‘Pilots are losing their basic flying skills’

We’ve heard this argument many times over the past decades. The concept states that automation has made flying safer, but that it has reduced pilots to computer operators, who can no longer hand-fly their aircraft.

It has now surfaced again in the aftermath of the two deadly Max crashes – raised here in this USA Today article . One of the very experienced pilots quoted in the article is John Cox, who argues that training should concentrate more on manual flying skills than what currently is the case.

I found that this may well link to a recent article published by Flight Safety Australia, summarising the final report on the crash of a Diamond DA40 in September 2017. At issue here is the fact that the DA40 is not approved for intentional spins – and the instructor and student were killed when they spun in.

Now – when we talk about flying skills, initial training teaches the basics required to take off and land, fly straight and level, climb and descend and to turn the aircraft. There are lessons on stalling and then incipient spins – but it would appear that most of the new LSA (Light Sport Aircraft) often used as trainers are not approved for spins or even incipient spins.

Most of the older, more traditional all-metal trainers (before them even the rag-and-tube aircraft) were approved for spinning and spins used to be part of the training curriculum. But this changed a quite while ago, when the FAA and then our local CAA decided that pilots don’t need spin training: If they understood what the causes of spins are, they would avoid spins – that’s if I understand the logic of their decisions correctly.

How does this have any bearing on crashing airliners?

A recurring theme in recent crash investigations appears to be a dearth of experience in the cockpit. I’m not inferring that lack of experience points to crash-prone pilots – far from it. But it does indicate that most of the newer pilots would have been trained under the new regulations, which do not require spinning. This leads me to suspect that most of these newer pilots have never had any proper unusual attitude and recovery training – in simple terms it points to a lack of hands-on flying experience. Not their fault, but that of a system that allows young instructors – who themselves have never spun an aircraft and are actually afraid of simple stalls – to teach our future airline pilots. (Back to the point raised in the USA Today article).

When I was still involved in ab-initio training, (many moons ago) some of the younger instructors would ask me to take their students for the lessons on stalls and incipient spins. (My aerobatic background apparently made me the obvious candidate). My answer would be to rather take the instructor up to experience the joy of flying an aircraft to any attitude and still remain in control – but time and money did not always allow.

Added to this, the prohibition of spins in modern “glass” aircraft remains a serious hurdle. Even the great Cirrus range of aircraft, in which many new South African pilots are being trained, is not certified for spins.

The answer would be for any student to spend some money and time on unusual attitude training in a spin-capable aircraft. This would probably have to be an aerobatic machine, but such courses are available. Those hands-on skills will enhance their flying and build confidence.

That confidence could serve pilots well when, in their later careers they’re suddenly faced with an unusual situation. Airline training simply teaches procedures, which work extremely well – but for those unexpected upsets, nothing beats simple stick-and-rudder skills.

Featured Image: Studyflight.com


Hindsight – The most exact science..

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Kegworth air disaster – a crash which has since become a standard in CRM classes.

The story is well-known: Blade failure on the number one engine resulted in the pilots mis-diagnosing the problem, shutting down the number two engine instead. This led to the disastrous outcome, costing 47 of the 118 passengers their lives, with 74 people suffering serious injuries. 

Airways Magazine today published an Op-Ed about it, which singles out one of the major lessons learnt – because of the subsequent research into effective brace positions, safety cards and crew briefings, major changes were made to the way passengers are taught to brace for impact. (Click on the link).

However, in total more than thirty-one recommendations were made in the accident report, many of them then became binding for manufacturers and operators. 

While many factors were at play here – and we use many of them in our initial courses as examples of absent CRM – to me one of the most interesting factors is the (then) new CFM-56 engine. These engines were reasonably new in 1989, only being operated on a commercial jet for the first time in 1981. The B737-400 was also a new aircraft, first operated in September 1988. The accident airframe, G-OBME, was only delivered to British Midlands in October 1988 – two-and-a-half months before the crash. 

The CFM-56 used on the -400 was an uprated version of the engine used on the earlier -300 variant. (The -300 was launched in 1984). 

To uprate the -300 engine from 20 000 pounds of thrust to the 23 500 required for the slightly larger -400 required only an electronic chip to increase the N1 (RPM). However, this modification was never tested in the air, only on a test rig, before being certified for use on the -400. Unknown to the manufacturer and operators, blade stall became a problem above 10 000 feet and this was what eventually resulted in the blade failure on the accident aircraft.

The problem was easily rectified, and the CFM-56 is now probably one of the most reliable engines ever built. 

However, it took an accident to lead to this improvement.

Too often this is the case. We learn from each accident and try to understand all the factors involved – in an attempt to avoid similar accidents occurring. But all to soon, it would appear, we become complacent about those lessons learnt – and only yet another crash leads us to question whether we’ve actually learnt anything at all!

Debris from the crashed B738-Max being recovered.

Take, for instance, the recent crash of a LionAir B738-Max – to my mind also caused by a design change which caught everyone by surprise. (Although the previous crew to fly the doomed aircraft experienced the same problem, they had the resilience to recover the aircraft by reverting to good old manual flight). However, without the knowledge about the potential problems associated with the MCAS system, the accident crew were clearly confused by the malfunctioning automation and were unable to regain control. 

To my knowledge the British Midland crews had been operating B737-200 aircraft before, and only attended classroom differences training before flying the -400. As someone who has flown many of the variants, ranging from the 737-Basic to the B738, I know that the only way to convert from the -200 to the -400 would be proper simulator training – they are quite different aircraft. This lack of training could well have been another link in the Kegworth accident chain.

And now pilots were once again expected to convert to a new B737 model with a little classroom video and a CBT test. 

It would appear to me that we’re not inventing new ways to crash, we’re simply repeating the same mistakes over again.

In the same breath I must add that we have certainly come a long way since the Kegworth disaster. The recently published accident statistics bear testimony to the fact we are on a sustained downward trend, and flying is in fact safer than ever.

It’s just such a pity that we always have to remember accidents like Kegworth, to remind ourselves of the potential for disaster.


The Birth of CRM?

I’ve just finished reading “The Wright Brothers”, a definitive study of the aviation pioneers by David McCullough. Very appropriate too, with man’s first self sustained flight on 17th December 1903 being remembered soon.

Its a great read with vast reference material, illuminating the brothers’ relationships with their siblings and parents, taking you from their childhood through to Orville’s death in 1948.

One aspect, which fascinated me, was their intense attention to detail. Nothing was left to chance and every aspect of their work was carefully studied, crafted, tested and rebuilt. At an early stage they realised that the figures and formulas they’ve used from the Smithsonian and revered aeronautical fundis of the time like Otto Lilienthal and Octave Chanute were pure speculation and simply wrong, so they worked out their own. In fact they built their own wind tunnel to test and verify their wing designs.

This research took years – trekking between their home in Dayton, Ohio to the windswept Outer Banks of North Carolina, first with gliders and finally with the engine built to their specs by Charlie Taylor.


Crumpled glider, wrecked by the wind, 10th October 1900.

The brothers had a number of close shaves – one could hardly expect every new attempt at achieving what many believed was the delusional dream of a few madmen to go off without any problems.

But throughout their persistent experimenting, they remained patient and constantly erred on the conservative side.

In fact – it struck me that, although unbeknownst to them, they were adhering to the basic tenets of CRM:
1. Plan and Operate (Prevent and Avoid).
2. Detect and Correct (Monitor and Challenge).
3. React and Recover (Mitigate the Consequences).

While Wilbur was in France to demonstrate the “Flyer” (with great success), he received a letter from his father, the Bishop Milton Wright, urging him to “avoid all unnecessary personal risk”. At the same time Wilbur wrote to Orville, who was then about to demonstrate the “Flyer” to the US military at Fort Myer, Virginia:

“I tell them plainly that I intend for the present to experiment only under the most favorable conditions…I advise you most earnestly to stick to calms, till after you are sure of yourself. Don’t go out even for all the officers of the government unless you would go equally if they were absent. Do not let yourself be forced into doing anything before you are ready. Be very cautious and proceed slowly in attempting flights in the middle of the day when wind gusts are frequent…Do not let people talk to you all day and all night. It will wear you out, before you are ready for real business. Courtesy has limits. If necessary appoint some hour in the daytime and refuse absolutely to receive visitors even for a minute at other times. Do not receive anyone after 8 o’clock at night”.

He then discussed some technical details about the rudder, concluding with:

“I can only say be extraordinarily cautious”.

Here was an aviator who understood the danger of weather conditions, the threat of external pressure and distraction, as well as the disabling power of fatigue.

Apparently Orville heeded his brother’s advice and the first two weeks of the demonstration flights went off well. But on the 17th September 1908 a blade of the right hand prop cracked and broke off, vibrating enough to break a stay wire which had supported the rear rudder system. This rendered the aircraft uncontrollable and Orville crashed. He was severely injured and his passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge became the first fatality of powered flight.


The wreck of Orville’s crashed aircraft at Fort Myer.

Wilbur was at his shed at Camp d’Auvoirs, Le Mans on the 18th September when he received the news of Orville’s crash. This led to another profound CRM statement:

“Now you understand why I always felt that I should be in America with Orville. Two heads are better than one to examine the machine”.

Erring on the side of caution was one of the Wright Brothers’ enduring qualities. They understood that risk was inevitable once one decided to become airborne – but they believed in well calculated risks.

With 2016 about to become history, perhaps it is time to once again reflect on how far we’ve come since the dawn of powered flight at Kill Devil Hill, Kitty Hawk. I certainly do when I cruise in air conditioned comfort at high altitudes and Mach numbers.

Perhaps it is also time to realise that we disregard many of the lessons learnt by those pioneers of flight at our own peril. Rather let us take a leaf out of the Wright’s book and “be extraordinarily cautious”.

Here’s wishing everyone bon voyage and safe flights in 2017!






The Law is an Ass

If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, “the law is a ass — a idiot.”
 – Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist –

It would appear that a number of pilots would agree with Mr Bumble (perhaps not in as much as they are unhappy spouses of domineering wives – as Mr Bumble was), but feeling that some laws are applied contrary to common sense.

I find it interesting that the application of law should actually require lawyers, people schooled in law, who could stand in court and argue totally divergent points of view on how the same law should be applied. Often the stated law is interpreted on the intent of the law – clearly an indication that the law is poorly drafted.

Undergrad law students learn that the four principal purposes and functions of the law are establishing standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes, and protecting liberties and rights. The law should be a guidepost for minimally acceptable behaviour in society.

So it should be simple to apply the law, but experience has shown that serial criminals could be absolved and innocent people could become victims of those laws, which should actually protect them. Sometimes the application of the law defies any common sense – perhaps one has to agree with Mr Bumble…

As pilots, we also have to deal with a plethora of laws. While subject to the laws of the land, we are also subject to the various laws as set out in the subdivisions of the Aviation Act. (I’m referring to the South African situation).

The Civil Aviation Technical Standards (CATS) and the Civil Aviation Regulations (CARS) with their many Parts apply in various stages to everything we do in, with and around our aircraft.

In effect, these aviation laws are an extension of the laws of the land and international law setting the guidelines for minimally acceptable behaviour in our society  – and aviation in particular. (We’re back to Law 101 now).

The aviation laws are clear – the interpretation of some laws are perhaps debatable – but the very basic aim is to ensure safety.

However, the laws of nature leave very little space for argument: Newton’s apple will eventually have to succumb to gravity.

Yet we hear daily of pilots defying the laws of nature: overloading aircraft, disregarding density altitudes, flying into adverse weather conditions – the list goes on and on…

Add to this the tendency to feel that “the law is an ass – it doesn’t apply to me, in fact it only applies to others…”.

Here it is instructive to note that in a study overseen by the FAA in an attempt to discover what would make a pilot “accident prone”, they found five common traits in pilots who were prone to having accidents:

  1.  Disdain toward rules.
  2.  High correlation between accidents in their flying records and safety violations in their driving records.
  3. Frequently falling into the personality category of “thrill and adventure seeking”.
  4. Impulsive rather than methodical and disciplined in information gathering and in the speed and selection of actions taken.
  5. Disregard for or under-utilization of outside sources of information, including copilots, flight attendants, flight service personnel, flight instructors and air traffic controllers.

The first trait is probably the most illuminating.

This week I encountered the argument that the skies should be free and that recreational pilots should be left to self-regulate.

I’m afraid that this argument only strengthens the FAA’s first trait of accident prone pilots (above).

The skies would only be “free” if you were the only aircraft around (disregarding your legal obligations to those on the ground and to society), but as soon as two aircraft share the same airspace, some rules need to be applied: Who has right of way, direction of circuits, see-and-avoid, etc.

Whether you regard the law as an ass – or not, please pay heed to what well known flight instructor Rod Machado has to say about aviation law:

“Rules, regulations and SOP’s are symbolic of aviation’s accumulated wisdom. Each one is a historical whisper of errors made, planes lost and limits challenged. Herein lie the posthumous tokens of aviation’s best lessons. They linguistically map out aviation’s hazardous territory. To operate beyond these areas is to thumb our noses at the gods of probability”.

Sully the Movie – A Pilot’s Perspective

“So what did you think of the movie?”

I was immediately faced with that question as I walked out of the screening of Sully, Clint Eastwood’s film about the 2009 landing in the Hudson River, starring Tom Hanks as Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger.

Well, here’s what I think:

Firstly, I thoroughly enjoyed the film for the technical accuracy of the flight and subsequent river landing with very realistic use of CGI. It had to be accurate as so much of the material has already been published. The transcripts of the CVR (Cockpit Voice Recorder)  were already published in Sullenberger’s 2009 book Highest Duty – My Search for What Really Matters, which also told his life story and related the events of the day in great detail.

These CVR recordings lead me to the one aspect I did not appreciate as much – the movie has the CVR played for the first time during the public hearing, while in fact, according to Sullenberger there were only six people present in the audio lab where they first listened to it. But this would not have suited Eastwood’s whole premise for the movie. He built the dramatic edge around the NTSB ruthlessly pursuing Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles, the First Officer (very ably played by Aaron Eckhart). In Eastwood’s mind the NTSB were the bad guys, out to get the good guys – the pilots – who were assumed guilty until proven not guilty.

It bears stating here that any accident investigation by nature is uncompromising. Nothing can simply be assumed and every detail has to be interrogated to arrive at a definitive answer. The objective is not to apportion blame, but to learn and make recommendations to avoid similar events in future.

Sullenberger himself was very clear about the conflict in his own mind – could they possibly have made it back to La Guardia or even Teterboro? Here his whole career of over forty years would be judged on 208 seconds and one decision. I could clearly identify with this self-doubt, something we as professional pilots know well. There is always the nagging worry that something could have been handled better, it is the perfectionist nature of our occupation.

Hanks captures the gravitas of Sullenberger in this situation perfectly. He has proved before that he can deliver empathetic portrayals of men in difficult situations (Apollo 13, Captain Phillips), balancing human frailty with steely resolve.

Sully is a great movie, which caters for a general movie audience who would simply enjoy a rollicking drama of good people conquering adversity. Yet it still satisfies those aviators, who have more than just a passing interest in the dramatic events of January 15th, 2009.

Hopefully the movie will also allow a glimpse into how seriously professional pilots take their occupation – Hanks’s Sullenberger provides the ideal example. His one decision on that day led to 155 souls surviving a dual engine failure and a subsequent forced water landing – pilots daily make hundreds of decisions with less dramatic impact, but which directly affects the lives of passengers worldwide.

Go and see the movie!



Royal Aeronautical Society | Insight Blog | Lives before luggage

I have posted a number of blogs regarding passengers’ apparent disregard for their own safety. As valuable additional reading, here is an insightful blog about evacuations from the RAeS:

During the recent emergency evacuation of the Emirates 777 which caught fire in Dubai, a number of passengers endangered their safety and those of others by stopping to collect their luggage. BILL READ FRAeS looks at some of the ideas being proposed to prevent such actions reoccurring and how it may be time for a rethink of the regulations governing aircraft emergency evacuations.

Source: Royal Aeronautical Society | Insight Blog | Lives before luggage

Leave Everything Behind! (Exit before Tweeting…)

Yesterday we witnessed the crash of an Emirates B773 at Dubai. I use the word “witnessed” as we may just as well have been eyewitnesses, what with visuals instantly available on the major TV channels, uploaded from social media. Had it happened a few years ago, we would simply not have had access to these dramatic visuals captured by actual eyewitnesses.

(See my previous blogs on the emergency and social media aspects of this phenomenon: Evacuate! Evacuate! Are you ready? and Beware the Jabberwock, my son! ).

What I find disturbing though, are the visuals recorded by passengers during the actual evacuation of EK521, with a life-threatening emergency in full swing:
Pax Evacuation EK521

During many previous aircraft emergencies we’ve witnessed this behaviour before: Cell’phones on, visuals recorded and instantly shared on social media. Allow me to be blunt: This type of behaviour deserves a Darwin Award for Deadly Stupidity!

It would appear that in aviation we’re not alone in this:


Pic: socialsmiling.com


So what allows us to exhibit this kind of stupidity? What level of intelligence would allow a normally stable individual to jeopardize not only his/her own life, but the lives of others as well?

I can only assume that it is the same level of intelligence which would allow passengers to blatantly disregard the safety regulations, ignore safety briefings and refuse to obey lawful instructions regarding electronic devices.

The bottom line is that anything which could distract one during an emergency should be avoided at all costs – hence the announcement by cabin crew regarding no cell’phones or headphones before departure or arrival. When the fire is at your heels and the smoke is choking you, that is not the time to worry about your branded hand luggage or your personal effects – that is when saving lives should be your one and only concern.

I know that passenger safety is our single-minded concern. As professional air crew we’ll do everything possible to ensure that, but passengers also have a role to play in their own safety!

However, it would appear that any commonsense, reason and responsibility is zipped up and stowed in the luggage when passengers check in….