Editor’s Note: In light of the recent American – Delta ATC incident at New York JFK, we are featuring this story again by 121pilot. It is chillingly prescient.
In part two of this series, we looked at some of the challenges facing the airline pilot profession. What I will do now is offer some ideas of how we can address these challenges.
How To Address The Challenges Pilots Face – Airmanship
Looking at the list of accidents in part two, what we saw was a consistent pattern of poor airmanship. But what is airmanship? It’s a word I’ve used several times and a bit of a nebulous term to outsiders of the profession. But one definition that I like is this: “Airmanship is the consistent use of good judgment and well-developed skills to accomplish flight objectives.” There are two key components to this definition, good judgment and well-developed skills and each requires work to develop.
Let’s start with those well-developed skills. This starts with the fundamental ability to control the airplane and make it do what you want it to do. It includes an understanding of aerodynamics and aircraft systems and how they work. Getting pilots to the point where their ability to fly can be considered well-developed does not happen overnight. And for airlines facing a shortage of pilots, it is going to be expensive to develop these skills. Here is what I think needs to change.
- A greatly increased emphasis on the ability to fly the airplane without all the automation. For airlines, every training cycle should include significant time flying the aircraft in both normal and abnormal (like an engine out for example) configurations without any automation.
- Extensive training in recovering from unusual altitudes along the lines of what’s already being done in the US. This has to be done in simulators that can fully and faithfully replicate actual aircraft performance in these flight regimes.
- The end of scripted and constantly repeated training programs. Yes, there are maneuvers like V1 cuts that need to be trained every cycle but the practice at many airlines of running their pilots through the exact same syllabus the exact same way year after year cannot be allowed to continue. A good training syllabus needs to include the “startle factor” that presents pilots with the unexpected and trains them to deal with it. The point is to develop a “been there done that” response when things go wrong out on the line. Training should be tough and initial training programs at airlines should not be designed to help weak pilots get through but rather to identify and correct, if possible, those weaknesses before they show up at the worst possible moments. If those weaknesses can’t be corrected it is even more critical that this be identified before a pilot makes it out on the line.
- There needs to be much more extensive training on the autopilot and autothrust systems; how they work, their possible failure modes, and how to address them. With proper training and the application of that training the Ethiopian 737 MAX crash for example should never have happened.
Teaching Good Judgment
What about good judgment? How do we teach that? First and foremost, we as professional pilots have to recognize that we are just that, professionals. This means a dedication to our craft that goes beyond simply showing up to work day after day. It means studying accident reports to learn from the mistakes of others. It means thinking through the various things that can and have gone wrong and trying to figure out in advance how we might bring those events to a successful conclusion. It means we must take responsibility for ensuring that no matter what we have the best possible chance of bringing our aircraft and passengers safely home. We need to regularly shut off the automation and ensure our hand flying skills have not atrophied. We must study the aircraft we fly so that when things fail we understand how it is going to impact the flight.
For the airlines, it means they need to spend time teaching people good decision-making. That means taking time during the training cycle to review accidents and incidents and talk through how they were handled. The goal here again is to create a been-there-done-that effect when things do go wrong. Because if the problem you’re facing is one you’ve thought about and talked about with your fellow professionals the odds are much greater that you are going to have a successful outcome.
Airlines that are hiring pilots with low levels of experience (like those MPL candidates) need to develop mentorship programs. This means selecting and training a cadre of pilots who will fly with these low-time pilots through the first one to two years of their careers. These mentor Captains are going to be key in laying a foundation of good airmanship. It means turning the early years of these pilots’ careers into an extended training event that sets them up for success in the years ahead.
As I talked about in part two, it is clear that the majority of accidents occurring these days are the result of poor airmanship. Preventing those accidents is going to require a focus on developing that essential quality and nurturing it throughout a pilot’s career. It’s going to require more than just the minimum of training and more rigorous checking. It’s going to mean for many non-US carriers a significant increase in what they spend to train their pilots. But the record has shown us over and over again that the failure to make this investment ends in broken airplanes and shattered lives.
Lastly, regulators, constructors, and airlines need to get much better at learning from accidents and incidents and making changes as a result of lessons learned. The changes the FAA mandated in training as a result of Air France 447 are a perfect example of how it should be done. But the utterly unconscionable failure to make any changes to the Airbus 320 series Dual Engine Failure checklist after US Airways 1549 is an equally perfect example of how not to do things. Far too often fatal accidents have incidents that should have sounded the alarm and led to change but did not
It must be remembered that commercial flying despite the faults I’ve highlighted is still the safest form of transportation known to man. But that exceptional safety record does not mean that we can’t do better. We can and we must do better. The customers who set foot on our airplanes have a right to expect that we will. They have a right to expect a cockpit occupied by true professionals who no matter what will display the highest levels of airmanship. We owe it to them, we owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to our families to work to develop those skills to the utmost of our abilities.
> Read More From This Series:
image: vintage TWA travel poster