Can You Fly This Thing?

Manual Flight Operations Proficiency was the subject of a recently released Safety Alert from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It’s a title that otherwise can be expressed by the querying of any pilot: “Do you truly know how to handle your airplane?” The topic seems to have no end these days.

What’s the problem that the FAA sees? It believes that pilots need more practice hand-flying aircraft. And the reason, quite simply, relates to the fact that loss-of-control accidents remain the leading cause of fatalities in aviation. What the FAA wants to do – and it’s been stating this for a while – is to encourage the development of training and flight operational policies which will ensure greater proficiency among pilots.

The FAA defines manual flight operations as those that manage the aircraft’s flight path through manual control of pitch, yaw, bank and thrust. It wants improvement in pilot knowledge and skill associated to these general, but critical, factors. Where the Agency has concerns lays in evidence that basic and advanced flight manoeuvres are seldom being repeatedly practiced by pilots. Thus, when pressed into circumstances that require that deft hand at the controls, pilots aren’t making the grade.

The Safety Alert explores what it states as the need for specific improvement in such areas as slow flight and loss of reliable airspeed, upset recovery manoeuvres, stall prevention and recovery, recovery from bounced landings, and hand-flying of instrument departures and arrivals. While primarily targeted towards commercial operators, the foundations of the Safety Alert are every bit as applicable across all types of flight operations.

The Agency wants pilots to improve their basic understanding of pitch and power. It wants improvement in their energy management of their aircraft. It wants pilots to have better knowledge of high-altitude versus low-altitude aircraft performance. It wants pilots to better know the different handling characteristics of swept-wings versus straight wings, of turbojet versus turboprop versus piston engines, and of trimmable stabilizers versus trimmable elevators. It also wants improved expertise in the timing, coordination and anticipation of flight manoeuvres and operations.

Scenario-based training, now long established as a necessary element of any training curriculum, should include emphasis on pilot recovery from out-of-trim conditions. It should also emphasize go-arounds initiated at stages other than minimum descent altitudes and/or decision altitudes. Furthermore, it wants great focus on visual approaches in various weather and light conditions. Finally, the FAA wants training improved in a variety of automation options, including with autopilots on and off, as well as with flight directors and autothrottles on and off.

The FAA sees the need for improvement in decision-making, particularly as it relates to crew over-use of cockpit automation. It wants pilots to decide when to manually fly their aircraft, and it wants operators to encourage their pilots to do so more often. When conditions permit, the FAA prefers to see pilots hand-flying entire departure and arrival phases of flights. It also wants greater engagement of pilots in threat and error management principles, including their assessment of factors such as weather, terrain, time of day, crew experience, and any psychological or physiological factors that may affect the flight.

Overall, the FAA wants pilots to conduct more hands-on flight, with all approved combinations of aircraft automation included in the operation. And, it wants pilots to improve their judgement when it comes to deciding when to conduct manual flight. Does all of this imply that, perhaps, the FAA sees an over-reliance amongst pilots on cockpit automation? That may be so. In commercial operations, advances in automation are increasingly improving the efficiency of flights from start to finish. But, is it improving the ability of pilots? The FAA is clearly implying that it’s not. The decaying of “seat-of-the-pants” pilot skills, with ever-increasing evidence, is becoming an accruing industry concern.

The basics underlie everything. Whether you’re a weekend pilot or flying daily routes for a living, practice the fundamentals. Your hands, your feet, and your judgement – not necessarily your aircraft’s automation – remain your greatest assets to keep you out of trouble.