Aviation Safety: What Has Become of Us?

By Scott Spangler on January 14th, 2013

Oh, the irony of progress.

In 2005, the FAA issued its first Safety Alert for Operators, “an information tool that alerts, educates, and makes recommendations to the aviation community [that] includes air carrier certificate holders, fractional ownership program managers, and 14 CFR Part 142 training centers.” There’s no irony in this, or the next paragraph:

“Each SAFO contains important safety information and may contain recommended actions. SAFO content should be especially valuable to air carriers in meeting their statutory duty to provide service with the highest possible degree of safety in the public interest. The information and recommendations in a SAFO are often time critical.”

Here’s the irony: SAFO 13002 (released last week) is dedicated to Manual Flight Operations. Why? I’ll let the FAA explain: “A recent analysis of flight operations data (including normal flight operations, incidents, and accidents) identified an increase in manual handling errors. The [FAA] believes maintaining and improving the knowledge and skills for manual flight operations is necessary for safe flight operations.”

In other words, the FAA is saying that failure of the flight management system and autopilot is now a critical in-flight emergency that demands special training and practice: flying an airplane by hand. Many are aghast at this recommendation, but they shouldn’t be. Technology has so infiltrated flight that “manual flight” is only the latest of a number of similar recommendations the FAA has made since it created SAFOs in 2005.

clip_image001In SAFO’s inaugural year, the FAA said that normal flight operations did not require “Multiple Full-Deflection, Alternating Flight Control Inputs,” which in 2001 tore the rudder and vertical stab off an Airbus A300.

In 2006, a SAFO recommended “Remedial Training for Part 121 Pilots” with persistent performance deficiencies. This was led by several incidents, including an MD-10 pilot who forgot to arrest the descent rate—flare—before touchdown. In another burst of irony, another SAFO that year recommended “Bounced Landing Training” for Part 121/135 operations.

In 2007 there was “Thrust Lever Position During Landing with One Deactivated Thrust Reverser on Airbus A318, A319, A320, A321 Series Airplanes.” Apparently it’s legal to fly with one reverser deactivated. Knowing this, some pilots opted to yank just one reverse control, the one they thought was connected to the working unit. Always grabbing both levers solved this problem.

2008 was another bad one for pilots, who needed to be reminded about the importance of Standard Operating Procedures on takeoff, especially in the DC-9/MD-80/Boeing 717 series of airplanes, and how to taxi on snow and ice. It seems a lot of airliners slid off the pavement that winter.

2009 includes my favorite, because it was reported by an FAA safety inspector who was in the jump seat. The first officer’s cell phone rang with its warbling tone at V1 (the go/no-go decision speed in an airliner’s takeoff run). Confused by the unexpected “alarm,” they aborted the takeoff.

In 2010 a SAFO urged a “Go-Around Callout and Immediate Response” regardless who makes the call, the pilot flying or the pilot not flying. While sorting out who had the runway in sight during an ILS to minimums, the ERJ-170 (luckily) landed on—and slid off the end of—the runway. And in 2011, a SAFO reiterated what seem to be “common sense” ways to avoid runway incursions.

Because most SAFOs usually target commercial operations, general aviators should not now be feeling smug. We are even more vulnerable to the seduction of technology because we don’t have the recurrent training structure or requirements that have made the US commercial and corporate flight operations the world standard for safety.

My point is this: Since powered flight became a reality, every advancement in aviation technology has unintended consequences when the humans using it divert their attention from their primary responsibility—keeping everyone on the aircraft safe. That we continue to repeat the same mistakes that have claimed pilots and their passengers for more than a century is, perhaps, the ultimate irony. Or maybe this fact points to a character flaw that few aviators publicly acknowledge. –Scott Spangler, Editor


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22 Responses to “Aviation Safety: What Has Become of Us?”

  1. Brent Says:

    Great post Scott! This erosion of skills is definitely something to keep our eyes on, especially in the wake of a few high profile accidents.

  2. Bill Says:

    What “character flaw are you referring to at the end ( there are so many to choose from!)

  3. Scott Spangler Says:

    Bill, I was thinking delusion. When discussing the results of stupid pilot tricks in somber tones, many inflect their words with the notion that as safe, conscientious aviators they are immune from making such lapses. But like the rest of us, they are human, which means we’re all capable of doing something stupid despite our best efforts to avoid such acts. That’s why we’re still running out of gas and pushing weather we’re not capable of dealing with. This trait is incurable, and acknowledging it is an important component in preventing it.

  4. steve.f Says:

    Well lets see . The FAA in all there wisdom only require a first officer under part 91 to be second in command to have 3 landings in 12 months! Being a contract pilot it is almost impossible to get the captain to let you touch the controls or give any training what so ever. So the FAA is part of this problem.

  5. Steve Kane Says:

    What a surprise! Pilots actually should be able to fly the airplane! I suggest that senior captains should climb into a glider with an instructor so that they can remember how the airplane actually flies. The cockpit technology is astonishing, but what happens when it fails? It is true that GA people are not immune, and more gadgets are making their way into our aircraft every year.

  6. B.M. DeVandry Says:

    Let see (again!)…

    The increasing erosion of “stickn’ rudder” skills, perpetuated by the proliferation and exponential increase of “automation” and the never ending pursuit of the “Bottom Line” (computers are more fuel efficient?)

    …is finally getting the attention of the FAA, NTSB and (hopefully) the Aviation Industry itself …leading to the profound revelation that perhaps a bit more attention to “manual flight” …er, “HAND FLYING” may actually be necessary to ensure overall safe flight operations”?!?

    Please forgive my triteness but


  7. David Piccone Says:

    Flying has always been a perishable skill….use it or lose it. Unfortunately, in the last 15 years there has been a push to constantly use automation because it is efficient and workload reducing. Pilots who have less automation available and/or use it less frequently generally have better stick and rudder skills. The key is to hand fly; workload, weather and phase of flight permitting, to maintain the desired skills. The other key is to know how and when to turn automation off if it is not performing as desired.

  8. Bill P Says:

    The presence of automation doesn’t force the pilot to use it.
    Each pilot has to avoid taking the lazy route and turn off the AP, FD, AT on a regular basis and practice flying that ILS on raw data when it’s nice out, to be sure he can do it if he has to when it’s not.
    Each captain should encourage his FOs to do the same.
    I’ve told FO’s – half jokingly- that they can have the landing on the condition that they turned it all off. I just wasn’t joking about the turn-it-all-off part :-)
    Regular hand flying IS necessary to avoid the errosion of skills.

  9. Hector Borderas Says:

    As an airline pilot flying a very automated airplane I have come to realize the generational aspect has a lot to do with the loss of manual skills. New generation young copilots get so used to flying in the automatic mode that when required to do a mormal manual manuever like a visual traffic pattern, they struggle with it.
    The real issue is these young copilots will eventually become captains.

  10. vernon m baisden Says:

    I retired from flying corporate jets at 65,(now 81) . Flew cubs, TWIN BEECH 18s, propeller airliners,corporate jets, GLIDERS, TOW PLANES etc. Please note the bold print airplanes. These are stick and rudder airplanes and are not for the faint hearted. With this background we could all do what sully did in the east river! An airline pilot friend of mine said the new co-pilots are terrible at knowing about basic stick and rudder. Just accidents waiting to happen Lets put the skill back in flying.

  11. Mike C Says:

    Workload control for the private pilot is in general fairly easy. DO NOT FLY IN A HIGH WORKLOAD ENVIRONMENT.

    To be blunt just because something can be done is not really a reason it should be done. Most pilots wuld never think of flying into an active thunderstrom. That is so obviously foolish it is not funny.

    BUT Check the level of fuel by dipping the tanks. very simple very accurate. you KNOW how much fuel you have on board then you know how long the plane can fly at the maximum!!. Can you imagine the workload increase of an unexpectedly empty tank??? SO if this is SOOOO easy why do we have SO many planes landing with no fuel on board…usually not a controlled landing.

    Why do pilots NOT BEING PAID TO DO SO!! Fly in IMC? I have a few questions I ask about the weather when I fly…first. Is the weather great??ie lots of open sky ..no storms etc? yes?? Good THEN I WILL LOOK INTO THE WEATHER CAREFULLY!..if the answer is no! I take the car.

    Look folks..if the trip is pleasre keep it that way . if it is business, and the business cannot run if you cant make a meeting on time so you take a personal plane…can you imagine ho badly it will run when you are in a smoking hole??

    Next in workload reduction……..can you fly the plane with a chart, compass and BASIC required instuments for flight? then you should.Is the GPS helping you or a crutch? Is youhead looking at a screen or outside looking at the everchanging conditions and such? what about VMC into IMC? wasnt the wather better where you were then wher you are heading?? TURN AROUND?

    Soory I have heard so damned many justifications in AOPA, Plane and PILOT and the like support stubborn stupid decisions that I am confounded that somehow there is a MACHO gene spliced next to the stupid gene that so darn many pilots have.

    How many conversation have yu heard or had that were full of bragging. “Well not everyone could land a 152 with tow folks on mt pinos airport but “I: did it”. yeah good. I could imagine the brown underwear too.

    Sorry too old for that crap. too smart to fly NEAR my capabilities. the sky is too unforgiving to play test pilot. And if I screw up they are not naming a streeet at Edwards AFB for me. I respect my loved ones too much for that grief.

  12. Jerry Foster Says:

    Be it PRIDE of ownership, partnership, fellowship,or stewardship, AIRMENSHIP must be the main ingredient in each.

  13. Dimitre Says:

    Nice article. I just head a conversation with my brother in law a few weeks ago and I was maintaining the position that technolgy will never become the more important piece in flying the airplane. I recently took my Flight Instructor Refresher Course and was amazed to discover that FAA is teaching instructors that for technically advanced airplanes (like a C172 G1000 for example) the stick and rudder skills should not be the primary focus of flight training. Obviously everyone assumes the flight instructor is a WWII kind of folk by default and the skills will “naturally” transfer. But imagine what will happen when certificate holders trained in TAA (I intentionally don’t say pilots) become flight instructors themselves. They won’t be able to teach the thing even in the classroom. My full time job is software engineer. And I know that a pilot and a computer system administrator are two different people. I don’t know why FAA doesn’t realize this.

  14. Jerry Lawler Says:

    As a retired 747 captain, I usually hand flew from take-off to top of climb, usually around 30 minutes. Not easy or comfortable for passengers to hand fly straight and level. I hated to give up a landing to the autopilot since getting only 3 or 4 landings a month.

    When my airline got the 767, we were told that hand flying it cost the airline money. On my international check out on the 767, I disconnected the autopilot 5 miles from the outer marker. The check pilot freaked out like I was going to kill everyone. I told him that with the strong crosswind, I needed to get the feel of the airplane.

    Soon many pilots were failing their proficiency checks that required hand flying. The airline changed their policy and encouraged hand flying.

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  16. KKrumm Says:

    I had a wonderful instructor who once told me, “I’m not gonna tell you not to buzz the neighbor’s farm because you will do it anyhow, but I’m damn sure gonna teach you how to do it without killing yourself”. She taught me spins, overhead approaches, crosswind landings, and grass runway landings even though the owner of the flight school forbid grass field operations. Great instructors make great pilots!

  17. R Klein Says:

    Imagine the senior pilots of an airline recieving word of a mandatory advanced training course. Report at 0 dark thirty monday morning at the GA ramp. And as they open the doors they see twelve Cubs and as many grisled WW11 era CFI’s. Can you say “pucker factor”?

  18. David Trotter Says:

    In my world, Ag aviation, misuse the controls and die. I am training a young man to enter the business and you can believe he will know what the rudder does. It’s imperative to keep that primary instruction all about flying the airplane not just trying to correct what it does.

  19. Greg w Says:

    Not suprising that this is such big news after all technology for the sake of technology has to be a good thing right? I have flown with pilots that were so busy staring at their GPS that they flew right past the airports they were looking for. Once in a while we need to turn off the gadgets including autopilots and just fly the airplane.How many truly know how to program their electronics as well rather than just pressing “direct to” It is not 1500 hrs that will make the airline crews safer it more likly is 150 hrs in a taildragger that would teach them how to fly.

  20. Charles Thom Says:

    A very astute synopsis. I have had several oppotunities to revert to basic manual skills while flying the 747-400, when computer problems arose. I am a 20,000 hour Navy Combat Veteran, Much GA time, and retired Airline pilot. I have a lot of Hanger flying Sea Stories, and am currently passing these to my Flight Students

  21. Dr. Z. Says:

    It cuts both ways. As an instructor I find that there are people who are too dependent on automation and I find there are pilots flying aircraft that have automation that reduces workload and increases safety, but do not have a clue how to use it properly.

    I don’t think it is wise to put up a wall and say hand flight is better than automatic flight. They are both required and pilots should be skilled in both types of flight.

    The FAA is doing a disservice by not recommending that pilots be proficient at both types of flight.

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