There are signs that influential decision-makers in the airline industry have decided pilot training needs to revisit the basics.
However, it remains to be seen whether the advice and guidance that emerged at the Royal Aeronautical Society’s "Aircraft commander in the 21st century" conference – the third in a series that started in 2012 – will translate into action.
The conferences addressed growing industry concern over a degradation in airline pilot performance This was heightened by a series of loss-of-control events like Air France 447 over the south Atlantic in 2009, and reinforced by the Asiana Boeing 777 crash on landing at San Francisco last year.
It seems some pilots no longer routinely watch basic aircraft performance indicators like airspeed, attitude and power. The automatic systems are so good the pilots are beginning to trust them implicitly, leaving them free to monitor different things. But exactly what is attracting the attention of today’s airline pilot?
The RAeS conferences concluded the airline pilot’s job has changed from aviating to systems management, without any change in the way pilots are prepared for the job. This is despite the fact a pilot who retired in 1979 would hardly recognise anything on the flightdeck of a Boeing 787.
Aircraft systems have become far more complex. The automatic tools pilots use to control and navigate aircraft are now so accurate flightcrew have no cause to handle the aircraft – and their employers actively discourage them from doing so.
During an open forum session at the end of the 25-26 March conference, delegates and speakers expressed opinions as to what should happen now.
Capt Mike Varney of Airbus and Capt Steve Hawkins of British Airways independently came to the conclusion that pilots have to be reintroduced to their aircraft as flying machines, because both they and their employers have become obsessed with systems management, to the exclusion of flying. The operations and training leadership at both organisations have taken up the idea of tripping out the flight director and turning off the automatics at the beginning of type or recurrent simulator training sessions. Hawkins says BA is now giving pilots time to “fly” visual patterns with no flight director and no autopilot, while Airbus is introducing new A350 pilots to the aircraft by allowing them to discover it as a flying machine first, before exploring the systems. Both report an improvement in the pilots’ performance for the rest of the type, or in recurrent training sessions.
Dr Kathy Abbott, senior human factors scientist at the US Federal Aviation Administration and NASA, remains an advocate of the pilot as an overall risk mitigator, despite the fact that some occasionally make fatal mistakes. She says the industry needs to study how pilots get things right even when under stress, so the industry can consolidate on that, rather than agonising about how they get things wrong. A simple fact the FAA has extracted from the mass of operational data it has studied is that only one out of 10 flights go according to the flightplan filed and programmed into the flight management system – so the pilots are there to cope with all the variables. And they do cope, says Abbott. She cites the Hudson River ditching and the Qantas A380 QF32 catastrophic engine failure as obvious examples of situations in which crews managed beautifully, where automation would not have been able to do so. The skills, knowledge and character that enable crews to cope in high stress situations like this need to be understood and reinforced, she adds.
The FAA published a report in November 2013 entitled "The operational use of flightpath management systems". Based on hard data, the report demonstrates that the industry has not got the balance right in the way it prepares pilots to use automation. One point raised in the conference forum was that the need to keep pilots competent in “core skills” is often cited, but that the industry needs to review what “core piloting skills” actually consist of, because the job has changed.
The question was raised about whether additional training time to reintroduce pilots to their flying machines would be made available.
Deke Abbott, aviation safety inspector, air carrier operations at the FAA, does not see airlines providing any more time for training, but thinks mentoring could make a difference. He envisages a classroom or a one-on-one ground-based scenario, and wants to reintroduce the idea of pilot role models, with the more senior and experienced flightcrew giving time in the air and on the ground to encourage the less experienced.
A related thought from the conference 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 BA pilot Capt Hugh Dibley believes co-pilots should be treated by their commanders as captains-in-waiting, and regularly entrusted with tasks normally assumed by the captain during line operations. This kind of mentoring makes them better co-pilots, better monitoring pilots and eventually good captains.
There was also a general point made 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, operations people must find the language and the figures to convince top strategists to “buy into” the operational aspects of safety. Unless they do, the conference argues, the resources to improve will not be made available.