‘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



(A not-so-serious look at the art of landing…)

I’m sure you’ve heard the story about the elderly lady, while disembarking the aircraft asking the captain: “So, sonny, were we shot down or did we crash?”

While everyone wishes for a whistle-smooth touchdown, landing an aircraft is not always guaranteed to turn out like that! All pilots have endured comments from passengers (and sometimes from fellow crewmembers), not always full of admiration or accompanied by applause….

Some comments from passengers can become interesting – especially from the FlightSim boffins, who seem to believe that “flying” a Microsoft aircraft on your desktop would qualify you as an airline captain!

A couple of years ago James May wrote a book called “How to Land an A330 Airbus: And Other Vital Skills for the Modern Man” – I did read it, but was not left much the wiser for it. (It was a bit tongue-in-cheek, though).

Should you be one of the interested parties asking whether such a FlightSim expert, or reader of May’s book could land an airliner – the answer is no.
This book- or internet-trained novice would probably get it on the ground, but it certainly wouldn’t be pretty…

The bottom line is that, once airborne, the pilot’s primary task is to land the aircraft – hopefully on time, hopefully at the intended destination and hopefully in one piece. As the saying goes – taking off is optional, while landing is mandatory. Or, you should try to keep your number of landings equal to your take-offs… (Apparently this is due to an adaptation of one of Newton’s laws).

And this is where the black art of landing requires lots of training, but above all, lots of experience.

No two landings are exactly the same. Conditions differ – temperatures, wind directions and -speeds, precipitation, airport elevations, runway conditions, aircraft weights, ATC instructions – these are only a few of the many variable factors differing from one landing to the next.

Different aircraft also call for different techniques. During ab-initio training pilots are all taught where to look, how to control speed and attitude to achieve that smooth return to terra firma – but we all soon learn that while the basics do apply, aircraft can be fickle and devious!

Taildraggers differ from tricycle-gear aircraft, props and jets are different, even variants of the same type can differ.

Way back when I was still flying Pitts Specials, we used to joke that if you saw the runway, you knew you were off it. (Our aerobatic base did have a very narrow runway – but the Pitts is a very short-coupled tail-dragger with a narrow undercarriage, and once in the three-point attitude all foward vision disappears).

Highly modified, very capable, tricky to land – my old S-1S.

Similarly, although the B737 Classics and NG aircraft are all recognised as 737’s – they actually differ enough to require slightly different techniques for landing. For the new Max-8 Boeing even had to introduce software to change the “feel” of the aircaft to approximate that of a -800 on approach and during landing.

Mastering all of these techniques to the point where it becomes pure muscle memory is probably the Holy Grail for pilots. Any honest pilot will attest to the fact that a series of textbook landings (sometimes for weeks on end), will inevitably end with a rather forgettable arrival at some stage.

And while pilots would rather forget that one indiscretion – that would be the one to stick in passengers’ collective memory!

(I have only discussed fixed-wing landings so far – helicopters are sufficiently different to warrant a separate article!)

In Hollywood you’re only as good as your last movie – somehow it would appear that it could hold true for pilots as well: You’re only as good as your last landing!

(From 47 Years in Aviation, by Richard L. Taylor)


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.






(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)


Turbulent Times


  • sudden, violent movements of air or water

  • a state of confusion, violence, or disorder

We use the word mostly in terms of politics, finance and, of course, aviation. Not many other fields of endeavour apparently experience such movement or confusion!

However, it is the aviation-related turbulence that holds our attention today.

I have recently been asked to comment on a turbulence event, experienced by one of the aircraft in the airline I fly for. As is usual with out-of-the ordinary flying encounters, social media immediately provided some passengers with a fleeting moment of fame. Words such as “I thought I was going to die”; the aircraft “going sideways”; and even people “getting up to open the emergency exits”….. the mind boggles at the thought!

But first, let’s deal with the phenomenon of turbulence. While this is not intended to be a lecture on atmospheric sciences or fluid dynamics, a simple analogy should suffice:

Air is a fluid, and like any fluid it wants to flow from high pressure to low pressure. This leads to the “highs and lows” depicted on your TV weather forecast. Like water, air wants to flow along the path of least resistance, so any obstacles or other flows encountered would lead to ripples and eddies, or in conflicting flows to crashing waves.

Turbulence can be experienced under a myriad of conditions. Thunderstorms, mountain wave, wake turbulence and clear air turbulence (CAT) are just a few of these. I have experienced wind-shear and mountain wave even at the highest flight levels – all contributing to possible turbulence. We describe turbulence in different categories, ranging from light, to moderate, to severe. Anything more than severe (possibly extreme)  could result in control loss or air-frame damage. (To read more about this, see ICAO’s guidance on turbulence.)

In essence, light turbulence would cause ripples in your coffee, moderate would make you spill your coffee and severe would send your coffee all over the ceiling. We would describe turbulence as moderate when equipment starts moving around and as severe when items dislodge and people are injured.

Forecasters can usually predict the areas where turbulence could be expected, but unless we have convective activity with water and ice particles reflecting on our weather radar, pilots cannot see it coming – so clear air turbulence (CAT) usually becomes apparent only once we’re in it.

On the day of this particular encounter Cape Town experienced a massive frontal storm, resulting in north-westerly surface winds of 27 knots gusting to 47 knots at the time this aircraft flew the approach. (That’s 50 – 87 km/h). This would equate to a crosswind component varying between 23kts to 41kts on runway 01. The B738 crosswind limit on a wet runway is 25kts – with the scimitar winglets a max of 15kts is recommended. However, with the visibility and cloud-base allowing, a circling approach with a landing on runway 34 could be considered (bringing even the gust into the allowable crosswind limit) and a number of aircraft reportedly did land on 34.

All this tells us, is that it was clearly a challenging approach with rapidly changing conditions causing some severe turbulence once below 5000ft. Winds over the Cape peninsula have their own very unique characteristics, with the upper winds almost always very strong westerlies and the lower winds affected by the mountainous terrain. (The well-known Cape south-easter in summer, for instance, is usually a purely low-level phenomenon below 5000ft.). So the wind conditions on descent could vary dynamically – quite easily causing turbulence, especially in the vicinity of the thunderstorms present at the time.

This is the nature of AWOPS (All-Weather Operations) which calls for flights to be conducted under all possible weather conditions. The rider is of course that all conditions must be understood, briefed, prepared for, and the go-around or diversion plan must be in place. So I am quite sure that the passengers on this particular flight were not in any danger at any time – very uncomfortable, yes – but not in jeopardy.

Passenger video recordings (now in the public domain) show one or two big jolts and some changes in the aircraft attitude, due to the changing wind speeds and directions. What is concerning is passengers clearly not adhering to safety instructions. Seatbelts not tightly fastened, children being passed around and sitting on laps, cellphones being used – clearly no understanding of how that cellphone or tablet could become a missile if you let go of it – the list continues…. (Remember that this is in the last ten minutes before landing, with the cabin secured and passengers supposed to have turned off all electronic devices). Video Here.

By the way, I flew the aircraft concerned two days later and found the event described in the technical logbook as “severe turbulence” experienced for a short period. The aircraft was inspected as required and found to be completely serviceable and safe.

Turbulence in the air is a fact of life, just as ships will roll and pitch in high seas, or your car will rattle and shake over rough gravel. As pilots, we try to avoid or mitigate it as much as possible, by avoiding forecast areas, descending or climbing, or even slowing down to the recommended turbulence penetration speed.

Turbulence is also forecast to increase in intensity. Scientists advise that, due to climate change we could expect natural events to become more isolated, of shorter duration and much more intense.

A recent study by Paul Williams of Reading University, published in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences forecasts that severe turbulence events could increase by 149% over the North-Atlantic routes – I’m quite sure that the same could be expected locally.

If turbulence worries you, my advice would be to check the weather forecasts before you fly: Should thunderstorms and high winds be possible, change your flight to another day. Once a strong front starts moving from west to east over South Africa, you could expect high winds and possible turbulence aloft. In summer, fly in the morning!



Turbulence pax

Turbulence can be unnerving for most passengers. (Pic: traveller.com.au.)

But more importantly, listen to the Captain’s briefing and adhere to the Cabin Crew’s instructions. The illuminated seat-belt sign is not a signal to get up and visit the toilet!

Should you experience some unnerving turbulence, be assured that the crew will do everything possible to alleviate the situation and that the aircraft is built strong enough to take severe turbulence in its stride.

Turbulence mess

Aftermath of a turbulence encounter: Singapore SQ308, June 2013. (Pic: @Alan Cross via Daily Mail).