‘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


The Challenge of Leadership

Motor racing has fascinated me since boyhood. (Many years ago I even raced an Alfa Romeo myself – albeit not very successfully!)

In particular I’ve followed Formula One – especially the longest lasting F1 team, Ferrari, which I’ve followed since the days of Chris Amon and Jacky Ickx.

Chris Amon(NZL) Ferrari 312. Dutch Grand Prix, Zandvoort, Holland, 23 June 1968.

Being one of the “Tifosi” meant that I’ve despaired about the team’s misfortunes over the last few years. Since the glory days of Michael Schumacher, with team bosses Jean Todt, Ross Brawn and the South African designer Rory Byrne, Ferrari was on a downward spiral, with their last World Championship more than a decade ago, in 2007 with Kimi Raikkonen.

Since the advent of the hybrid era, Ferrari seemed to be an also-ran. Until 2018, when all of a sudden they had a competitive car and looked like a winning team.

For a while.

Then the wheels came off and Sebastian Vettel looked startled and out-of-sorts, making all sorts of (for him) silly mistakes. The team’s strategists seemed to fumble from one blunder to the next and Ferrari eventually had to settle for second best.

How are Ferrari’s F1 woes relevant to aviation? The answer is: Leadership.

As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the “Miracle on the Hudson” landing – where Captain Sully Sullenberger’s leadership skills were as much on display as were his flying skills – the captain’s duty to build a team around him is pertinent.

15 January 2009

On reading Will Buxton’s opinion piece about Mauritzio Arrivabene’s demise, one has to draw some parallels to the airline captain’s responsibility for ensuring a successful and safe team.

“Arrivabene’s rule by fear fractured his team and ultimately failed his employers” rings true to many failed leadership issues in aviation as well.

What is it that sets good leaders apart from the also-rans?

There are many academic definitions and as many popular quotes from people like Richard Branson, Alan Mulally (Boeing GM for the B777 project and later CEO of the Ford Company) among others.

On analysis, two words pop up repeatedly: Trust and Respect. Two attributes which Ferrari’s Arrivabene could not claim – and it cost him the prized position after four seasons.

Speaking about Just Culture Job Brüggen, safety officer at LVNL and co-chair of the Eurocontrol Safety Team put it this way:

Everyone wants to be good,
but if people feel the atmosphere could be tending to “blame and shame”,
they become less interested in being good –
they just want to look good.

When people simply cover their own backsides and avoid taking responsibility – look to the leader for the reason.

“The walls, both physical and metaphorical, were quick to go up around the team. But far from creating a safe environment in which the once mighty outfit could rebuild, it appeared that what was being built was a system built on the fear of failure”. This was what Arrivabene did to the once proud Prancing Horse.

The lesson here is simple. To lead implies a two-way agreement – someone leads and others follow. But if the “leader” fails to gain the followers’ trust and respect, he or she can lead all they want – no one will follow.

Is it any surprise that some “leaders” sooner or later find themselves out on their own, without any actual support? Arrivabene learnt this lesson the hard way.

Hopefully Mattia Binotto, the new Team Principal, will know that leadership demands much more than the position and the authority. It demands an attitude – something special, which allows people to follow the vision of their leader.

Hopefully the Scuderia will benefit and become winners again.







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.


Machines or Pilots?

I don’t know how genuine the featured Ryanair advert is – it could well be “fake news” – but it does fit the cost-cutting image of Michael O’Leary! He has long advocated that he wanted single-pilot airliners by 2020, as well as advocating “stand-up” cabins (no seats) and passengers paying to use the toilets. A lot of this is usually dismissed as publicity stunts, but his recent stand-off with pilot unions clearly indicates that a no-pilot airline would be his ideal. It is quite enlightening to hear him contradicting himself about the importance of pilots: https://youtu.be/fSmnHbGMMok

He is not alone.

Research into autonomous flight is well underway. Boeing’s research has been underway since 2013 and Airbus has been working with French aerospace research company Onera and avionics manufacturer Thales for a number of years now.

The financial impetus to move to pilotless aircraft is immense – analysts see a potential profit opportunity worth about $35 billion for the aviation and aerospace manufacturing sectors. Read more here: http://aviationweek.com/commercial-aviation/pilotless-commercial-aircraft-follow-money

Artificial Intelligence has already surpassed human ability – just research Google’s AlphaZero programme, which defeated Stockfish 8, a programme capable of calculating 70 million chess positions per second. AlphaZero, though, was not programmed or taught any chess at all. It taught itself to play chess in just four hours and then beat the 2016 World Champion (Stockfish 8) on the 7th December 2017. Yes – machines have long surpassed humans at playing chess, a game which for centuries was considered one of the greatest achievements of human intelligence.

We as pilots are inevitably quick to point out that no machine can match our intuition achieved through training and experience – forgetting that “intuition” is only pattern matching, a skill which algorithms have proved to be much faster and more consistent at.

We’re also very aware of passengers preferring two (or more) pilots in the cockpit – but younger people and new generations will be quicker on the uptake and may accept a no-pilot environment more easily. Just think of the many cockpit jobs which have become redundant over the past few decades – radio operators, navigators, flight engineers – all once essential. And now? Could pilots be next?

While I submit that we are inevitably on the road to autonomous aircraft, it will in all probability not happen very soon.

For instance, Thales is working on “genetic algorithms,” the fittest of which survive. Several variants of an algorithm are combined. The resulting second-generation algorithms are compared by having them solve a problem. Those most effective are kept and combined to create a third generation and so on. So the ninth or tenth generation will be significantly better than the first. The problem, the way I understand it, is that the algorithms’ solutions become unpredictable – not wrong, but unpredictable. And in aviation we need predictability – you cannot certify a component with unpredictable characteristics. We need to understand “why” the algorithm arrived at a particular solution.

Boeing has just learnt this lesson with the MCAS system on the B737-Max. While the designing engineers thought they understood the “hidden” system and its implications, the human-machine interface failed because of the failure to include it in pilots’ conversion training. The pilots were simply not expecting the excessive nose-down trim demanded by the system, due to the FMC being confused by a faulty AOA sensor. And here we’re not even in autonomous territory yet, because the pilot can still disengage the electric trim and revert to good old manual flight.

So while the MCAS of the Max can still be understood and be “predictable” – once we hand over complete control to the aircraft, it has to be completely predictable.

That “predictability” appears to be some way off – “If we cannot explain what the system does, we will have a hard time obtaining a certification,” said Virginie Wiels, Onera’s director of information processing and systems. Significant progress can be expected by 2021, according to Marko Erman, Thales’ chief technical officer. But Wiels does not foresee any application on the flight deck in the next 10 years.”

That would imply that the possibility exists to have pilotless aircraft airborne by 2030!

So O’Leary may have to wait a few years to see his dreams come true – until then, I’m afraid we need to understand the immense pressures pilots experience in a very demanding environment – one where their crucial role is progressively being denigrated and misunderstood.






Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington…

Noel Coward wrote this song in 1935. While there are a few theories about what induced him to write it, the gist of the lyrics is a list of reasons why Mrs Worthington’s daughter should not be allowed near the stage. Whether intended as a genuine rebuke or simply a bit of (very tongue-in-cheek British) humour, I’m appropriating it today for another ditty (you can use the original music, should you please).

Actually, it won’t be a ditty – my musical ability lags too far behind. But the revised title is:

Do or don’t you put your daughter or son in the air, Mrs Worthington?

It is a topic I’ve briefly touched on before, in 2016 and the Future for Pilots. The situation (halfway through 2018) is much the same, but a few pointers need discussion.

Over the past years, a number of forecasts have indicated that a world-wide pilot shortage is looming. At the RAeS Conference of September 2017 (Training for the new Millennium) the demand for airline pilots was depicted in this graph:


So we would need 70 new pilots per day to be trained – a total of 255 000 pilots required over the next nine years. For Africa and the Middle East the quoted number is more than 30 000 new pilots. The question is, where are they going to be found? I’ve discussed this before in Of Expensive Dachshunds and Landings, but my cue from Mrs Worthington is whether the prospective new replacements would be appropriately suitable, capable and safe.

In another RAeS paper, the International Pilot Training Association quotes the high cost as a barrier to entry for prospective pilots:
“The Outreach, Recruitment and Retention Workstream is targeting the pilot demand and aims to find ways of funding the ab initio training of pilots. With a demand of 600,000 pilots in the next 20 years and an average cost of £100,000 per Air Transport Pilot License, there are not enough pilots produced per year to cover both retirement and the growth of the industry”.

Also this:
“Next to the costs, there is a growing decline in the attractiveness of the pilot profession, as there are many other opportunities for young people. Women still represent only 7% of the pilot population. In China and India it is 13% but the interest of women in becoming pilots is likely still influenced by the myth that it is not a family friendly job”.

I would submit that this completely underestimates the current level of “unattractiveness” of the pilot profession.

The high cost should have been addressed long ago – a small group of airlines are now, belatedly, looking at finding ab-initio cadets to train. So yes, the cost is certainly a major barrier to entry.

To state that it is a myth that it is not family friendly is disingenious. The harsh reality is that a career as a pilot plays havoc with your family life. The fact is that pilots now no longer remain with one airline for a multi-decade career, but switch employers on average seven times during that career. This could mean moving a number of times to different continents – not necessarily what young families with children would find attractive.

That leads us then to the further problem our proverbial Mrs Worthington would face: The many thousands of new pilots required by 2027 would, of necessity, be so-called millennials – actually post-millennials, people born after the year 2000.

Millennials are a constantly connected, always mobile generation. Perhaps this could explain the decline in flying as a desirable career – aircraft (whether piloted by humans or machines) are simply another means of connecting them to the “now” experience. It is not something that warrants their total dedication and attention for many years.

I don’t believe that piloting could offer young post-millennials the instant rewards they seek – employers in other sectors would warn that millennials tend to “job-hop” very easily and regularly (for too many reasons to allow discussion here).

From the RAes Conference: “According to Rod Wren, CEO, Wings Alliance and Director Bristol Groundschool, around 50% of flight school graduates are not selected for airlines. “We need to train the right people,” he said. “Self-selection does not work. Instead, selection should be based on pilot core competences. Airlines need to engage with the flight training industry.” “We need to look at the person first before we look at their skills,” 

This is a scary point – one I’m afraid the training industry mostly overlooks to ensure a financial future. Not every bright-eyed millennial candidate arriving at your flight school would possess the competencies required to become a pilot – some should simply be pointed in another direction, rather than them wasting money on a very expensive training course.

These competencies have been well identified and documented, as set out in the Evidence Based Training (EBT) documents of ICAO, and IATA. In short, nine required competencies have been identified:

Two dealing with Flight Path Control – Manual and Automation;
Two dealing with Procedures – Knowledge and Application of Procedures;
and the remaining five all dealing with Human Factors or CRM competencies –
Leadership & Teamwork,
Situational Awareness,
Workload Management, and
Problem Solving & Decision Making

Generalising, I understand the millennial mantra to be (remember, Mrs Worthington is all about generalisations):
(a) I am not responsible (for anything)
(b) If you hold me responsible, I will be traumatised and need counselling.
(c) My life is ruled by social media – I don’t need to learn all this stuff. If I need to know anything I simply ask Siri or Google.
(d) I live for now, your fascination with tomorrow is your problem.

This poses the problem that most of the competencies required for pilot training would not be met – unfortunately, acquiring the required level of knowledge and skill demands unwavering dedication and the acceptance of total responsibility.

Thus it would appear that the industry is soon going to run out of willing and suitable candidates.

What does that mean – what would the answer be?

The answer lies in algorithms and artificial intelligence – which already runs much of our lives (Google and your cellphone probably already know you better than you know yourself…)

In the US there is currently a concerted effort by ALPA to avoid a vote by Congress that would mandate manufacturers to research the potential for single-pilot airliners – and, by extension, pilotless airliners.

I believe that is simply delaying the inevitable.

The future of aviation is eventually going to be a pilotless environment, with autonomous aircraft whizzing your millennials’ kids between continents – and possibly between planets.

Fortunately for me, it is not likely to happen within my lifetime – oh, hang on, my cell-phone is telling me that my roster has changed, and with it my future…

So, should you put your daughter or son in the air, Mrs Worthington?

Featured image: Noel Coward and Julie Hayden, The Scoundrel.



(Dis)Service Animals?

Serious animal lovers – my family and I. We currently have a rescue dog, who has turned out to be the most intelligent and lovable animal. I have to state upfront that, having grown up with family pets and with some farm experience as well, I do actually know something about animals.


Enjoying the sun on the boardwalk. 

One of the less enjoyable parts of my job is to sign the NOTOCs (Notification To Captain) for animals carried on board our aircraft. Less enjoyable, as I often see the distress these animals suffer. More about that later.

Firstly, let’s discuss the merits of carrying animals in the cabin – a hot topic on social media, where (in particular) some US airlines are taking serious flak for faux-pas with “service animals”. The use of inverted commas is deliberate, as many of these animals appear to simply be badly behaved pets owned by equally badly behaved passengers. Apparently US airlines opened themselves to abuse by allowing “service animals” and “emotional support animals” indiscriminately into cabins – a trend they are now attempting to reverse by imposing some restrictions.

Mostly it would appear that US passengers are simply trying to avoid paying for their pets’ transport. Animals are apparently carried free of charge in cabins – probably regarded as carry-on luggage!

But this has come back to bite some airlines (pun intended), where dogs have attacked other passengers and animals caused havoc in aircraft cabins, with lawsuits now the order of the day.

To my mind, putting an untrained animal in a stressful situation among strangers in an aircraft cabin is tantamount to cruelty. That’s apart from it being discourteous and possibly dangerous to other passengers. And I am sorry, but if you need a peacock or a pony as an “emotional support animal” on an aircraft, perhaps your psychologist should have advised you against using any form of public transport.

Fortunately, the airline I fly for has strict rules about service animals in our cabins. In fact no livestock is allowed, with service dogs being the only exception. Only dogs trained (or being trained) by the Guide Dog Association of SA and other organisations affiliated with Assistance Dogs International and the International Guide Dog Federation can be accepted as “service dogs”. Passengers need to complete assessment and declaration forms, signed by a medical practitioner and provide proof from the aforementioned organisations that the dog has received the required functional and familiarisation training – all this well in advance of travelling.

In my experience this works extremely well. We often have properly certified service dogs on board and they behave impeccably, with no or minimal disturbance to other passengers.

Any other livestock must be carried in specifically designed containers in the forward hold. (Referring now specifically to the airline I fly for and the B737). IATA Live Animals Regulations apply. By the way, these regulations do not recommend sedation, except under certain conditions and when carried out under veterinarian direction.

I mentioned earlier the distress these animals suffer – this I’ve seen first-hand many times. I don’t know about fish, snakes or birds – they’re a bit difficult to understand (and we often carry those). But dogs, cats, monkeys and other pets often appear frightened and very stressed. One big Alasatian became so stressed that he chewed through his container and was found running around on the luggage in the hold after we had landed.


Alsatian chewed his way out during a flight of under two hours.


Eventually caught by a professional, still aggressive to anyone coming close.

That is clearly not ideal and perhaps indicates how, despite our best intentions, these animals suffer when forced to travel.

Now I know that the airlines, freight forwarders, pet shops and vets make good money from the transport of livestock – it’s just that I would personally not endorse the endeavour. I’ve seen too much trauma in the front hold during my many pre-flight walkaround inspections.

And as for animals in the cabin – don’t even go there!

(Featured Image by JBR Ranch via Aviation Week; Other images by the author).


On MAMILs and Jekyll & Hyde

While reading a recent Sunday paper, I added a new word to my vocabulary: MAMIL (Middle Aged Men in Lycra).

Around the area where I reside, MAMILs flourish – they thrive on the beautiful scenery and the abundance of coffee shops. They also seem to hunt in packs, but not silently and stealthily as one would expect – rather garish and brash colours give away the expensive stores their apparel was bought from, and loud conversation gives away their actual occupations (mostly finance and stocks).

Somehow, when I watch TV coverage of le Tour, the small, rather emaciated professional cyclists look – well, professional. MAMILs mostly look like beached whales on thin wheels, tottering into trendy coffee shops. When will they learn that tight lycra pants were probably not intended for the male anatomy?

When they actually ride, the Jekyll and Hyde personalities emerge: Apparently placid men in boring eight-to-five jobs suddenly turn into hooligans. The road rules, which they would (more-or-less) abide by when driving their BMW’s, Range Rovers and McLarens, are suddenly redundant. Now they are free to terrorise other road users – riding five abreast, hogging lanes, shouting abuse at anyone daring to come too close or show some irritation. Some MAMILs actually take to bashing on cars and threatening those who dare to stop at a red light in the lane they would like to occupy.

The fact is, you actually cannot be Jekyll and Hyde, not unless you happen to have a very serious personality disorder. You are either the one, or the other and the way you behave on a bicycle will indicate how you would behave in a car, in your day-job, as a father, husband…. In short, you may adjust your behaviour to suit certain situations or environments, but it does not change who you are.

This is an area of concern and new study in aviation Human Factors. We have accepted that behaviour style analysis can assist pilots and crew to understand themselves and others a little better – thus creating an environment where appropriate behaviours should assist in ensuring safety.

Now, however, we are considering other influences and personality becomes a focus area. Just compare the psychometric tests of, say twenty years ago, with those used by some airlines today: Chalk and cheese.

Modern psychometrics look for certain competencies (see ICAO competencies) in pilots. One would expect the basic technical knowledge and hands-on flying skills to be there – it is interesting, though, that only four of the nine required competencies are based on traditional flying skills: Flight Path Management (Manual and Automated) and Knowledge and Application of Procedures.

The other five required competencies are Human Factors skills: Communication, Problem Solving & Decision Making, Situational Awareness, Leadership and Teamwork, and Workload Management.

These competencies can obviously be enhanced by training and experience, but by ensuring that pilot candidates display these competencies, their training and successful integration into a safety culture is made easier.

The problem of Jekyll and Hyde still exists, however. If you display a disdain for rules and regulations in one aspect of your life – you will show the same disdain in other aspects. The FAA Risk Management Handbook mentions that Human Behaviour studies indicate that there is a direct correlation between disdain for rules and aircraft accidents.


From: FAA Risk Management Handbook.

Bottom line is, whatever you wear and whatever your choice of Sunday morning transport, you cannot hide who you really are! And, if you happen to be a pilot – imagine others’ surprise at your law-breaking behaviour.

Would you let your wife and children fly with someone displaying a disdain for rules and regulations?

(Featured image from The Human Cyclist – WordPress.com)