Hand flying, what’s going on?

by | 2019-01-05
B-777 runway excursion EDDM.
BFU photo

Flying is a perishable good. Lack of maintenance will lead to the pilot’s ability degradation. This explains the simulator visits every 6 months. 6 months we say? Many carriers now have the « financial good fortune » to stretch this to 8 months.

The recent and very thorough incident report by the BFU (Bundesstelle für Flugunfalluntersuchung / German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accident Investigation) of a B-777 runway excursion in EDDM brings forward in it’s conclusion piloting shortcomings. The media in it’s habit of searching for blame to simplify the understanding of it’s customers was sadly prompt to publish the cause as pilot error.

The sacrosanct and notorious pilot error.

This new ultra accurate report joins many others with this same common factor: a B-777 in KSFO in July 2013, an A-330 on the Atlantic in June 2009, a B-737 in EHAM in February 2009 or a Q400 in KBUF in February 2009.

Let’s be perfectly clear: an accident will never be caused by a single factor. Many important elements will occur without being stopped in their progression, within the chain of events. This progression is often triggered well ahead of departure time.

The sad reality when evaluating flight safety, is that we must study accidents/incidents to learn something. Regardless of this, every day, the sometimes subversive results of failures of the system are corrected by pilots with no further dues. In the end, despite all the great manufacturers, despite the big carriers, despite all the big attorney’s cabinets and despite all the regulators of the world, the air transport system depends on those aviators up front. They are the ones that must stop those chain reactions.

When all the organizations and their excellent services fail or when errors are introduced in the process, pilots must manage those faults.

Nothing is perfect in this low world and in spite of great discoveries and superb technological advancements, unknown forces influence against all, the best intentions of contributors.

In the 70’s, an « unknown force » was acting upon large carriers and the industry was starting to pay attention. Turbojets were crashing close by airports, often in VMC conditions. The media of the era always in search of simple cause to explain, merely blamed pilot errors. How was it that experienced pilots (many veterans from various air forces engaged in 39-45) who were flying perfectly airworthy aircraft were crashing with no apparent reason? « Pilot error » they were saying. Accident reports were pointing to big questions but answers were not so clear.

Keep in mind that we are looking 40 years back: no Facebook, no Internet, no EFB’s, no GPS. Aside from a good set of eyes, there existed nothing else than electro-mechanical instruments to judge one’s flight path. In 1974 the existence of microburst was revealed and in fact those accidents had nothing to do with pilot errors. Science under it’s meteorological arm contributed to understand a well known phenomena nowadays.

Much like glider pilots that use and study environment elements to stay aloft, crew members were given the knowledge and necessary practice to safely fly in this « new » environment. From a rather lethal, unknown situation, the industry had moved to efficient management of a complex condition. Dump a recognized menace in their 12 o’clock, an efficient solution is provided within seconds. That is an average pilot day at work! Of course that menace needs to be recognized.

From the onset of computer driven flight management systems in the 80’s, the industry has equipped itself with a remarkable tool to improve flight safety in a more constrained airspace system due to traffic. Crew members are formally required to understand and operate easily those systems in order to get type qualified.

The strict and fluid operation of FMS coupled with auto-pilots and auto-thrust should now be seriously re-evaluated and put in context.

In the effort of concentration on management of those auto systems, hand flying abilities degradation has invited itself into our flight decks without many seriously reacting. This new « dark force » presently makes many victims. Flying for 10000 hours in very accurate fashion with FMS in all phases of flight, mainly in cruise and « unplugging » the magic at the FAF ounce the aircraft is comfortably configured does not do much to improve one’s hand flying.

Unknowingly, the industry has created a new safety threat much similar to the microburst problem of the 70’s.

It must be also known that many carriers coax their aircrew in engaging auto-systems right after being airborne and up to landing where auto-land are required even in VMC. Many SOP’s require auto-pilot engagement for engine failure events. Are we not confident in our aircrew? When has anyone on a A-350 did a flight directors off take-off?

No chance is given or offered to flight crew to practice hand flying all that much. We hesitate to disengage the auto-pilot and/or the flight directors for fear of busting airspace or not meeting basic IFR flying skills requirements. Self esteem in the eyes of the colleague in the other seat does play into this as well, a normal human reaction.

Certain carriers claim to understand the problem by paying lip service to hand flying practice. They will occasionally set the 8 month recurrent (expected) training scenarios whereby a major system failure requires hand flying as such. No devoted hand flying exercise is required where one has to execute touch and goes with all electronic dependency turned off. Neither double engine failure scenarios at 3000 feet are necessary, etc…

Why is this not demanded? Well a crew in training is not productive. A crew that is unable to execute a pointy hand flying exercise will require more training, more down time. The defeatism arguments are the lack of training funds. The regulator does not require at all authentic hand flying minimums. We all hind behind the concept of « industry best practice » which is nothing else than levelling from the base. Who would be incited to spend more funds on additional training at large to acquire the best trained pilots when other competitors do not embark?

And our world ministry’s of transport themselves constrained by cruel resource shortage decline to “stimulate” carriers to avoid imposing financial burdens on free enterprise.

Once again, why would carriers spend one lone penny on enhanced flight training? There is no benefit to share holders.

Enhanced flight training does not consist in flipping around for pleasure in an advanced flight training device that cost more to operate per hour than a light turboprop. It consists to maintain abilities in all respect to the very peak of performance. Our passengers expect nothing less.

The industry is facing a serious problem that needs sorely to be acknowledged. Will we have to wait for insurance underwriters rebellion to take action? The resources are available to correct the issue.

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