Astronaut Worries About Skills of Today’s Pilots

 - November 5, 2012, 3:39 PM
Former astronaut Gene Cernan said Bombardier’s Safety Standdown has made him more honest in confronting his own shortcomings as a pilot.

Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan said he worries about the flying skills of pilots today. The type-rated Learjet 45 pilot, who was the last man to walk on the moon, commented to AIN at last month’s Bombardier Safety Standdown in Wichita, “I worry about the complacency that technology is imposing on pilots. Pilots tend to become overwhelmed with all the lights on these glass panels and forget they still have a responsibility to fly the airplane.”

Cernan believes that part of the solution is pilots being honest about their flying skills and their shortcomings. Reflecting on his own skill level, he said, “Just because you’ve gone to the moon doesn’t mean you’re exempt from making stupid decisions. I’ve made a lot of them in my life.” Cernan, who now flies a Cessna 421, hopes honesty about his own vulnerabilities will allow other pilots to see their own a little more clearly. He said his 421 has a glass PFD and MFD and terrain avoidance technology that’s “supposed to keep me from killing myself; but if that technology fails, I still need to fly the airplane and miss that mountaintop.”

He added that attending the Safety Standdown has forced him to be more introspective when he flies. “It’s easy to preach and a little more difficult to do,” he said. “I always feel a little guilty now when I’m flying if I take a shortcut that I told someone else not to try. I call it the standdown effect.”

 

Comments

Larry Walters's picture

Ego kills more pilots than anything else.

Manny Puerta's picture

Agree with Gene Cernan, but the other side of the coin is to not dumb the process down to the lowest common denominator. The weak ones need to have their skills brought up to the professional level demanded by the profession, rather than accommodating and accepting by lowering the standards. Like Butch Voris (the leader of the Navy's first flight demonstration team) said, "If you can't be the best, don't get into the airplane." We've seen multiple results of that not being the prevailing attitude, with less than desirable consequences.

Brent's picture

Gene is spot on. I think as technology advances our flying skills are often slowly eroding. When looking at some recent accidents, it seems clear to me.

David Walker's picture

Ditto - he is spot on. When did aviation ever stop training regression from technology? Fly the aircraft.

Robert P. Mark's picture

Do you think pilots in general realize they are really part of the problem though?

David Walker's picture

No I don't think pilots realise they are part of the problem. Personally my background is professionally aviation and computer/IT; and I can say this - humans WILL pass off responsibility to technology until they don't know what is going on, nearly all the time. Its a Human-Computer-Interface (HCI) problem. What I would feel safer with is pilots who are given availability of automation, but are required to keep levels of competence without that automation (all of it). Airline competence schedules must be near prehistoric compared to the technology. Current training has not caught up with computerisation - at all. The idea of piloting being entirely taken over by automation is a misnomer believed by airline pilots scared of losing their jobs too. I can tell you it will never happen; that's from a computer science perspective, with aviation knowledge.

Robert v Lieshout's picture

Is it possible for a pilot to take over a plane when the technic fails?

Robert's picture

Lots of you guys are IFR rated, fly glass cockpit but at the root of things if all fails in an aircraft, what is left to make this aircraft land safely?
It is the person that learned the basics and kept those basic skills updated.
As simple as a GPS showing you where to go....how far you are from destination...well... when that GPS decides to fail on you...are you ready to fly with the good old map on your lap? Are you ready to face the music ?It became easy to prepare a flight with this technology , but when all fails... are you really prepared?

Robert's picture

Lots of you guys are IFR rated, fly glass cockpit but at the root of things if all fails in an aircraft, what is left to make this aircraft land safely?
It is the person that learned the basics and kept those basic skills updated.
As simple as a GPS showing you where to go....how far you are from destination...well... when that GPS decides to fail on you...are you ready to fly with the good old map on your lap? Are you ready to face the music ?It became easy to prepare a flight with this technology , but when all fails... are you really prepared?

William Saltiel-Gracian's picture

...will fly you straight into the ground with the utmost of smartness and precision if you let it. They can be a great assist under certain circumstances, but knowing when --- and how --- to shut all of that off and fly the aircraft manually is important as well.

Jeff Fleming's picture

Do not forget the good old "needle, ball and airspeed" that will never fail. At least not due to electronic failure. On some of the new glass cockpits, you might be hard pressed to even find these basic instruments. Hold a heading, keep the wings level until you can figure out where you are and how to get the plane safely on the ground. We should all know how to do this.

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