Extensive evidence from line operations shows that airline pilots are losing manual flying skills, that pilots are reluctant to revert to manual flight, but also that manual flying skills are as vital for safe operations as they have always been despite today's ultra-reliable aircraft and their high levels of automation.
The warning came at the International Air Transport Association Training and Qualification Initiative (ITQI) conference at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London earlier this week.
Using a combination of historic and recent data, ITQI consultant Capt John Scully showed the problems that cause incidents were radically different on generation 2 aircraft (McDonnell Douglas DC-9 etc) compared with generation 4 types (Boeing 777 and Airbus fly-by-wire marques). High profile problems in generation 2 types were poor visibility, systems malfunctions, engine failures, and fire. Problems in generation 4 types are crew deviation from standard operating procedures (SOP), crosswind landings, mismanagement of aircraft systems, and issues with runway and taxiway condition.
Pilots of generation 4 aircraft are less good at handling surprises than their colleagues on previous generations were, said Capt Michael Varney, project leader evidence-based training, ITQI, but they are just as likely to get surprises in the latest aircraft.
The evidence shows that a vital manoeuvre pilots are not required to train for - the go-around - is one of the most frequently mishandled. But the results of the study have thrown up an apparent anomaly which the ITQI team have called "the unstable approach paradox". SOP is to go around (not land) from any unstable approach, but Scully pointed out statistics reveal going around from an unstable approach is more dangerous than landing from one. The complexity of some of the causes behind the events becomes apparent the deeper the analysis goes. For example, data demonstrates go-arounds from stable approaches are three times more likely to be safe than go-arounds from unstable approaches. Additionally, a "red" (serious) safety event during go-around is nearly 1.5 times more likely to occur after an unstable approach as after a stable one.
Beneath it all, Varney found, crews that end up in unstable approaches have a notably higher incidence of being involved in operational problems during other phases of flight.
The message, said Varney, is that evidence-based training regimes must be the future. But at the same event Paul Lamy, senior safety adviser to the International Civil Aviation Organisation's Air Navigation Bureau, warned that changing existing training practices will be difficult. He said: "Regulatory agencies tend to be very conservative. We may have to do some arm-twisting," adding that the way to persuade people of the case for radical changes to airline pilot training and assessment methodology is "to build a powerful safety and business case" based on hard evidence.
The purpose of the study, added Scully, is to develop evidence-based training programmes as the data reveals where pilot skills are lacking in the modern cockpit environment.