Manual flight operations – the relic of the 20th century?

2013-01-21

As aviation technologies are rapidly improving, autoflight systems do not stand in the same place either.  There is no doubt that such aircraft operation systems as satellite navigators, digital autopilots, GPS navigators, synthetic-vision technology and many others are useful and increase aircraft operating safety. Although a number of accidents caused by the loss-of- control raise doubts and discussions, the main question is why do they happen at all when there are so many safety providing tools? 

The paradox of the 21st century

The problems appear not in the autoflight systems themselves, but rather due to the constant use of them. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has recently issued a new Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO), where they state that autoflight systems are ‘useful tools for pilots and have improved safety and workload management, and thus enabled more precise operations. However, continuous use of autoflight systems could lead to degradation of the pilot’s ability to recover the aircraft quickly from an undesired state.’ In other words, the more the new autoflight systems designed to ensure safety are being created, the more aircraft operators loose manual handling skills causing fatal accidents. 

Tony Johnstone, a master CFI and aerobatics instructor cited in the Flying Mag’s Stephen Pope’s article (‘Getting Back to Hand Flying’) says that these days pilots are so used to the autoflight systems, that they forget what it means to actually handle one. According to him even minor errors in the system raise huge distraction from the main job – maintaining control of the airplane. 
 
Manual handling vital for flight safety

Federal Aviation Administration has issued a list of top 10 Leading Causes of Fatal General Aviation Accidents from 2001 to 2011 with the loss-of-control (LOC) being  the No.1 culprit. In 2012 the National Transportation Safety Board’s safety database had more than 150 loss-of-control accidents involving light general aviation airplanes, most of which were fatal.

There have been nine fatal airline LOC accidents since 2000, all of which were avoidable. 1,128 people died in them. The crash of a Gulf Air’s Airbus A320 in Bahrain in 2000, resulting in 143 deaths, was also attributed to loss of control.

David McCorquodale, the UK Civil Aviation Authority’s head of flight crew standards, admits that no-one is certain of all the factors that had lead to LOC, but they suspect that the knock-on effects of high levels of automation played an important role. (Flightglobal Learmount blog)  

What should be done?

Vytautas Stankevicius, the Head of Training at Baltic Aviation Academy, agrees that pilots may lose their skills of manual aircraft operations, although according to the requirements of JAR FCL they should renew and rebuild these skills by constantly training in full flight simulators. ‘I believe there are no random people in aviation – those who come are motivated to be great pilots, and try to improve their skills during every flight. Pilots, whom I know and work with also tend to practice turning off the autoflight systems in actual flights, in order to operate the aircraft manually, although it is not strictly required by the European operational policies,’ comments Vytautas Stankevicius. According to the recently issued FAA’s SAFO, airline operational policies should ensure that all pilots have the opportunity to exercise the manual handling knowledge and skills in flight operations.  

It is suggested that the ability to stick to manual aircraft operating depends on how the pilot was trained. The alternate training qualification programme (ATQP) should also help to increase the rate of appropriate training, although the CAA training standards inspector Capt Andy Gaskell believes that about 75% of the simulator time is spent on testing and only about 25% on training. ‘This makes it a lost opportunity for raising standards. That balance should be reversed,’ he says in the aforementioned Learmount’s blog. 

Those, who consider manual handling skill loss a serious problem and want to prevent themselves from hurtful accidents, are invited to attend a special seminar. Tony Johnstone, concerned that pilots these days are losing their edge in the cockpit, has created a safety seminar in conjunction with the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE) titled ‘Stick-and-Rudder Skills in a Glass Cockpit World.’

Here at Baltic Aviation Academy we would like to find out how you prevent the loss of your or your team’s manual aircraft operation skills. We kindly ask you to share your personal stories at [email protected] 

Sources: flyingmag.com; jetwhine.com; ainonline.com; flightglobal.com; faa.gov

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