Reports that the captain of the Asiana Airlines Boeing 777-200ER that crashed at San Francisco International Airport was stressed about landing at the airport without a glideslope left many of us shaking our heads. How could an airline pilot be worried about landing without a glideslope during the day in perfect weather conditions? Beginner GA pilots routinely land without glideslopes. But therein may lie the problem for this Asiana captain. It’s quite possible he had no GA experience. In fact, in many countries, commercial pilots do not come up through the GA system because there is limited, if any, general aviation flying there. These pilots have little (if any) experience flying without the sophisticated automation of today’s modern airliners. And while military pilots in these countries certainly get a wealth of experience training and flying in all manner of adverse conditions, with and without automation, many, if not most of them, tend to stay in the military. There does not seem to be the transition from the military to commercial flying that exists, or at least used to, in the U.S.
The Asiana crash and several other recent accidents have highlighted the problem of pilots–in the U.S. as well as abroad–depending too much on automation. I believe that the problem of depending too much on automation may really be an indication of how they got their initial flight training and the type of flying they did before becoming commercial pilots. I see it as a lack of basic airmanship skills in aircraft without automation, where the pilot really has to fly the airplane and develops skills that can’t be learned–or are difficult to learn–any other way. The increased use of simulators might be adding to the problem, as time in the simulator replaces time in the airplane. Simulators, of course, are important training tools but they cannot totally duplicate the experience of hand-flying.
Time for GA Revival
Maybe the lesson of the Asiana crash for us in the United States is that the decrease in general aviation flying affects a lot more people than those who enjoy flying or need to fly themselves in areas of the country where commercial transportation options are limited or nonexistent. Maybe some of the problems that are coming to the fore from this accident and several others can serve as a basis for spurring investment in retaining general aviation airports that are threatened by incompatible development. And taking action to make general aviation flying more affordable and accessible to young people who also dream of flying. Too many Americans buy into the myth of private flying as the province of movie stars and the ultra-rich. If they understood the importance of GA flying to developing a cadre of commercial pilots, maybe their views of general aviation would change.
Like many AIN readers, I have a long history with general aviation, and not just general aviation maintenance. Years before I turned my first wrench, I learned to fly. I soloed at the age of 15, before I could even qualify for a driver’s license in my home state of Massachusetts. I learned to fly at Marlborough Airport, on a grass strip, in a taildragger with a skid. From there I would fly to Tew-Mac, an airport located in Tewksbury, Mass., which no longer exists as an airport. Like far too many former GA airports, unfortunately, it is now a strip mall and housing development.
As many of you who were in aviation back then remember, flying in the late 1950s and early 1960s was an experience quite different from what it is today. Even in the relatively congested Northeast during those decades, a kid (even one from the lower-income streets of East Boston) with a dream to fly could find an airport where he could afford to take lessons. The price of flight instruction was high even then, although certainly not by today’s standards, but FBOs were frequently willing to help kids who wanted to fly by letting them trade chores for time and experience. I frequently washed and waxed airplanes, ran errands for mechanics and cleaned up the shop. In exchange, the FBO owners let me tag along with them and their other pilots on flights where they gave me the opportunity to practice and build time. The aircraft I flew in most frequently were the Piper J-2, J-3 and Tri-Pacer.
I wonder how many FBOs could allow a kid to do that today. I would bet that it’s a lot more difficult with today’s more stringent insurance requirements and the general litigiousness of society. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to get back to those GA-friendlier days, at least in the most congested parts of the country. But maybe we have an opportunity now to change the public’s view of GA: from auto execs flying private jets to a bailout hearing before Congress in 2008 to being a critical part of the training and experience that airline pilots need if they are to carry the traveling public safely.