Like many pilots, Bill Voss is concerned about the extent to which automation has changed the role of the professional pilot today. But as president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, Voss is also better placed than most to do something about the problems he perceives.
The losses of the Air France A330 and Colgan Q400 in 2009 cast doubt on the core stick-and-rudder skills of pilots flying modern commercial aircraft, some of them extremely automated. “We keep trying to pretend this snuck up on us but it had all the stealth of a freight train,” notes Voss. “Of course this was happening, and everyone knew it. But no one really talked about it until the Air France A330 crashed into the Atlantic. Now we’ve had that event, we have to have a serious conversation about stick-and-rudder skills.”
In one sense there are signs of progress already, notably at Emirates Airline, which has inserted two days of manual simulator flying into its pilots’ recurrency training. “This is an extraordinarily bold and expensive move—two days of sim is a big hunk of money—and other airlines are altering their automation policies to make sure there is more hands-on time,” says Voss. “But at the end of the day you still have the fundamental problem that the system is moving ever further away from one where pilots can fly the airplane.” Regulators expect operations in RVSM airspace to be flown on the autopilot, which takes away hands-on cruise flight from pilots in most parts of the world. “Add to that RNP or GNS procedures off the ground; continuous-descent approaches in the terminal area, which take you pretty much all the way down to final, flown coupled because they’re containment-based PBN apps; and we’re clearly going to a future where we can no longer pretend that the automation is there to help the pilot,” continues Voss. “The pilot is there as a backup to the automation. Those are two fundamentally different concepts, and they’re going to require us to fundamentally revisit our training.”
Voss regards hand flying as something that is relatively easy to recover, like riding a bike, “but what’s not easy is finding a way to keep pilots genuinely engaged in the operation of the aircraft so they know what’s happening next. You can’t monitor an automation system or step in to back it up by sitting there passively and just observing it; you have to have a clear idea of what’s supposed to happen next in the flight. If the pilots do have to intervene, they don’t necessarily have in their mind the combination of attitude and power setting necessary to sustain the aircraft for the next few minutes until things settle down. These are things that go beyond raw flying skills that we have to find a way to put back into pilots’ heads.”
The FSF is involved more in redefining recurrency training than ab initio, and the foundation is working on pulling together some of the many efforts currently under way. “But this is not a training problem,” Voss emphasizes. “The problem is that the operation of commercial aircraft has fundamentally changed. What you do every day when you fly 200 days a year has changed, and changing the curriculum of what you do two days a year during training is not going to fix it. You have to look at the entire system and find a way to reinforce the right behaviors 200 days a year, not just two. Those are the challenges we really have to strap on. It’s a fundamental change, and it’s time the world comes to grips with it.”