interaction with onboard technology. There has been a collective cry from much of the “old guard” in the aviation field saying that these accidents prove that the modern pilot spends too much time monitoring systems and not enough time honing their old-fashioned “stick-and-rudder” skills. A recent blog post from the Economist even went so far as to say:

“Many of today’s younger pilots (especially in the rapidly expanding markets of Asia and the Middle East) have had little opportunity to hone their airmanship in air forces, general aviation or local flying clubs, allowing them to amass long hours of hand-flying various aircraft in all sorts of weather conditions and emergencies.”

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.

In general aviation, we see this new challenge with the implementation and increased use of technologically advanced aircraft (TAAs) by our pilots. The standard story goes something like this: VFR-rated pilot gets in TAA, encounters marginal weather, potentially thinking he’s safer behind a glass cockpit, becomes disoriented, and crashes. Is this a stick-and-rudder skill problem, or is it indicative of a broader problem that we still have failures in how we train our pilots to make good decisions?

If you want to buy a new airplane today, be it a 172 or SR22, it will be equipped with glass cockpit technology and the automation that comes with it as standard. Our training and testing methodologies have not adapted to meet these new, fantastic technologies, giving pilots the opportunity to learn both stick-and-rudder skills and the systems management/awareness skills to use the automation to its best and safest abilities. It’s been far too long since the FAA in consultation with the industry has taken a look at its requirements and testing methodologies for pilot certificates in this country. The new ATP certification process presents some revamping of testing and subject areas, but we still fail to begin our training by reinforcing both stick-and-rudder and technical skills.

My fellow “younger” pilots (those lacking in stick-and-rudder skills as the Economist blog post suggests) are incredibly comfortable with technology. For many fellow graduates from large universities, we have extensive experience training and learning in TAA. Where do the airlines see challenges in their training of new hire pilots from these big schools? Not in systems management or basic stick-and-rudder skills. The biggest issue with near consistency across airlines whose new hires trained in all-glass fleets is basic instrument competency. Small things like holding, VOR tracking, and setting fixes in the “old-fashioned way” with two VORs make up a large portion of the feedback universities receive.

In the United States, GA will continue to serve as the primary pipeline for tomorrow’s professional pilots. It behooves us all as GA pilots and instructors to emphasize both of these elements in our training and day-to-day flying. We need to continue to explore better methods of training, especially for the “new dogs” that are already used to GPS on their phones and in their cars and those “old dogs” who grew up in a time when LORAN was a common tool for navigating.