Proficient Pilot

FITS gives me fits

November 1, 2010

Since retiring from TWA in 1998, I have made it a point to submit to an instrument proficiency check almost every year. In each case, I have used an airplane equipped with analog gauges. This year, I used a Cessna 172SP equipped with a Garmin G1000.

Much to my chagrin, the instructor, Mike Lozano of Channel Islands Aviation, required me to use the autopilot during almost the entire flight. This, I was told, was part of the curriculum spelled out in FITS, the FAA-Industry Training Standards used to train people “flying” glass cockpits. The only times I got to hand-fly the airplane were during the takeoff and landing, the initial phases of missed approaches, and when Lozano simulated the failure of the primary flight display (by pulling a circuit breaker). Hand-flying an instrument approach without the PDF is much easier than using only “needle-ball-airspeed” in an airplane equipped with “steam” gauges. After all, the backup instruments when flying glass include a conventional attitude indicator. Duck soup.

I had begun to experience the evolution in general aviation from hands-on flying to developing a reliance on automation, and I wasn’t particularly enthralled with it.

When I first checked out in the Boeing 767, it contained so much automation that new pilots joked that someday a single pilot would step aboard a jetliner and be allowed only to peer into the cockpit through a glass barrier. On the barrier would be a sign that would read, “Break Glass in Case of Emergency.” He would then take a seat in the cabin and read his newspaper until and unless he was needed.

Many of today’s general aviation airplanes have much more automation than did the early edition 767, and many new airliners have more automation yet—so much so that pilots are becoming secondary methods of control. It gives me cause for concern that “automation complacency” will lead to a steady erosion in pilots of what we broadly refer to as airmanship.

An example of how automation dependency and complacency can kill is illustrated by last year’s crash of Turkish Airlines Flight TK1951. While approaching Amsterdam’s Runway 18R, the pilots of the Boeing 737-800 descended at above-normal airspeed to intercept the glideslope from above with the autothrottles closed. When the aircraft intercepted the glide-slope, the autopilot appropriately raised the nose but the throttles remained closed, resulting in a speed bleed. When the stick shaker finally activated at 109 knots, one pilot moved the throttles forward slightly, but an anomaly in the system caused them to close again. By the time the pilots began to recognize the problem, full power was added and the nose lowered, but there was insufficient altitude from which to recover from the stall.

A pilot not relying on such automation likely would have firewalled the thrust levers earlier in the scenario and flown away safely (or have avoided the speed bleed in the first place).

An MD–11 captain was returning to the cockpit after attending to a physiological necessity during a flight from Tokyo to Dallas. After closing the cockpit door, he heard the overspeed warning. Both pilots (one was the relief pilot) began punching numbers into the flight management system to “tell” the autothrottles to slow the airplane. The loud aural warning continued. The captain finally yelled, “Pull back the [expletive deleted] throttles.” It was as if neither of the seated pilots had thought of that.

During a session in a Boeing 767 simulator, the instructor programmed another airplane to present itself for a potential midair collision. Upon seeing the intruder, the student captain called for the first officer to roll the vertical-speed knob, which didn’t work because another vertical mode was in use. He finally called to change the vertical mode but not in time to avoid the collision. Why didn’t one of the pilots simply disconnect the autopilot and maneuver the airplane away from the threat? It is the result of automation complacency and dependency, a mental condition that is becoming increasingly more pervasive.

A single-pilot jetliner might seem far-fetched but there are those already making the suggestion. Initially the two-man crew would be replaced by a single pilot and a dog. The pilot would feed the dog, and the dog would bite the pilot if he touched anything. Don’t laugh. Ryanair’s CEO, Michael O’Leary, is calling for single-pilot aircraft. (He has suggested pay toilets on jetliners, so his judgment is in question.)

Some believe that we will someday have pilotless airliners. Since pilots are the cause of most accidents (in both airline and general aviation flying), would not eliminating pilots improve safety? Some point to the success of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) (see page 87). Extra layers of system sophistication, redundancy, and reliability would make such a scheme plausible. After all, pilotless vehicles have been successfully sent to Mars. Why not from San Francisco to New York?

When that happens, you can find me flying an Aeronca Champ with hardly any instruments over the backwoods in an attempt to avoid falling debris.

Visit the author’s Web site.

Join the fun

Barry Schiff will be a featured speaker at the 2010 AOPA Aviation Summit. He will present “Engine Failure After Takeoff” on Saturday, November 12, and will co-host a “Dine Around” event on Thursday, November 11. See the website for more information.