Where now for future pilots?

Pilots have been coming in for a lot of stick since the loss of AF447 in 2009, not helped much by more recent events like the Asiana 777 crash on landing at San Francisco last year.

It seems some pilots simply don’t watch the basics any more: airspeed, attitude, power. The automatic systems are so good the pilots are beginning to trust them implicitly, leaving them free to monitor different things.

But what would those different things be? What is attracting the attention of today’s airline pilot?

For three years in a row the Royal Aeronautical Society has been running a series of conferences they called “The aircraft commander in the 21st century” which was intended to understand the way the airline pilot’s job has changed from aviating to systems management without any change in the way pilots are prepared for the job. A pilot who retired in 1979 would hardly recognise anything on the flight deck in a Boeing 787.

The latest RAeS conference in that series took place this week. So where are we now, according to the participants? I was given the job of chairing the Open Forum session at the end, and this is a brief compendium of the views expressed.

Capt Mike Varney of Airbus and Capt Steve Hawkins of British Airways independently came to the conclusion that pilots have to be re-introduced to their aeroplanes as flying machines, because they and their employers have become obsessed with systems management to the exclusion of flying.

Both, in their own ways, have lighted on the idea of tripping out the flight director and turning off the automatics for early type or recurrent simulator training sessions, and both report a dramatic improvement in the pilots’ performance for the rest of the session when they go into systems management, as they eventually must.

Dr Kathy Abbot, senior human factors scientist at the FAA and NASA, is still an advocate of the pilot as an overall risk mitigator, despite the fact that some of them occasionally make fatal mistakes. She said we need to study more of how pilots get things right so we can consolidate on that, rather than only agonizing about how they get them wrong.

A simple fact the FAA has dug out of the mass of operational data they have studied is that only one out of ten flights go according to the flight plan programmed into the flight management system, so the pilots are there to cope with all the variables – and they do cope.

But where is the expensive training time going to come from to re-introduce pilots to their flying machines?  Deke Abbott (also FAA but not related to Kathy) didn’t see airlines giving any more time for training, but thinks mentoring could make a difference. A classroom or one-on-one ground-based scenario is what he envisages, and re-introducing the idea of pilot role models with the more experienced giving time in the air and on the ground to the less experienced.

A related thought from the floor suggested that all pilots, particularly the new ones on the line, should be provided with motivation for self-improvement as knowledgeable, expert aviators.

Former senior BA captain Hugh Dibley reckoned copilots should be treated by their commanders as captains-in-waiting, and occasionally be entrusted with tasks normally assumed by the captain during line operations. This mentoring makes them better copilots, better monitoring pilots, and eventually good captains.

There was a general point that airline operations people are not successful at selling operational imperatives – like the need for revised or extra training – to the airline Board. If these aims are ever to be achieved, ops people must find the language and the figures to convince the top strategists so that they “buy into” to the operational aspects of safety.

My own advice is that everyone should read the FAA report that was published in November, called (rather misleadingly) “The Operational Use of Flight Path Management Systems”.  It’s summarised in a feature called “Revolution Required” in our Flight Training and Development Guide which you’ll find here: http://www.flightglobal.com/fg-club/in-focus/training-2014/.  It proves that we have not got the balance anywhere near right in the way we require pilots to use automation. This is not just the FAA’s opinion, it is grounded in hard data.


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