Standard of training

July 1, 2003

Bruce Landsberg has almost mastered three different IFR GPS units installed in a variety of aircraft.

Safely putting low-time pilots into high-performance aircraft has always been a challenge. The yen for speed translates into more yen for the manufacturers, and there's always the temptation to sell to a marginally qualified buyer.

A high-profile case occurred in 1979 when star baseball player Thurmon Munson bought a new Cessna Citation. He was to go through factory simulator and flight training, which he did — mostly. After that, a Citation-qualified captain was to be aboard until Munson gained enough hours and proficiency to safely go it alone. Alas, enthusiasm won out over judgment and solemn promises. The ball player took some buddies up for a few turns around the airport and they fetched up short of the runway. Munson was killed, and the finger-pointing started.

As jets go, the Citation is one of the friendliest and it was marketed as "simple and sensible." In semiskilled hands, however, any airplane, or other motorized conveyance for that matter, can cause extreme damage. But there are training and technology solutions. The recipe is simple. If the technology is really smart, then the pilot doesn't have to be — usually. The converse is also generally true.

Now jump ahead two decades and see where the technology has gone. The FAA is concerned about the proliferation of new glass cockpits, especially in light airplanes, and has teamed up with the University of North Dakota and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to look at training for what are referred to as technically advanced aircraft, or TAA. The definition is a bit loose right now but includes everything with a primary flight display (PFD), a flat glass panel that substitutes for individual flight instruments. Fast new singles and twins such as the Cirrus SR20, SR22, Lancair Columbia and Adam A500 (see " Adam A500: Get In Line," page 60), microjets such as the Eclipse 500 and Cessna Mustang, and classic-technology aircraft equipped with multifunction displays (MFDs) or IFR GPS all are considered TAA. A new program called FAA Industry Training Standards (FITS) is intended as a nonregulatory way to guide pilots into matching their performance to their airplanes. Before we get to FITS, however, let's look at the problem it is attempting to solve.

The holy grail of the industry is to build high-performance aircraft that are easier to fly, cost less, and demand less from pilots than traditional models. New designs aim to reduce workload and simplify systems. But accidents involving basic handling skills and judgment-related mishaps involving weather have affected the new models just as they have always plagued the older marques such as the Bonanza and Mooney lines, the Cessna 210, and the Piper Saratoga.

Assuming that most of the trouble stems from the pilot, and not the aircraft, we come to some familiar ground. Traditional aviation risk management identifies three sources of risk: the pilot, the aircraft, and the environment. The hope with TAA is that significant improvements to the airplane will reduce workload and hazards from the environment and even help with decision making. But given the present state of the art, that can only happen with a properly trained pilot. Judgment is still required. The aircraft are more capable in some areas, but pilots occasionally have performance or judgment gaps.

The operational environment is the same for all low-altitude airplanes, but some are better equipped to handle weather than others. Deicing, on-board radar, and datalink multifunction displays don't change forecasts but do provide the trained pilot with more tools upon which to base good decisions. Ironically, more equipment appears to have induced some pilots to probe more deeply into weather than is prudent. Datalink-equipped aircraft will likely complete more trips safely, but the number of accidents may also increase as tougher weather is considered flyable. It's too early in the weather datalink game to know.

Despite real gains in efficiency, the basic aerodynamics of low-speed flight have not been altered appreciably — stalls, directional control, crosswinds, and landing flares are still with us. Despite all the gains in comfort and enhanced navigational awareness, every flight always needs some of that "pilot stuff." Hand-eye-foot coordination is still essential.

That brings us to training. To conceptualize the training challenge, we might arbitrarily divide the process into understanding the physical aircraft, the mental aircraft, and judgment, decision making, or whatever you'd like to call making the right choice at the right time. A failure in any one of these areas can cause bad things to happen.

The physical aircraft

Since the advent of GA business jets, formal schools have prepped pilots for jet type ratings, as required by the regulations. Simulators were used extensively since the aircraft were prohibitively expensive and complex. Pilots tended to be hired guns that had basic flight and instrument skills wired. Factory schools were inclined to focus on "switchology" that taught aircraft systems but did little to buff up basic airmanship.

That worked as long as pilots came with good basic skills. About 15 years ago the first type-specific simulators were developed for high-performance singles such as the Mooney, Bonanza, Cessna 210, and Piper Malibu. The drawback to teaching only switchology became apparent because many GA pilots did not come with the same skill set and a universal training program didn't fit all. Those with marginal competence needed considerable prep just to return to FAA private pilot level. Sharp pilots transitioned to the physical aircraft quickly after a few days of systems ground school, a few hours in the air, and perhaps a dozen landings. But rushing the less capable through this type of program caused trouble. They might be OK for VFR flight, but several crashed in instrument conditions subsequent to training despite being warned not to fly IFR. The professional training organizations started offering remedial instrument training to those who needed it. Not everyone availed themselves of the opportunities and there were bad decisions, bad headlines, and higher insurance costs for everyone.

The mental aircraft

This is a new phenomenon to light GA but the airlines and business jet community have been coping with it for decades. It arises from the complexity of avionics packages that are integral to the control and navigation of the airplane. In larger aircraft the flight management system or -computer (FMS or FMC) equates to IFR-approved GPS units for light aircraft. Learning the mental aircraft means being able to operate the GPS or FMS in instrument conditions under all circumstances without getting lost in the box or losing control of the airplane while programming.

The airlines and pilot training organizations found that training the mental aircraft was usually tougher than the physical airplane. The reason? Regulations mandate how basic controls function so they're all similar, if not identical. Not so with avionics. The FAA succumbed to industry pressure to allow innovation with relatively few standards. As a result, no two systems are alike. Regulation dictates what should be done, not how to program the unit, although recently there has been some movement on the FAA's part in that direction.

Very few training operations could afford to build a simulator that has more than one type of GPS or FMS unit, and training pilots on Brand A avionics when they fly a Brand B-equipped aircraft is not especially effective. Innovation, however, flourished.

FMS and GPS units possess phenomenal capabilities that also increase complexity. They've evolved to allow a degree of positional awareness far beyond what was once thought possible. Since avionics mutate much faster than the physical aircraft, an IFR GPS that was top of the line five years ago is now obsolete, and this creates legacy and primacy of training issues (what is learned first is learned best). The training challenges are significant both for pilots and instructors.

The airlines have learned several things: It generally takes longer to teach experienced pilots the mental aircraft than the physical aircraft. Older pilots generally have more difficulty transitioning. Computer-savvy pilots transition more easily. The FMS or GPS is capable of doing far more than the average pilot asks of it on most flights and learning saturation may occur quickly in training.

FITS is intended to address some of these issues by ensuring that pilots stepping into TAA have the benefit of a defined syllabus and best practices. The syllabus concept is good for anything, even the simplest aircraft, and it is not a new idea. In 1989 the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) came up with a publication (GAMA Spec 5) that provided guidance for training programs to prep pilots transitioning into high-performance airplanes. FITS goes beyond that, incorporating some best-practice thinking that has evolved in university, military, and industry programs. The FITS partnership currently includes the two universities, the FAA, GAMA, the Small Aircraft Manufacturers Association, Cirrus, Eclipse, AirShares Elite (a fractional ownership program using Cirrus Aircraft), and the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.

Thorough high-performance training is a good idea but it has been unevenly administered. Smart pilots, or their insurance companies, have always recognized the value of having more than a quickie checkout in a complex machine. FlightSafety International, SimCom, many collegiate programs, and a number of others have steadily trained high-performance pilots for years. But FITS will raise the bar for anyone who is casually engaged in prepping pilots for TAA. The FAA won't require programs to follow FITS, but try telling that to a jury or insurer after a mishap. This could become the de facto standard.

Smaller flight schools have some real challenges ahead if they are going to teach pilots to fly advanced aircraft. They have little trouble teaching the physical aircraft, but the mental aircraft poses some difficulty. CFIs not affiliated with a major training organization have little or inconsistent access to a variety of avionics, although they may be facile with one or two that they fly regularly.

Simulation is far superior and more efficient in teaching the mental aircraft than stooging around in the airspace pushing buttons, dodging traffic, and hoping for the best. The aircraft itself is largely irrelevant early in the avionics training process. It is only a platform that supports the avionics. Part-task and at-home training are helpful before going to a formal school. Use of computer training programs in the initial stages is recommended. These programs, such as Electronic Flight Systems, are evolving, although at this writing only a few of the newer avionics units are covered in computer-based training and the quality of the programs varies. For legacy units, the polite term for out of production, there is not much training support and their interfaces can be quite complex. There is currently little economic incentive to deal with these orphans.

The other area that FITS hopes to address is the all-time number-one creator of serious accidents — pilot judgment. Depending on whom you talk to, it will either be a standalone portion of the syllabus or incorporated throughout. Either way, it forms the third part of the safety equation and we'll discuss that in a future column.

Pilot and instructor relationships with factories or factory-authorized organizations are likely to become much stronger. This will increase training expense and time required, but it's too soon to know how much. For pilots flying TAA, it will be tougher to find a school or instructor who knows their particular equipment and has the tools to teach them efficiently. That's the downside. However, it could significantly help to reduce accidents and improve pilot performance across the board. That's worth a lot to all of us.