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.