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"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."

PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Aircraft Commander in the 21st Century

Command Lessons From QF32, written by Tim Robinson, presents some interesting points on automation.

"On 20-21 March the Royal Aeronautical Society held its first ‘The Aircraft Commander in the 21st Century’ conference. Organized by the RAeS Flight Operations Group, the conference sought to explore the changing role of the aircraft commander, particularly as civil airliners get ever more automated and complex.

This issue has recently been thrown into sharp focus, as incidents like Qantas QF32 and Air France AF447 have demonstrated differing responses from pilots to ever more complex aircraft..."

Tim Robinson

Tim's article covers many perplexing issues of the future of automation but I'm fascinated with the comparison of these the two accidents. The flight that survived, an A380, had a highly experienced captain in command, who despite the many things wrong with his plane, knew how to fly it. And they survived.

AF, an A330, had two first officers who didn't understand what was happening when they lost their instruments and proceeded to stall the plane.

I think we should add yet another flight in this comparison and that's Qantas QF30, which was a scheduled flight from London to Melbourne on 25 July 2008. The flight was interrupted when an oxygen tank exploded causing a fuselage rupture just forward of the starboard wing root. The aircraft made an emergency descent and diverted into Manila. John Bartels successfully flew his 747-438 to a safe landing, despite the numerous warnings.

Senior pilots earned their experience from flying the old generation planes, and were able to carry that through when their planes fell apart. How will our new generation pilots gain their experience? Will the 1500 hour rule change really make a difference? Or do we need to focus how we train our pilots for the future?

Where does our future lay with aviation safety and automation? Do senior pilots lose their flying skills with the automation? Or do they have that innate and long term memory of basic aerodynamic skills? Unfortunately they will be retiring. And what about the future pilots that are learning how to fly in these automated planes... do they have the core skills to fly their planes when the systems fall apart? When they learn to fly these automated planes, and then don't fly due to seniority issues, can they possibly retain the skills necessary to be safe, even with the automation working?

Tough questions... but there is a solution. Do you know what it is?

Stay tuned for Flight For Safety. The sequel to Flight For Control. Many, and more, of these issues will be discussed in the next thriller that mirrors real life.

For now if you would like to listen to an interesting interview with John Bartels...what it was like to lose everything and maintain control... Join me on

Enjoy the Journey!

XOX Karlene


  1. Loss of skills is a big issue facing the pilots of modern aircrafts and more so the fly by wire types.
    In a normal operation, the requirement to exercise manual skills is drastically reduced and when requisitioned for the same in an abnormal condition with additional workload and stress created due to malfunction, we have had catastrophic results.
    Airlines have added time for practicing manual skills in their curriculum and we seem to be doing the full circle all over in placing importance on manual skills in the backdrop of few incidents/accidents that we have seen.

    1. Srinivas, That's amazing your company is placing importance on manual skills. In the US, FAA checking is 90% on managing the automation. Also I've noted the foot print is being shortened due to the reliability of the automation. You have the solution...we just need it implemented and FAA mandated. But, then that is very expensive and can the airlines afford it? Not sure.

  2. I think the solution is to have all pilots handfly whenever they are in the sim, "bouncing". It shouldn't be up to the pilot to say "Hey I think I need to do some manual flying this time around" - it should be a requirement.

    Automation, the two edged sword. Positive and negative aspects. We have to know what to do in case anything goes wrong. I would not want to be in a situation where I am not 100% comfortable with my own manual flying skills.

    1. So true! Last time I was in a simulator I asked just this...but time was tight and I received a quick trip in the pattern. But...when I write my next training program, it will be designed to fly first, then the pilots can learn how to manage the automation. Automation... We love it. We want it to stay. But we also need to keep our skills.
      Thanks for the comment.

  3. Dear Karlene:

    It's good to see this dialogue commencing in so many places in the industry. We're just starting to understand the importance and complexity of the human-machine interface problems we're confronting and their resolution will require input from many sources.

    Mr. Robinson's article points at a vital axis of understanding - the spectrum running from "ops normal" to non-normal/emergency conditions. Right now, it seems that as the situation deteriorates from ops normal through non-normal to "Oh,sh**!" (N.B.: along a continuum!!), the system responses don't parallel the real world. The system continues to act in an "ops normal" way until a (fairly severe) degradation threshhold is reached, at which point it throws its hands up in the air, hands the yoke to the PF, and crawls into a corner where it sits, ringing bells and hurling EICAS messages at the crew.

    Here's what we need: Graceful disintermediation(tm)(pat. pend.)!

    Can we not have a system that processes its voluminous data to produce a normality score for the flight situation. When everything is going swimmingly, the score is very high and the controls are intermediated at a high level. Let a few parameters get out of the normal range (maybe just the accelerometers saying "We've encountered turbulence") and the system cedes more command authority to the human pilots. If things get a bit worse, the system cedes full control to the crew and confines message output to matters that seem to need attention Right Now. When it all goes pear shaped, the system acts like the perfect wingman, saying nothing but "Two", "Bingo" and "Lead, you're on fire."

    Of course, the flight crew's orientation and training would have to accommodate the disintermediation spectrum. But since the system response would be dynamic, modest disintermediation events would not be rare and pilots would learn the right reactions - both in training and on the line.

    This is a challenge for both systems designers and flight crew trainers. The solutions we need are not to be found on only one side of the human-machine interface. We will not be able to train our way out of these problems - better design is also needed.

    Best regards,


    P.S.: I enjoyed Mr. Robinson's line about the surgeon who was advised "Don't do something, just stand there," because it reminded me of my old CFI (who trained cadets to fly in WWII). He told me, "The first step in every emergency checklist should be 'Wind the clock'". Same message, not new.

    1. Hi Frank, I love the disintermediation spectrum idea. I think the problem with that is the level the computer thinks it knows more than the pilot.

      Example...a recommendation to use autoland for an overweight landing. The airplane knows it can land more stable than the pilot. BUT... when the ILS is down on the long runway, and the option is the short runway because the pilot thinks it knows more...then we've heated up the situation.

      Also..the fuel balance issue on the 330. The plane really only knows it's out of balance. So it tells the pilot do to something wrong. But, does the pilot listen, or trust their judgment?

      And if the pilots don't get that hands on training, will they have the skills to fly. Back to the beginning of the circle.

      So my solution is... put a button that takes away all laws and gives you a "real" plane feeling so you know exactly what you have. Then when the pilot feels confused they can say..."I've got it!" and push the make it a plane button.

      "Just stand there" ... yes, and I was thinking about the reason you should pull out the checklist before doing memory items... gives your brain a chance to catch up to the situation instead of reacting. Nice when we can do that.

      Thanks for the great comment!

  4. I sure don't know the answer(s) but I glad that the subjet is being discussed among flyers and the airframers. While the airplanes are good and signifigant failures are few, they will always happen. The pilots still need a full bag of stick and rudder skills and those necessary for the huge airplanes that they fly. Those flights during which signifigant failures occur are NOT disposable events. The boys and girls up front need the ability to command everything in manual mode - and know how to use that mode (law set?) when they impose it. Every time. More sim practice is one option, but old fashioned book learning and knowing the answsers to those pesky "What If," questions is part of the package. There are no design or logic engineers flying with these pilots, so t hey must know how to hand fly those machines when the computers quit.
    One possible answer might be to limit type jumping to x-years. If seniority dictates a higher pay rate, pay it - while keeping experienced folks in the airplanes that they have fonally mastered. I don't know, but it does concern me. Great post! -Craig

    1. Craig, these are the answers. But did you know that most airlines are removing the classroom training? Pilots now get disks at home and are told to learn the plane. And the training is mostly how to manage the systems. Because of the high reliability, the FAA is allowing less training hours, and definitely less focus on hand flying skills. Thankfully these planes are reliable. But when they break... hopefully we're ready.

      Thank you so much for the comment!

  5. Karlene:

    Couple of questions:

    As I understand it, the Airbus has three control levels - Normal, Alternate, and Direct. Is Direct Law the equivalent of "it's a real airplane now"?

    As the pilot flying, can you opt to go into Direct Law at any time, regardless of whether the computer thinks that's a good idea?

    If yes, how hard is that to do (how many key presses, button pushes, knob turns needed)?



  6. Hi Frank, Yes. That is exactly what Direct Law is...exactly like a real plane. So really... the other laws are to protect the pilot from doing what they normally shouldn't do anyway. The language of "laws" is what the pilots fear (don't understand?).

    At once I thought we could put it in direct law by turning off the computers. But turning off the computers puts the plane in Back up Flight Control. So, that's not really a law. The computers do so much more than become involved in navigation. They are the brains of all the systems too.

    What can a pilot do to take the airplane? Turn off the autothrottles, and the autopilot. You can fly the plane like a real plane...with fly by wire techonology. You say turn, the computers tell the plane what's needed to give you what you want.

    I think we need a direct law button. But in reality, that will just be a button for pilots to default to because they don't understand. Maybe training needs to increase so we don't need that button?

  7. Karlene:

    Thanks so much for the additional info. It strikes me that the problem isn't pilots not knowing how to take back command's not knowing when to do it.

    I can think of two situations that might be analogous. First, the Tac Air communities have always had a problem training pilots on when to pull the big red handle and take the Martin-Baker letdown. They stay with the airplane too long, thinking they can salvage a bad situation, and then wind up ejecting out of envelope. And their funerals are held on sunny days.

    The second is the Cirrus community and the struggle with training owner-pilots on when to pull the handle on the ballistic recovery system. The catch phrase is "pull early, pull often" but it doesn't seem to catch on.

    So maybe the training model should be to teach Airbus pilots the simple "click-click-twist-snap" flow (or whatever) that puts them into Direct Law, and say "When in doubt go direct to Direct" as often as possible. And make it clear that the pilot who never goes to Direct Law can expect a heart warming tete-a-tete with the Chief Pilot. 'Cause if they do it routinely, it won't be a such a life changing experience when Fifi decides to go toes up on a dark and stormy night.



    1. Frank, it comes down to... fly your plane. I don't believe we can turn of the laws to take it to direct. But the pilots can fly the plane by getting rid of the automation.

      Knowing when to take control? When it's not doing what you want it to do. The real problem is complacency and following our planes because we trust them to do the right thing. We need to be smarter.

      The solution is redesigning our training programs for the shift in technology.

  8. I salute you commander. You make flights more better.


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