Grasping at crossed straws

If the BEA is right about the AF447 crew possibly being misled by sporadic flight director activity while their A330 was falling through space, well outside its flight envelope, there are lots of messages for the industry here.

Once again the BEA, like the US NTSB, the Flight Safety Foundation and many others, is calling for instrument panels to be filmed, so that after an accident we can know, rather than speculate, what information the pilots were presented with. Flight director activity is not recorded on the flight data recorder.
Flight director crossbars should remove from the display whenever an anomaly like unresolved airspeed disparity disconnects the autopilot/autothrust. If the flight management system computers have recognised their limitations and handed back control to the pilots, what are the flight director bars doing pretending they know any better?
Most important, the flight director cross-hairs on the primary flight display are an aircraft-aiming tool that is increasingly irrelevant in an era when pilots, according to airline standard operating procedures, hardly ever touch the controls. 
Yet they are a compulsively attractive tool. If they are there, you will follow them, especially if you are flying manually on the very rare occasion when you find yourself having to go manual in IMC. If you are feeling under-confident and out of practice, and are flying at night with no natural horizon, you will find yourself clutching at those crossed straws, even if they are mis-directing you.
What are the pilots there for if they are no longer able to fly the aircraft when the automatics have failed?

9 Responses to Grasping at crossed straws

  1. Oluf Husted 8 July, 2012 at 12:45 pm #

    PIlots are paid hostages, in order to sell tickets.

  2. Rory Kay 8 July, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    I concur that pilots should receive more training and recurrent practice with the auto-flight systems turned completely off. There have been accidents and incidents in recent years that have made a powerful case for an increase in quality AND quantity of training and basic skill retention/practice, at a time when airlines are deeply attracted to the idea of cost savings through reduced training footprints, which has also become a selling pitch made by aircraft manufacturers.

    The question then becomes one of where, and when, should this practice be conducted – in the aircraft on a revenue flight, or the sim, or both? When one heads to recurrent training in the simulators, there is rarely any spare time available for any extra items to be covered – the syllabus is stuffed full of required maneuvers to cover already, precision/non precision and VNAV windshear, terrain escape, autoland, V2 cut etc. I should add though that the simulator training syllabus at my airline is starting to look more closely at unreliable airspeed and altitude indications malfunctions – a truly interesting crew exercise depending on the original failure generated in the simulator.

    Practicing truly manual flying skills in the actual plane requires some careful and thoughtful risk assessment. When considering whether to turn it all off, one might, as a starting point, care to reflect on why all that expensive equipment was designed and installed in the first place. The workload increase on the monitoring (non flying) pilot is increased enormously when the autoflight systems are turned off, as that individual now has to monitor and manage items that the flying pilot would have done for themselves with it all on, such as mode control panel (MCP) speed, heading and other mode selections. Some other items to consider before making the decision to operating the actual aircraft with no kind of autoflight assistance….. fatigue levels, weather, type of approach (RNP operation with all kinds of operating restrictions?), company guidelines and limitations on such practice, traffic density in the terminal area, and at higher altitudes, RVSM entry and operational requirements.

    I agree with your statement that there is little value in hand flying the plane unless you have turned off the flight directors, but would add autothrottles to the list, as well as the autopilot. No mixed mode flying; it is a great confidence building exercise, but do not ignore the possible increased threats from making that decision.

  3. Capt. Jeff 8 July, 2012 at 3:36 pm #

    Very thoughtful comments, Rory. As a captain at a large “legacy” airline, your point about finding the time to practice manual flying in the simulator is spot-on. Although, I do recall a time when using the autopilot in the sim was discouraged. Presently, pilots are encouraged to turn autoflight on as soon as practical, and to keep it on for as long as possible.

    Rory is correct when he states “practicing truly manual flying skills in the actual plane requires some careful and thoughtful risk assessment.” Although I would argue that the increased workload for the monitoring pilot is somewhat overstated. I suggest (and practice myself) hand-flying the aircraft when conditions are appropriate. For instance, in VMC at larger airports conducting simultaneous approaches; and in IMC at small/medium volume airports conducting individual instrument approaches. If allowed by your airline’s operating procedures, pilots should occasionally turn off the flight director and auto-throttle systems to learn/confirm appropriate pitch pictures and power settings for various flight regimes.

    We pilots need to get back to the basics. We have to re-learn basic control-performance philosophy. We have to understand that the flight director bars are there to “suggest” where to put the pitch and bank, and “look through” them when appropriate. We are in control of our aircraft, not the auto flight system… it is there to assist us.

    Capt. Jeff
    Host of the Airline Pilot Guy Show

  4. Dick MacKerras 8 July, 2012 at 5:32 pm #

    I largely agree with Rory. There are increased risk in manual flight on the line and they must be managed. But we created them.

    We created the environment where the PM is largely a passenger in the front seat, hence our more recent drive to get them to actually monitor what is going on. There are still plenty of aircraft around that don’t have magenta lines or AFCS capable of following them and there are still crews who know they may have to intervene at least once in a flight.

    We had an ATC system that respected the pilot workload and kept things simple – now we have a system that relies on the AFCS being uber-capable and that doesn’t want to deal with pilot-navigated aircraft.

    I like the following words from “Irish Steve” on the Professional Pilots Rumour Network:

    “If I had to put words to it, pilot inadequacy is closer to the mark than pilot error. They were never trained how to really fly the aircraft, they were trained to fly the automation, which is fine while all the systems work as designed, but if they don’t, this is the inevitable result. The reasons for that are much wider than just the pilots, they go right to the top, and fixing it will have to go to the top as well.”

    We got to our current dilemma by taking the path of least resistance – will AF447 be sufficient motivation to change? I desperately hope so…

  5. Nick Laskaris 8 July, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

    I was reminded on the news a few weeks ago about the 30th anniversary of the Papa India accident at Staines. It seems that we have not really moved on very much. This is a pity.

  6. Layman 9 July, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

    Can you comment on the point that the captain, who was not in the cockpit at the initial stage of the stall, returned but did not appear to resume command.

    It appears that the cockpit was fairly quiet, with very little verbal input from the other two pilots during the phase when the situation was still salvageable.

  7. David Learmount 9 July, 2012 at 5:14 pm #

    When the captain returned he had a lot to take in. The copilots couldn’t tell him anything useful because they were totally at a loss about what was happening, and they didn’t tell him what started the problem (autopilot/autothrottle disconnect because of pitot sensor disparity). Just before impact the captain mentioned the aircraft’s nose-up attitude. He was the first pilot to have mentioned attitude during the entire process. If he had latched onto that factor with 10,000ft of height left he might have been able to regain control.

  8. David Connolly 11 July, 2012 at 1:00 am #

    Clutching at crossed straws ?, a very original observation indeed on the long and winding magenta LNAV highway. Very deeply thoughtful comments from David L., Rory and Jeff. I’ve always thought of Flight Directors of the dual-cue crosshairs rather than crossed straws. A pitch and roll power point world away from the single-cue command bars favoured by Air China, old-Northwest, now Delta since 2008 and a very few others. That would be quite a multi-cue merger issue, Northworst and Don’t Ever Leave The Airport ?
    Is it going to be a re-grade upgrade to dual-cue pixel precision or a retrograde downgrade to single-cue command bars ? I never knew that F/D activity was absent from the FDR, I’m sure I’m not alone, every day is a school day.
    They, Flight Directors, have the perverse -and as David L. alludes- seductive ability of building overconfidence, especially with A/T assistance of making power corrections to meet your pitch demands, making you feel that you are a much better manual pilot than you actually are. I’m the first to admit that deficiency. Flying naked in the raw data is necessary, but too rare an opportunity alas.
    The only cure for that skill deficit is practice, on the aircraft or simulator. Practice makes fluid automatic. Raw pitch and power flight is a great confidence building exercise, as Rory says and confidence is priceless capital.
    On the B-744, LAND 3 (Green)on a Fail Operational CAT IIIA 200 metres RVR or CAT IIIB 100 metres RVR approach there is an avionic Alert Height of 100 and 50 feet Radio Alt respectively. F/D’s are not required as the Triple LAND 3 A/P knows where they are aimed at, reversion to Fail Passive Land 2/ CAT II-after an A/P channel trips out- mandates reversion to CAT II autoland minima of 350 metres RVR and a “Decision Height” 101 feet Radio Alt . On CAT III the decision has already been made provisionally to avionic alert, to be humanly PFD Flight Mode Annunciator/FMA alert aware. The B-744 cross fertilized the B-777 and it re-fertilized the B-748. But its core values of 1989 service entry have stood the test of time’s practice.
    So, if there is one thing worse than being under-confident and out of practice, it is being over-confident and out of practice. And if there is one thing worse than following a Boeing TOGA/TOGA F/D on VR without IAS maneuver energy is an Airbus SSOI without maneuver energy and confusing it with an F/D.
    Plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose, voilla, encore-QED !

  9. Paul Miller 11 July, 2012 at 7:09 pm #

    Training requirements today include all of the hand flying skills and all of the magic box button pushing. Training requirements today are huge and they cannot all be jammed into one or two or even three days. A much longer syllabus is needed for flight crew members to achieve proficiency.