Pilot competency up for discussion

That post on Facebook by my US airline pilot friend (see previous entry) developed into a discussion that made me more worried than I already was about the degree to which airline pilots are losing faith in their ability to fly ordinary manoeuvres and visual traffic patterns, because they practically never have to do it.

My disadvantage here is that I am not a line pilot, and all my knowledge of what it is like to be one comes from talking to people who do it for a living. What is more, things change all the time, including the priorities of airline training departments.

From what I am hearing now, it seems to me that the training priorities pendulum, even at major airlines with good safety records, has swung too far in the direction of mindless proceduralism.

While I completely appreciate the need for solid standard operating procedures (SOPs), mindless proceduralism is the result of an attempt to have a procedure for every eventuality, which is impossible.

Instead of preparing their pilots to cope calmly with non-routine circumstances, to equip them with aviation common sense (= airmanship), they try to secure them inside a comfort blanket of procedures. This robs the pilots of confidence in their own judgement.

I am more and more convinced that this is the explanation for accidents like AF447, where the pilots seemed to have lost all sense of connection with their aeroplane and what makes it fly.

It all boils down to this: if a pilot cannot cope when the automatics fail, it is the airline’s fault that s/he is no longer competent, and s/he should be taken off the line and provided with remedial training.

Or has the ability to fly visual patterns manually been covertly removed from the piloting minimum equipment list? You may rarely have to do it, but the idea that you no longer can should scare you, and your employer.

If pilots can no longer fly ordinary visual procedures manually, or fly instrument patterns in IMC manually, the ultimate backup system when all else has failed – the pilot – is no longer a pilot. If that is true, we might as well start automating pilots out of the system now.

The FAA has already conceded that foreign pilots cannot fly visual approaches at SFO and has directed ATC not to offer them the visual option.

9 Responses to Pilot competency up for discussion

  1. Darren Boyle 30 July, 2013 at 10:21 am #

    Surely it would be good practice if it was mandatory for a pilot to fly manually for a certain period of time during normal flights.

  2. Andy 6 August, 2013 at 4:15 pm #

    The FAA banning Visual Approaches seems astounding to me. If you have this little confidence in the ability of foreign airlines to operate in this most basic mode, then you should ban them from operating. After all, even a CAT II approach ends in a visual / manual landing. And if you can’t “safely” fly a visual approach, aren’t you increasing the risk of a serious accident when flying an RNAV approach if you subsequently suffer some for of instrument failure? This seems to be a very poorly thought out knee jerk reaction.

    • David Learmount 8 August, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

      I over-egged this pudding. The FAA didn’t actually ban them, but non-US carriers were not offered a visual even when the US carriers were being given them. US carriers are accustomed to visuals, whereas most non-US pilots hardly ever do them now as a matter of airline SOPs. At SFO controllers would let a foreign carrier do a visual, but only if he asked for one.

  3. Georg Spieth 6 August, 2013 at 6:10 pm #

    As an airline pilot I would like to say that my airline puts a lot of emphasis on manual flying and crews are required to train and demonstrate their skills in every simulator session. We pilots must be able to fly our plane by hand, otherwise,as stated above, we would deliver a good reason to industry for replacing us.

    I can understand that the FAA wants to improve safety. And even if you can land manually and are able to control your glidepath without an assisting electronic or visual glide slope indicator, it should be discussed as a safety matter that a such a visual approach is enforced on an international airport together with sometimes challenging approach vectors.

    What I don’t understand is the distinction made between “foreign” and “not foreign” pilots. What makes the FAA believe that the latter are the better pilots?

  4. John Mac 6 August, 2013 at 6:58 pm #

    I frequently fly with new 200 hour cadet pilots. Nothing fills them with horror more than the prospect of a visual approach. You can’t blame them though, as it’s outside of their training and experience.

  5. Steve Green 7 August, 2013 at 1:48 am #

    I would guess that 80% of the approaches that I fly into DFW, ORD, ATL and MIA are visual approaches. Last summer, LGA was using an ILS 22, circle to land on runway 13; we certainly did that visually. Otherwise, LGA uses the Expressway visual almost exclusively after a cold front has passed. When the controller kept us too high approaching MSY from the west, we abandoned the visual to runway 10 and accepted a visual to runway 19, with no vertical guidance. This isn’t just a domestic thing, either; every time I go to Monterrey, Mexico, I fly a visual to runway 11. Of course, there is always the River visual to runway 19 at DCA, and almost all long-haul pilots, foreign or otherwise, are familiar with the Canarsie approach at JFK.

    So I don’t necessarily agree that hand flying skills are the problem, although I will say that my observations of other aircraft making some of these approaches suggest that a little more practice in ground reference maneuvers might be in order. Rather, I would suggest that a preoccupation with trying to get the automation integrated with the task at hand, or even to work properly at all, may play a role in these events.

    I am familiar with both schools of thought regarding partial automation; Boeing will tell you that the autothrottles should be off if the autopilot is off, and yet many carriers will normally hand fly with the autothrottles engaged. Either way works if you have a good scan and normal residual attention. But if that residual attention gets eaten up by, say, IOE instruction, (when no one has a whole lot of residual attention to begin with), then trouble is close at hand. I would wager that if the Asiana pilot had pickled off his autothrottles at around 1500 feet, as I normally do on a visual approach, he would have been just fine.

    But that is speculation that anticipates the report, and perhaps we should wait a bit before passing too much judgement.

  6. Chris Rigby 7 August, 2013 at 6:24 am #

    This issue with lack of ability to fly visual approaches has been looming for many years. Having spent 40+ years as a pilot of mainly 737′s (Capt. for 33 years) and having worked for 6 different operators in the UK, (lastly Ryanair) I have seen this developing as the FMC has got cleverer and cleverer. The problem however is now accelerating. The reason for this is that my generation of pilots had to learn to ‘fly’ the aircraft because we didn’t have this level of sophistication and if we had a ‘new’ co-pilot we could always encourage them (sometimes reluctantly on their part), to handle the aircraft in preparation for that rainy day. Now we have captains who themselves have never flown the aircraft, to any great extent, manually and they are scared of allowing the F/O’s to do it, because they themselves don’t know how to monitor it. Equally the training departments are now filled with the clever young men who rely on the QRH and SOP’s, hoping it will protect them from all evil – it won’t. As you say David, common sense should always be the first SOP and this has been bulldozed out of the way by successive eager training regimes eager to be the ‘Right Stuff’.
    There is only way that this will be resolved and that is by following the same regime as we do for CATIII approaches. It has to be practised in the simulator and far more importantly, it has to be done on the line AND SIGNED FOR, FOR AT LEAST 3 APPROACHES in between LPC/OPC’s. Companies have to be told to stop discouraging pilots from making visual approaches. This is the only way you will ensure that pilots are practising these skills. Pilots are always going to make mistakes but unless you give them chance to practice in real life, these accidents are going to continue at an ever increasing pace.

  7. J.L. McEwan, Capt. Ret. 8 August, 2013 at 2:45 am #

    The discussion of the Asiana pilots’ skills is interesting, but not the whole story. We have known for years that not all pilots’ skill levels are held to the same high standards, especially the off-shore pilots. Airbus took advantage of this first, by partially eliminating the need for piloting skills in their cockpits. Boeing has now followed suit, in an attempt to regain the third world market. I say this only as a statement of fact, not for debate. Middle-east and Asian airlines 20 years ago routinely offered British and American pilots three year contracts to fly for them so they would have a “westerner” in the cockpit to monitor and train their locally hired pilots. So what has changed? The “western” pilots are gone. They cost too much money.
    We know that this change has occurred. The FAA is aware of it, too. We used to monitor approaches with Precision Approach Radar, accepting the fact that pilots can make mistakes, and a deviation from the normal approach profile could be pointed out to the crew before a mistake became a disaster. This capability was also installed in towers so that the tower controller could monitor visual approaches. What was the tower doing in this case? Here in SFO Asiana had no reference in the cockpit to confirm a correct profile for either 28L or 28R. The PAPI for 28L was NOTAMed inop. What is going on here? Why does the FAA think is acceptable to reduce the level of instrumentation to zero on the most used runways at a major international airport like SFO? Construction caused the elimination of ILS’s to both runways for 60 days during the peak of the tourist season? Who made this stupid decision? Rather than insulting countries that are potential customers for our Boeing airplanes, perhaps we should correct the mistakes that have reduced our aviation services to the level of a third world country.

  8. Kris Van der Plas 21 August, 2013 at 10:53 am #

    If you want to know what pilots themselves think training should be like read it here: https://www.eurocockpit.be/sites/default/files/eca_pilot_training_compass_back_to_the_future_13_0228_0.pdf

Leave a Reply