There’s been a lot of interest in my previous blog entry “AF 447 and the loss-of-control epidemic”. People pointed out that there had been nine fatal LOC airline accidents since 2000, not just the seven I’d mentioned. I’ve since added them to the list.
One of my regular correspondents, David Connolly – who flies 747s – says I am talking rubbish when I ascribe the primary blame for the loss of piloting skills to the national aviation authorities who set the requirements for the training exercises that airlines must provide for their pilots.
He says the airlines are to blame, and he’s right.
But so am I as well.
The exercises airlines are required to make their pilots practice in recurrent training are heavily loaded with engine and systems failure exercises, based on the problems airliners of the 1950s could be expected to face. These have very little relevance to modern aeroplanes where mechanical failure is rare, and much more easily managed when it does occur.
Modern aeroplanes are full of computers which, as everyone knows, are pretty reliable most of the time, but when they fail they do not necessarily do so transparently, and can leave you confused. In the Air France 447 case, the computers disengaged because they knew they were being fed incorrect airspeed data, and computers can only work when they are being fed data that’s worthy of processing.
But the regulators do not require pilots to practice managing the results of subtle, computer-related failures.
And when failures do happen in the air, the airlines want the pilots, if possible, to leave the autopilot, autothrottle and flight director engaged.
Come on, guys, recurrent training is done in a simulator, it’s safe to try things out there! Chop all the automatics, kill the flight director, and let the pilots practice directing the aeroplane by using their brains, hands and feet. That’s the practice they are never going to get unless you give it to them!
Of course Connolly’s right, the airlines could do all this as well as providing the out-of-date statutory box-ticking exercises they are compelled by law to practice, but doing more would put up the costs of those who did compared with those who didn’t bother.
I don’t like regulating everything, but regulation has one undeniable benefit: it levels the playing field. Airlines will always base their training around the statutory minima because they know their competitors are doing that. So if the statutory pilot training minima are wrong for today’s highly automated airlines, the airlines argue they have no choice but to provide this irrelevant training at the expense of what’s really needed.
The AF447 crew was not prepared for what happened. Whose fault was that? The pilots, the airline, or the guys who make the rules about how the airlines must train their pilots?
Let’s hear from you.