The automation challenge: A young person’s problem?

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.


  1. I don’t think it’s a “young pilot” issue or related to advanced avionics at all. The loss of control issues stem from high reliance on autopilots, extremely little hand-flying, and a long career spent flying straight and level. When something goes wrong, the manual flying skills the pilots should be able to fall back on are simply not there. Or at least, not in sufficient quantity to get the job done.

    I believe the answer is regular exposure to tailwheels, unusual attitudes, and aerobatics.

  2. Rather than generalize the issue as “automation”, I believe the issue is not choosing the appropriate level of automation for the task at hand. Clearly, disengaging the autopilot and leaving the auto-throttles engaged is not honing your hand flying skills, as stated by AA’s chief pilot in a lecture in 1997 (google “children of the magenta line”). Energy management is just as important skill to hone as directional control.

    There are several levels of automation in cockpits today, yet most people using automation only use one level. Punching up the A/P in roll or heading mode and alt hold while fishing a chart out your bag in the back seat would be a wise thing to do, but I watch many pilots checking out on an advance aircraft ask me to hold the controls while they do so.

    Proper training is the answer, but only if it’s done at the beginning where the law of primacy takes hold. I second Ron’s suggestion on tailwheel training.

  3. My apologies to Captain Warren Vanderburgh for mis-crediting Cecil Ewell for this excellent presentation.

  4. As an older pilot, I tend to think stick & rudder skills are important, because that’s how I learned and that’s what I taught. But I don’t think these recent accidents or the spate of other accidents over the last few years are a younger pilot vs. older pilot problem; age isn’t the issue.

    I agree that it’s partly an issue of not knowing when to shut off Otto and fly the airplane–and that’s compounded by not being able to fly the airplane after shutting off Otto. All those hours of watching Otto fly the airplane from 5 minutes after take-off until 5 minutes before landing most assuredly do not provide much opportunity to practice hand-flying–and hand-flying is not twisting knobs to make Otto and his henchman Ottothrottle do what the pilot should be doing.

    It’s apparent that humans watching things happen are less capable of recognizing problems than we have realized, and our training apparently doesn’t cover that. I remember just doing a coupled approach with steam gauges and thinking I could instantly grab the controls if Otto glitched–and being brought up short on a cross-country flight a few weeks later when Otto did glitch but I had a significantly delayed reaction, although Otto had miscommanded a sudden right turn that caused the altitude hold to go offline–by the time I caught it, the turn was big and the altitude loss was sufficient that Center called to ask if everything was OK. I suppose there would be some psychological answer to that, but I call it “experience complacency”–when things have always worked OK, we’re not ready for them not to work OK.

    So what’s the answer? Part of it is to emphasize stick & rudder skills during recurrent training. Part of it is training for the inevitable failure of the doo-dads, because it’s not if but when that will happen. And part of it is knowing when to use Otto and when to let him rest. I submit that a subset of letting Otto rest is to also let all of his henchmen rest, so that there’s no combination of bits and pieces of automation still doing the work–either the pilot flies, or Otto flies, but not a combination.

  5. What Ron Rapp said. What Cary Alburn said. Wholeheartedly agree with both of them. It is going to get worse. Stick and rudder skills have been degraded for sometime now. It is not an age thing.

    By the way the 58-year-old Air France captain was not in the cockpit when that accident sequence began. He was on his rest break and only reentered the cockpit shortly before the aircraft impacted the ocean. He did not get back into one of the pilot seats.

  6. I’ll throw this out there, even as it may seem unreasonable.

    No longer allow the logging of PIC time in an ATP rating when both Otto’s are online.

    PIC time = Flying The Plane.

    When you need hours logged for seniority/etc, well, work for them.

    I am also of the strong opinion, that private pilot training should only be on steam gauges, no glass.

    If -my- transition to glass requires specific training, then primary training should not include it. This tells me that it is over and above the basic level of training required to get a ticket.

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