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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.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Practicing with Passengers

One of the greatest challenges with the current aviation industry, and one that I will pursue during my studies, not to mention is a central theme in Flight For Safety, is that pilots are losing their flying skills compliments of automation. 

The FAA is now recommending that we hand fly our planes. It took 20 years, but they too believe it's time to kick off the automation and keep our flying skills fine-tuned.  Companies are encouraging hand flying as well. We all know that practice makes perfect. And as the joke goes... the Airbus takes both excellent and shitty pilots alike, and makes them all average. But deficiency in proficiency is no joke. Especially when it's due to automation that we need and love.

Automation is safer than hand flying.

We know this. Thus I have 4 questions: 

1. If we kick off our automation have we reduced safety? 

With automation connected we have greater situational awareness. The pilot monitoring has more time and awareness to pay attention outside the aircraft. When we are hand-flying, the other pilot is busy pushing buttons and dialing knobs for the pilot flying, while responding to clearances.

2.   If something were to happen while hand-flying, who is liable? 

A concern from the pilots for not hand flying their planes is simple: If something were to happen during a flight where the pilots had equipment available, that they did not use, the pilot will be liable. We are encouraged by our companies and the FAA... so they will be liable too. But the ultimate responsibility resides with the pilots. The first time an incident happens while the pilot is "practicing" their flying skills, will be a field day in court if the pilots did not use all their equipment.

3.   Should we be practicing with passengers?

Liability aside, should we be practicing with passengers? International pilots are sleeping in passenger seats, flying long hours, and landing on the backside of the clock many time zones away with a messed up circadian rhythm. Can we be our best under these conditions? If we are not our best... should we use everything available or kick it off so we can practice?

4.   What happens when we lose the automation?

If we haven't been flying without the automation, will we have the skills to do so when we are faced with that challenge due to a failure?

The conundrum of Aviation Safety

Pete Wilson, a graduate student at Cranfield University, is conducting research for his thesis on the manual flying skills of pilots of automated aircraft. If you are a pilot, he would be appreciative if you would take time to conduct his survey. Tomorrow come back and meet the man behind the survey.

Click Here: Manual Flying Survey

What do you think the answer are? 

Enjoy the Journey!
XO Karlene


  1. Simulators are extrenely realistic.Why not practice hand flying there. They can be set up for any conditions

    1. Kevin, they are. And... would be a great place to get some extra flying in. I'm thinking it would be great to utilize them to the max for just this. Allow each pilot to make a couple approaches followed by the missed... Maybe an engine failure too. You know... Murphy's Rule...Would be great to start at altitude and do the entire descent and arrival, too.

  2. The problem with automation is pilots tend to lose their basic flying skills. There seems to be an over-reliance on computers which in my mind creates a lazyness on the flight deck and in time they can forget their stick and rudder skills. Being a supervisor over a crew is one thing, but supervising computer controls is another.

    1. Mathew, you are so correct... pilots do lose their basic flying skills if they are not using them. But it's not really due to lazy. For the international folks, with RVSM, and the conditions we fly... there are not many opportunities. But safety is always the first concern, and at the end of the long night... it's nice to have our systems. Thank you so much for your comment!

  3. A good solution would have three parts:
    1. Hand-fly more in the actual airplane (up to the fligth levels and down from FL180 to landing).
    2. More hand flying in the sim, including better scenarios like automation malfunction.
    3. Most importantly, keep the airline guys going back to the GA cockpit periodically. Upset recovery training, tailwheel flying, aerobatics, all those things help keep their skills fresh.

    1. Ron, I cannot agree with you more. The best Airbus I see are those that fly small planes. The basic skills do transfer over and they have no problem kicking the automation off.

  4. I remember Qantas doing touch and go at Avalon A/pt in Melbourne Australia to practice. Not sure if they still do.
    Does Delta does this?.
    I would rather it autolanded every time for the safety aspect.
    Maye some flying outside hrs could help, but do you guys really forget basic flying. The biggest problem could be whats in the mind of the person next to you.

    1. Thanks for your comment Kevin. Once upon a time all airlines used to do takeoffs and landings before our simulators became so good and we no longer needed to go to the plane. With level D certification the first time a pilot flies the plane is with passengers.

      Not too many autolands out there. Most pilots actually kick off the autopilot around 500 feet or so and land manually. But... is this enough to keep skills up?

  5. Great article, Karlene. You've voiced several questions I've had.

    I'll take a stab at the answers:
    -When working properly, automation is the "highest" level of safety--but hand-flying is not inherently "dangerous." In your car, are you safer having the Cruise Control on or off?

    -I think increased hand-flying is coming to a simulator near you. I'd HIGHLY recommend reverting to a semi-annual sim event. (To save cost we've gone to annual--gee, sounds like something they'd do at Darby's airline!)

    -There's plenty of opportunity to hand-fly on a regular basis, on any leg. We should do it when the weather is good and we're NOT overloaded. If it gets to that point, kick the automation on and keep an eye on the "big picture."

    -As you know, automation relieves us of the mundane stick and rudder distraction, just like a Cruise Control does in your car; hence the increase in safety. Hence, I'd recommend using it for the majority of the flight. But, for the reasons above, I see nothing wrong with kicking it off and driving down an ILS when the weather and traffic's good.

    In that situation, I don't think there would be one iota of safety compromised.

    Great stuff, thanks for posting. I'll take the survey too!

    1. Eric, that's a great analogy with the cruise control and safety. But that cruise control can get you in trouble on those long road trips. lol.

      I really think when we discuss this, there are two worlds... domestic and international. I know many pilots (myself included) when flying NRT HKG TPE... we'll hand fly the short legs in daylight. But those 12 hour flights with a 20 hour day...those get a little more questionable with the fatigue.
      it's all good... and we need to keep our skills up. Oh... if only we could consult Darby!

  6. Karlene, you mention kicking off the autopilot at 500 feet. This drives me nuts. I don't think you can get a good feel for the airplane and what it's doing by kicking it off 30 seconds before landing. I see it almost daily and I think it has a higher potential for issues than someone kicking it off at 1500 feet. However, I think that lots of folks don't do it mainly because they aren't comfortable hand flying in the busy phase of flight prior to this where the airplane is still being configured. As everyone here has said, practice well help but I also believe the sim isn't a complete solution. The simulator still isn't 100% realistic and never will be so flying in the real airplane is critical also. And whether or not the public likes it, practicing hand flying with passengers on board is the only way to do this. Hopefully we can get the industry-wide proficiency up before there is a problem.

    1. Daniel, Thanks for your excellent comment! When I'm out in the system I watch, ask people what they are doing, and am trying to get a grasp on this. The data that's coming in on Pete's survey is fascinating. But... I'm thinking, as we could have guessed. There is also a difference between planes. I think more confidence with flying a Boeing than the Bus...just what the pilot is comfortable with. But the Airbus is very flyable. Maybe we need to do this during the initial line check to give confidence that it's just a plane. Not sure. But... an interesting discussion. Thank you for your comment!

  7. The title of this article, "Practicing With Passengers," is bound to stir up controversy with non-aviation folks.

    As an international 767 pilot, I "practice" every time I step foot on the flight deck. It's no different than each time a "practicing" physician picks up a scalpel. Every time we show up for work, there is an opportunity for improvement (or maintaining skills). Asking "Should we be practicing with passengers?" implies that we are trying out new stuff while the poor folks in the back hang on for dear life. This simply isn't the case.

    There are many ways to fly an airplane safety. Non-pilots may not realize there are different levels of automation. It's not a matter of "ON" or "OFF." It's also important to note that automation doesn't "fly" an airplane. It is a tool that must be managed by pilots (I once had a Captain that was a tool, but that's another story).

    When the weather outside is frightful, workloads are high, or we are at the end of a long day, we maximize our use of automation. When the weather is beautiful and we're landing at Podunk Aerodrome, I typically reduce levels of automation. There's nothing sinister, illegal or unethical about doing so. And we're certainly not putting passengers at risk (the opposite is true). Like Cap'n Aux said, it's like clicking off a car's cruise control. Safety is not compromised. We are still flying the jet by-the-book and exactly as we are trained. If workload increases, we can increase the level of automation if we feel it's necessary.

    Even on international legs, my crew and I often "practice" non-precision approaches. We go through the motions of preparing for a more challenging or complex approach procedure while at the same time having the precision approach as a back up. By doing so, we actually add layers of safety.

    Simulators are great. Our recurrent training this year included full segments without the autopilot. It was good practice. But honestly, having an extra sim session every year isn't going to help much. It's the day-to-day experience we get in the real airplane that allows us to hone our skills (if we choose to do so).

    What happens when we lose automation? If we've been using a variety of techniques and procedures all along (ehem... "Practicing"), nothing happens other than a safe, routine landing.

    Here's a little more that I've written on the subject:

    Sorry I used up so much comment space. Great topic!

    Ken H.

    1. Great analogy Ken... We all know doctors call it practicing medicine because they are always practicing. One day I hope they get it right!

      But... back to your comments. What I've seen occurring is more of an International Airbus thing. Long legs. Different technology. Fatigue. And they say, "Not worth risking anything for this."

      An interesting note was a captain I flew with who had been an instructor on the 747-400 when it first came out. Similar to when I was teaching on the 757... we were "mandated" to use the automation. The students would come in and when the pressure rose, they got confused on managing, they would kick everything off and hand-fly.

      Well...the era was, "Use the automation!" We broke them of the hand flying. My entire 757 check (less the airwork) was on the autopilot with autothrust and a flight director. They wanted us to manage the plane. Thus... this CA still believes this and carried that mandate to the A330. Believing that this is how we fly...with only automation.

      But how can skills be maintained without using them? We know they can't. So this is the challenge. I also think the technology of the airbus, if the pilots are old Boeing pilots... it's more of a challenge. A320 pilots have no problem with clicking it off and flying.

      Thanks for the link and the great comment!

    2. I've only flown Boeing and old Douglas transports. It would be interesting to compare automation philosophy of the new Airbus and Boeing jets. My favorite video is the old "Children of the Magenta Line." It's a must-watch for anyone flying modern transports (or just Boeings?).

    3. Yes... the Airbus has taken that magenta line to the next level. The sequel for the Children of the Magenta line... Airbus inspired... is going to be called, Children of the magenta on steroids.

  8. I was thinking on aircraft automation these past days...

    I am not against automation and I do believe it increases safety. My problem is the fact in the seemingly near future, current commercial jetliners will become fully automated pilot-free flying machines...

    What I believe:
    - Do we have the technology?
    This cannot be applied in 20 years time.

    - Can it affect safety?
    It can, if not researched carefully and business (money) does not have an estimated delivery date;

    - And the economics surrounding this?
    The world simply cannot afford to have these pilot-free fully automated technological jetliners. Airlines struggle with current models, imagine with highly automated planes!

    We always have crisis in the world economy, then we have the fact the aviation business is a money-drainer, plus the costs to operate, maintain and make it safer and safer would be too high.

    First, let's reach a point where flight tracking through satellite or precise data streaming is possible to search missing planes. Then we can start looking ahead.

    The current models and the new ones (A350 generation) are obviously very fine. And we must stimulate hand-flying. And that's simple to understand, because then we wouldn't be pilots, and I mean it in a safety manner.

    Regarding workload and work hours:
    The European Union approved an additional 150 hour workload to European pilots. This is bad. There is actually a campaign called "Dead Tired" that stimulates everybody to sign a petition and try to prove through scientific evidence that fatigue is fatal.

    Automation reduces workload. And if you can switch the autopilot ON, you obviously can switch it OFF. Airlines and Aviation Agencies are approving this, then awesome! Let's do it!

    Every skill is developed through practice. And if we loose hand-flying skills, we are definitely putting our flights into risk.


    1. Alex, Thanks for the great comment. They are trying to go there... no pilots. For now the planes can't handle the crosswind that we can, but I am told Engineers are working on that.

      And the Dead Tired campaign. Do you want those Zombies kicking everything off when they are dead tired? I don't. Use all the help you can.

      Automation does reduce workload. Do we want to switch it off and increase workload? Is that safe? That's the real question. As pilots we are supposed to apply the safest course of action. Which we know the plane flies better than we can.

      Every skill is developed through practice. And there in lays the dilemma. The concern is for those pilots that were told 20 years ago, "Manage the flight deck with the automation on." 20 years later..."Hand fly your plane." Did those pilots lose skills in the middle of that time frame? Are they confident to hand fly?

      Interesting questions. And where the future goes will be a fascination in process.

      Thank you so much for the brilliant comment!

    2. - Do we want to switch it off and increase workload? Is that safe?
      For how long you will be flying manually? The entire flight? There is no hand-flying without increasing workload, it seems. It is safe depending on the case. Plus, you are not flying a single piston engine aircraft, so we must do what we can, within our possibilities, respecting the complexity of the machine.

      - Did those pilots lose skills in the middle of that time frame? Are they confident to hand fly?
      They did. No, they are not confident.

      But we can at least increase confidence and hand-flying skills. I don't expect in 90%, but in modest results.

      This is something that airlines and aviation agencies could start working on, which they obviously are.

      I don't think automation should make us machine operators and system analyzers. But we won't fly manually as much as we did in the past. That's no longer possible with the current aircraft models.

    3. Alex, that's the point. We want it... safety. But the issue is when it breaks can we handle the situation? This is the great dilemma. And something we're all working on. Practice makes perfect. But... that's if you start with a base. Do we have a baseline that pilots feel comfortable kicking it all off?

      My contention is, if we do "now" as they say, after so many years of not... is this right? You hit the nail on the head... we live in a new world, with more planes, more advanced equipment, and procedures that prevent hand flying.
      Interesting dilemma for sure.

    4. True... This is so complex...

      I ran out of thoughts.

      I saw on the comment below about costs on flight simulators... You are right. Airlines don't want more costs... If they are always trying to adapt to new environments, perhaps flight simulators are not "needed" at the moment. I mean, maybe that's how they see.

      This is frightening... We are worried on loosing skills... There is a gap between the past and the present, and another gap between the present and the future.

      Do you think we can find a solution for this? Will there be a pilot-friendly cockpit? So it can work in accordance to the pilots instead of working alone without pilots?

      I definitely cannot help on this one. Maybe in the future when I get more experience.

  9. Yeah as the previous comment said, simulator would definitely be a great place to practice since most of them are state of the art aka very realistic.

    But how often do you go to the simulator and do a full "normal" flight. By normal, I mean a simulation flight with no emergencies, a flight that is not meant to test pilot's reaction or handling different situations. I would guess not often since there arent that many simulators in the company and a normal flight would take forever to complete.

    Manual flying for hours would be pretty tiring, (esp if you are on a Boeing), because you need to adjust the trims, and make sure you stay on altitude and on course despite all those bumpy air. But I do believe they should hand fly even if it means practicing with the passengers on board because it is not feasible (economically and environmentally) to have every pilot in the airline to hand fly a jet for hours until they are comfortable to do so with passengers.

    A balanced solution for this problem would probably be a good mix of flight simulator training, mixed with an adequate amount of hand flying at high altitude. I do know some airlines that do that at high altitude. However the difference is that that airline only carries cargo. Hand flying at high altitude would be perfect as it give both pilots enough time to react if things do go wrong. Furthermore, at high altitude (at cruise), you are usually away from busy traffic areas, there will be less traffic, and less disturbances.

    1. Martin, Thanks for the great comment. The truth is, the simulator is a perfect place to do this training. But the reality is, time is money. And with the hiring craze going with all airlines, I suspect there will be conflict with training old and new, at the same time. As in...not enough sim time available for everything.
      Another issue is with the type of flying we do...RVSM airspace operation (1000 ft separation) requires the autopilot. Weather restrictions requires autopilot. And then the fatigue.
      The reality with flying, is not necessarily the pilot flying that is the issue when we click it all off. It's the overload on the other pilot talking, programming and trying to keep up with everything...when they are fatigued.
      I really appreciate your comment! Together we can figure this out.

  10. Could you pleade tell us whst exactly what you need to practice. At ATPL level i would have thought you would gave got enough practice with all emergency procedure. Do you really forget that quick how to fly? Does switching off automation at 500ft make you a better pilot or does it make the situation worse for passengers. Imagine an austronaut hand flying to the space station or switching automation off at any stage.
    Criuise control due to traffic or other road conditions is a bad analogy.
    I think 2 or 3 ATPL pilots on the flight deck should get it right or they dont belong there.

    1. The interesting term is "quickly." How long does it take a surgeon to forget how to do a heart transplant if they haven't done one for five years?

      And the practicing is not really the kicking off at 500 feet. The practice should come with kicking off the automation and managing the plane from top of descent, or 10,000 feet.

      You're right...they should get it right. But if you don't use it, you lose it. So... there is the challenge.
      Thank you for your comment.

  11. There's a balance that needs to be struck between cockpit "automation" and "manual" flying skills...When in balance, it's a beautiful thing! They work in concert and yield a safe, satisfying outcome (i.e. successful flight operations). When they don't, the outcome could be far less than "favorable"...

    1. Thank you so much Bryan. Yes... this is the dance of balance. We do it well.. it is beautiful. If we don't....well, someone falls. Thank you for the great comment!

  12. Karlene, firstly - sorry for being behind in replies. Secondly, you bring up many good points. The automation does reduce the work load and leave room for more situation awareness. Luckily there are two pilots in the flight deck and not just one - such as a single pilot in a 172 or another single prop.

    Pilot fatigue is a definite safety issue (even though there might be some who might wish to respond, "Tell us something we don't know?") The fact is, I feel that we have not learned the lesson of how much of a safety issue this has become, especially for those pilots with a nice number of turnovers flying 10+ day trips. And to think that some are sleeping ( uhhh... I would use the term "sleeping" but will correct myself with "napping with one eye open" as that would be a more accurate description) in the cabin area would pose a problem especially if something goes wrong with the automation.

    Hand flying IMHO, is something every airline should not encourage but REQUIRE to a degree in order for pilots not to loose those skills - just in case something does go wrong. Each flight poses a different situation and pilots must be knowledgeable or proficient to act accordingly. It's better to practice, even with passengers, than to have an incident HAPPEN with passengers due to lack of flying skills. And... what if the automation decides to commit suicide with pilots flying at cruise in the middle of the ocean? The impossible is ever so much more possible in this world. Yes, "quickly" is definite key word.

    OK, I thought I would throw these thoughts in.

    Have a great night!

    1. Jeremy, Thank you for the outstanding response. You brought up a great point. The lesser of the evils would be to have a planned practice session with the passengers, as opposed to the midnight surprise... with the same guests.
      And fatigue...we all know that we can deal with everything better rested. So that could be a contributing factor if something were to happen. We have a challenge ahead. But the key is to be aware and work toward a solution.


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