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Train, Train, Train

Automated flight systems require professional discipline from all pilots

By Max Trescott, Coulumnist - Sport Aviation, EAA 531980

EAA and Sport Aviation contributor Max Trescott gives his GA-centered take on an FAA study showing piloting skills are eroding in the wake of increasing automation on the flight deck

September 1, 2011 –A story this week by the Associated Press reports, “A draft FAA study found pilots sometimes ‘abdicate too much responsibility to automated systems.’” As a result, loss of control accidents in which aircraft stall or were in positions from which pilots were unable to recover are now the most common type of airline accident, the AP reported. Automated systems are good and bad news for airline passengers. The same is true for pilots flying GA aircraft with modern avionics.

The good news is that modern airline avionics have eliminated some accident types almost as completely as Western medicine has eliminated polio. According to the FAA, between 1946 and 1955, large passenger aircraft averaged 3.5 fatal controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents a year, or about one every 15 weeks. In 1974, the FAA required all passenger turbojet aircraft to install Ground Proximity Warning Systems (GPWS) and since then, no jet operator has had a CFIT event in U.S. airspace.

The bad news is that modern airline avionics are so complex that pilots often don’t understand all possible failure mechanisms, especially when cascading failures cause the flight deck to light up like a Christmas tree. The FAA recognized this as early as 2000 in an analysis of flight deck automation issues. The top two issues identified were:

  1. Pilots may not understand the structure and function of automation or the interaction of automation devices well enough to safely perform their duties.
  2. The behavior of automation devices - what they are doing now and what they will do in the future based upon pilot input or other factors - may not be apparent to pilots, possibly resulting in reduced pilot awareness of automation behavior and goals.

This latter problem results in what flight instructors refer to as an “automation surprise,” something I see almost daily as I teach in aircraft equipped with avionics as simple as an IFR-capable GPS or as complex as a modern glass flight deck like the Garmin G1000 and Perspective. One of the most common mistakes I see is a failure to recognize that the autopilot is NOT engaged and that no one is flying the aircraft.

The FAA study found this same issue is common among airline pilots, who also frequently fail to notice when the auto-throttle, which controls power to the engines, disconnects.

One answer to these flight deck automation problems is my mantra: “Train, Train, Train,” both on avionic systems as well as basic stick and rudder skills. That solution relates to these other issues listed in the FAA’s flight deck automation study:

(No. 5) Training philosophy, objectives, methods, materials, or equipment may be inadequate to properly train pilots for safe and effective automated aircraft operation.

(No. 10) Pilots may lose psychomotor and cognitive skills required for flying manually, or for flying non-automated aircraft, due to extensive use of automation.
Unless the most modern avionics in your aircraft is a VOR receiver, you need to spend more time studying newer avionics than you spent learning older systems.

That’s because VOR receivers are so simple that pilots can usually figure out how to use a different type they have never seen before. The same cannot be said of modern avionics. Jump into a plane with an IFR-capable GPS you’ve never seen before and you’ll struggle mightily to get it to perform the most basic functions.

Airline and GA pilots alike need to spend more time studying these magical new boxes. The time invested will pay off magnificently with phenomenal capabilities that seemed unattainable just a few years ago. It’s a brave new world for avionics and it demands a new professional discipline from all pilots.

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