A just-released analysis of global airline safety data by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) says that pilot judgement, decision-making and/or handling are key factors in 75% of catastrophic accidents, whereas technical failures tend to be causal in the less serious events.
Meanwhile, there is evidence that some airlines are beginning to use today's lower-cost, high-fidelity simulation to improve crews' wider operational and flight management skills rather than just the traditional handling, emergencies and systems management that they have traditionally concentrated on.
The CAA's report reveals that, despite advancing technology and improved aircraft reliability, crew judgement and actions remain the most consistent causal factor in catastrophic accidents. That situation will remain true for the foreseeable future, according to Dr Hazel Courteney, the CAA's head of research and strategic analysis.
For that reason, she says, quality pilot training at all levels remains the critical factor in preventing the most serious accidents. Recent studies also prove that pilot training for modern aircraft "is still rooted in pre-automation thinking", and there continues to be the assumption that pilots of highly automated aircraft can easily revert to "raw" flying.
This last point, Courteney told the UK Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) September Flight Crew Training Conference, is not borne out by ongoing studies, which show that handling skills degrade with time, while cognitive skills are less time-sensitive, and that recent manual flying practice does improve manual flying performance. Two months later at the Flight Safety Foundation International Aviation Safety Seminar in Honolulu, Courteney presented a study on prioritising actions with the highest potential to reduce the chances of catastrophic accidents.
"Crew related issues dominate accident causal factors, featuring in 75% of fatal accidents," Courteney said. But she qualified this statement, adding: "It is important to note that this [statistic] does not imply that the pilot was at fault or to blame, because it is now well-established that 'pilot error' cannot continue to be the scapegoat for the many and various factors that can lead to the error occurring."
Courteney emphasised that the CAA data "highlights the crucial importance of pilot performance in safety, and therefore reminds us to invest resources in anything that might support it - [for example] training and simulation facilities - and to minimise influences that might adversely contribute, [like] time pressure, fatigue, and distraction."
She remarked that improving safety is getting harder: "The easy changes have been made and the obvious lessons have been learned. Accidents are getting rare and tend to involve multiple, unique circumstances."
This fact would seem to demand training situations which test the crew's resourcefulness as well as technical knowledge and skills.
The CAA study found that the top catastrophic accident risk is loss of control (LOC). After LOC, Courteney reported that controlled flight into terrain remains the next most serious risk, followed by post-crash fire and runway excursions and overruns.
Human factors specialists point out that pilots still need preparation to operate to best effect in precision area navigation (P-RNAV) airspace, which is becoming an increasingly widespread requirement in congested terminal airspace, and for flying required navigation performance (RNP) approaches which improve the efficiency of procedures, cutting delay and fuel use.
Dr Kathy Abbott, The US Federal Aviation Administration's chief scientific advisor for human factors, says crews have to be prepared for P-RNAV in its various forms, including RNP. These satellite navigation-based precision approaches have won over many carriers in Canada, the USA and Australasia by providing precision approaches at airports where nothing else was feasible or affordable. They allowed operations when weather would previously have prevented them, while cutting fuel use and gate-to-gate time.
At the RAeS conference Abbott pointed out that crews will soon have to be trained to cope with airborne self-separation, or delegated separation, and with managing four-dimensional aircraft trajectories leading to required times of arrival (RTA) with a touchdown accuracy of ±3s, again saving time, fuel and delay at congested airports. Eurocontrol, which is working with the FAA on this objective, predicts the first such approaches on commercial flights will be flown in 2011, and more generally by 2013, with only software upgrades required for aircraft already fitted with controller/pilot datalink communications equipment like VDL-2. On 17 November Eurocontrol announced an airspace and procedures redesign that will take place between now and 2010 to shorten point-to-point routeings, but they will only be as good as the pilots' abilities to make use of them.
The affordable key to most of these skills is up-to-date, locally provided simulation that does not take crews away from their work on the line for any longer than necessary. According to Mechtronix president Xavier Hervé, the airlines' recent choices reflect this, because spending on simulation is increasing despite the economic downturn.
Ab-initio training is normally the first industry sector to be hit in times of economic uncertainty, says Hervé. But Mechtronix - the only simulator manufacturer that provides flight training devices for basic training as well as level D full flight simulators - confirms that demand from the ab-initio sector is holding up or even climbing: "I see both ends of the spectrum. From the ab-initio sector no-one is cancelling and I am taking new orders, and I'm not seeing any changes from commercial aviation either."
The major ab-initio training schools are much bigger than they were only a couple of years ago, Hervé adds, and although business may be slowing, it is not stopping. The industry size has increased overall, he reports, and the proof for Mechtronix is recent orders for scaleable products. Hervé says this year he has taken orders for seven multi-crew co-operation FTDs for jet transition: "I haven't sold that many in the last six years."
He says that the more mature economies like those of North America, western Europe and Japan may be taking a hit, but the rest of the world is suffering reduced growth rather than actual recession.
They may, Hervé suggests, be looking to reduce their costs, but not actually to slow down, and they are increasingly able to do this by taking advantage of simulation's advances in fidelity combined with price reductions which enable them to train crews at base or locally rather than losing them from the line for a week or more for remote recurrent training. "This business model is proven now," Hervé adds.
Meanwhile, he says, airlines are using simulators not only to train pilots to fly and manage aircraft, but to fly procedures specific to their own requirements to reduce costs and increase the operational efficiency of the airline. Hervé quotes Emirates' fleet vice-president Capt Ed Davidson as an example of a leader who is actively looking beyond using simulators to meet regulatory requirements, employing them also to hone crew decision-making skills in situations where there are operational options purely from the safety point of view, but where one of the outcomes will be the more efficient.
These advances are taking place most rapidly, says Hervé, among "tier-two" airlines which are bringing more training in-house, and in the newer economies where training needs are highest. "The common denominator with them all," says Hervé, "is that they are getting quite sophisticated in the business case analysis they are undertaking with respect to their operations. They don't have this barrier to change that the tier-one airlines do. I'm sorry but I haven't seen, for example, British Airways, innovate when it comes to this stuff - they just won't.
"But you take a tier-three carrier like Mount Cook, or a tier two like TACA... the economic benefits of change are clear for them. They are relatively young organisations and the average age is lower than it is if I go to Air Canada or British Airways."
According to Hervé, airlines now have more choices about which skills they give their pilots, rather than just ticking regulatory boxes, and the chilling results of the CAA studies indicate that the importance of training is as high as it has ever been.
"Second-tier" airlines are choosing to equip themselves with their own simulation facilities