What is going on With Pilots-Part 2

I did a blog last month, “What is going on with pilots?” In that blog I asked the question, “What is driving the rush to the bottom when it comes to new pilots?”

A large number of people read the blog, and I received several comments regarding this question, many citing the same concerns as I have.

The comments overwhelmingly came down to this answer. Automation, combined with lack of experience, is the culprit. It was generally agreed that pilots do not hand fly aircraft anymore, or at least not enough, and in some cases cannot hand fly at all. Pilots essentially are becoming computer operators, with the computers often not only flying the aircraft but also making decisions for pilots. That is having a direct and exponentially negative effect on basic flying skills.

One experienced pilot who I have flown with and who I respect told me recently that he was filling in as a second officer in a simulator to help out a captain whose second officer was unavailable. Of course this is a common thing in simulators, but my friend, an experienced jet pilot, was shocked when the captain being instructed was directed to make a base leg to final, and amazingly he did not know how to execute a base to final turn manually without a computer. It does not get more basic…and that individual is a captain.

Others pilots I respect have told me they have had opportunities to be instructor pilots at well-known flight schools but had turned the opportunities down. They simply did not want to be attached to training that was compromised by money. The implication being that when someone pays $35,000 for a type rating they will get a type rating, regardless of their qualification.

So if well qualified and morally conscientious experienced pilots are not willing to teach in this corporate training environment, who is teaching?

“Acting NTSB chief says automation affects professionalism.” So here is the head of the NTSB at the NBAA last month, going down a list of accident reports and saying exactly what many of us already knew. Automation is a problem.

So why and how is automation contaminating professionalism?

In my opinion, it starts with the OEM’s. To make profits they are simply overwhelming the marketplace with automation that, in most cases, is redundant and meaningless, and just plain expensive. Pilots no longer get typed rated based on an aircraft type so much as on what the radio suite in the aircraft is….which clearly means software operator.

I have nothing against progress and technology if it helps business aviation become safer. But if its only purpose is to make profits and does not add to safety, then it is worthless and is conceding safety in the pursuit of profits .

I personally know OEM executives who openly refer to pilots as “meat servos”. That contempt is reflected not only in their words but in their voices. These people have actually convinced themselves that pilots are what is redundant and meaningless, not the crap they sell.

This increasingly puts the pressure on pilots to learn automation and in the process takes away from basic flying skills, just as the NTSB is saying. It gets compounded if the pilot is weak, poorly trained,  generally inexperienced, or all of the above.

Here is a quick example of just how quickly it can go wrong, and why automation is “meadow muffins”. This very short excerpt is from the Aspen crash of 2014. In this case the pilot was told very specifically what he was facing and obviously did not understand what he was being told, and was outside the capabilities of the computers to compute.

The aircraft checked into Aspen tower, and the tower operator told him this,…“wind 320@12 gust to 30, cleared to land runway 15.” The pilot acknowledged the statement without question and went for it. If someone just cleared me to land with a 30 knot tailwind (that is exactly what the tower just told him) in January, at midnight, in Aspen, on a snow covered runway, I would have been outta there without hesitation, on my way to Eagle, or Gunnison, maybe even back to Denver. Anywhere but Aspen!

Our intrepid pilot missed the approach and goes around, even acknowledging to the tower that they had a 33 kt. tailwind on the approach. They took the time to figure out the tailwind component, they took the time to report it, but somehow it did not occur to them it was a problem. The pilot got cleared to land again, went for it again, and ended in a fatal accident.

The pilot was clearly told what was going on, but due to lack of experience, training, or just plain in over their heads with that aircraft, he could not compute in his head what was happening…And he had no computer to work it out for him. This is such basic pilot stuff that it is hard to imagine, but it happened. Later in the same tape another pilot points out to the Gulfstream in front of him, who had been in line for take off before the accident, that they had a wheel chock wedged in their main landing gear. Really??? A wheel chock stuck in the main gear??? Whatever happened to the visual pre-flight? Is that automated now too? Obviously someone was going to die that night!Its-really-confusing

Today in the cockpit, the common question is not “WTF”, but “what is it doing?” Pilots are actually asking each other what “is it doing?” And the “it” they are asking about is the computer that is flying the airplane.

A doctor practices medicine which means, every day a doctor is working; he or she is practicing their trade. They are not putting their practice on an auto pilot and logging hours, but pilots do. Doctors are actually using and improving on their training all the time. Can the same be said for a pilot anymore?

By practicing medicine and using their skills every day doctors, dentists, and lawyers (all people pilots laugh at because they call it their practice) are doing something pilots do not…they stay current and get better at what they do. When a pilot takes off and engages the auto pilot loaded with a preset course and stays on auto pilot for a flight of 1, 2, 3, 5, or 10 hours, just how much practice do they get? Four minutes…that is how much.

There are many jet captains out there with 1,500 hours in their log books. Let’s think about that in its proper context. If a pilot actually had 1,500 hours of flying time, that means he has approximately thirty-seven,  40 hour work weeks on the job.  Wal-Mart would not let anyone run the shoe department with 37 weeks on the job, much less drive around a 25 ton jet at 600 miles an hour. If the majority of those 1,500 hours was automated or on an autopilot, then these pilots actually have less than 7 weeks on the job flying.

A musician must practice every day, a baseball player must practice every day, even a clown has to practice, so why do pilots get to push buttons on an auto pilot and consider that flying, or practicing flying? That is not flying! That does not stop computer pilots from writing down in their log books that they flew x number of hours, when in fact they got in the same amount of “hands- on” flying practice as the passengers.

Maybe it is time for the FAA to start to begin to differentiate between flying time and computer time. One is a serious business that can get you killed, the other is just a game that only gets serious when the computer fails…by then it is too late to practice.

Erudite Solutions for Business Aviation

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