November 21, 2013

Do Commercial Pilots Really “Suck” at Manual Flying?

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Written by: Eric Auxier
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“Pilots Rely Too Much on Automation,” trumpets a Wall Street Journal headline this week. puts it more bluntly: “Commercial Pilots Suck at Manually Flying Planes.”

A 277-page FAA report is the culprit referred to in these venerable—and not so venerable—publications (Gizmodo, after all, is mostly known for such scoops as, “How much would it cost to build the Starship Enterprise”, and “How much would it cost to to build the Death Star.”) With all due respect to the WSJ, the sensationalistic, knee-jerk media seem to be having a field day with this “bombshell.”

I think we can fairly ask: How true are these headlines, really? As a Captain for a major U.S. airline, on one of the most automated airplanes in history—the Airbus A320—I believe I can speak with authority on this issue. Indeed, I have flown the A320 class (A321 through A319) for nearly 20 years.

The exhaustive FAA report, to be discussed with industry leaders later this month, analyzed some 3,000 commercial flights worldwide, and apparently comes to the disturbing conclusion that the greatest danger in the sky today is the automated cockpit. Ironic, since the whole goal of automation in the cockpit has been to improve safety. The study appears to single out two main issues: over-reliance on automation, and inadequate training on increasingly sophisticated systems.

And sophisticated, the Airbus is. From the first few seconds after takeoff to the last few minutes before landing, nearly every pilot leaves the flying to Fifi (our affectionate name for the French-built Airbus, despite her automated male voice). Why? Because, when it comes to airliners, flying an airplane is nothing. Safely managing a flight is everything.

Courtesy: Ismael Jorda

Courtesy: Ismael Jorda

The moment I punch the FCU and leave the driving to Fifi, my mind’s tendency to tunnel vision suddenly expands to see the “Big Picture.” Rather than be distracted with the minutiae of keeping this speed, that heading and climbing to that altitude, my attention is freed up considerably by letting her do the dirty work. This situational awareness is critical to the safe handling of an airliner.

Moreover, when the sh*t hits the fan blades, I am a strong proponent of letting Fifi do the driving while my First Officer and I troubleshoot. To be sure, somebody is always flying the plane—that is, babysitting Fifi. In fact, our emergency procedures call for the Captain to run the checklists while delegating the relatively straightforward task of flying to the First Officer.

Major international A330 airline pilot, blogger and novelist Karlene Petitt, author of Flight for Control, says, “This is a new world we face—a battle between automation and proficiency. The real question is, How will we win this war without losing thousands of lives? Encouraging pilots to hand fly their planes is a great idea. Our training footprints must include rigorous sessions where pilots perform engine failures and emergencies without the autopilot, flight director and autothrust. But I have to ask, Do you want your pilot hand flying an approach to minimums after being awake for 14 hours on the back side of the clock in a state of exhaustion?” I agree. Under normal flight conditions, the autopilot greatly reduces pilot fatigue. After a long day of multiple legs, or international, back side of the clock flying, it is quite a treat—let alone safer—to let Fifi shoot the ILS through the snowstorm and autoland. Is this over-reliance on automation? I hardly think so.

Conversely, on occasion I do get myself into a situation where I have to “turn off the magic and fly.” Captain Mark L. Berry, major airline pilot, author of 13,760 Feet–My Personal Hole in the Sky, and Contributing Editor for Airways magazine, says, “When I taught the Boeing 767, one of the original ‘electric jets,’ I noticed that old-school pilots were quick to disconnect the then-modern automation and hand fly the aircraft. At our core, we are first and foremost pilots, not ‘automation engineers’.”


Again, I wholeheartedly agree. Nothing like a little old-fashioned stick and rudder to straighten the kinks out. Apparently, the FAA study has found that today’s pilots are reluctant to do this, stating they “lack sufficient or in-depth knowledge and skills.” Which leads us to our second issue: inadequate training on increasingly evolving automation.Two of the first Airbus accidents, the 1988 Air France Flight 296, an air show flyby-turned-PR-disaster, and Indian Airlines Fight 605 in 1990, as well as the more recent Air France Flight 447 crash on June 1, 2009, were all attributed—rightly or wrongly—to pilot error due to inadequate training and knowledge of the Airbus systems.

Airlines, I believe, do an adequate job of training today’s modern pilot. There is no getting around the proverbial “drinking from a firehose” that airline pilots are subjected to while training on a new airplane. And, in all the aircraft I’ve flown, the Airbus has far and away the biggest firehose from which to drown. The payoff, however, is worth every bit of saturation.

So,then, is the FAA report full of hot air? Is the greatest danger in the sky today the automated cockpit or not? Well, danger is a mighty loaded term. Is it more “dangerous” to land with your fly open or closed? What the study apparently fails to mention is the vast improvement of air safety with the advent of these highly sophisticated systems. Aircraft and aviation technology have evolved to the point where human beings are by far the weakest link in the safety chain. Ironically, pilots also remain its greatest asset.

But again, pilots are human. Automation or no, we make mistakes—on every flight. Even this report admits that the vast majority of observed errors were minor, and trapped by the pilots themselves before they could become big errors. And, as I mentioned earlier, when the magic is turned on, pilots can better see the Big Picture and more easily trap those errors.

As for the report’s remedies, however, I mostly agree.The first issue boils down to complacency. Pilots can become over-reliant on automation, get bored and forget to monitor. This is a constant human factor challenge for any pilot. As for the second issue, well, more systems and procedures training is always a good idea. Recently, in the “box,” we simulated the Air France 447 situation, and believe me, things get mighty confusing, mighty fast. Those pilots were fighting erroneous and conflicting instrument indications that quickly compounded. The lesson, again: stick and rudder. Turn off the magic and fly. That training, I assure you, was worth its weight in gold.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Well, the arc of aviation safety is long as well, but it too has inexorably bent in the proper direction—to the point where one is 73 times more likely to die in an auto accident. To that end, what is most misleading about the FAA report are the sensationalized headlines surrounding it. Written by nonflying laymen who scream, “The sky is falling!,” they are oblivious to the fact that pilots—and their automated cockpits—have helped air travel become six times safer than your own bathtub.

Eric “Cap’n Aux” Auxier is an airline pilot by day, writer by night, and kid by choice. Pilot for a major U.S. airline, he is a freelance writer, novelist and blogger. He is a regular contributor to Airways Magazine.
His second novel,
The Last Bush Pilots captured the coveted Amazon TOP 100 Breakthrough Novels, 2013. Mr. Auxier makes his home in Phoenix, Arizona.

About the Author

Eric Auxier



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  • Douglas Wint

    Great first post, Eric!

  • Sven2547

    A superb column.

  • brad tittle

    This is a lesson that in pan professional. It doesn’t just apply to the drivers in the sky. It applies to doctors, engineers, operations technicians, boat captains, and even programmers. Automation is a boon that lets us do many more things in any given slice of time. No matter what the profession, we always have to remember the fundamentals. The body lives. Physics describes the world pretty well. Pipes connect fluids from one point to another. Fully laden cargo ships do not stop on a dime. Code is always an abstraction of reality.

    Keep moving forward. Try to avoid becoming a rock.

    • jumbybird

      What do we do with that extra time? Play angry birds and tweet.

      • Eric Auxier

        LOL, sadly, the glass cockpit does not includes an Angry Birds pack–yet.

  • disqus_c8BhOJvXUN

    Good read, thanks, Cap’n Aux!

  • Candee

    Does that mean I should stop taking baths? Great article Rick, even from a landlubbers perceptive.

  • sidusnare

    I think automation is great, glass cockpits can really clean up the instrument panel, but fly by wire gives me the heebie jeebies. Computer drops out completely, I like to think the pilot’s stick can still pull on cables and get us on the ground somewhat horizontal.

    • Bill Palmer

      I think if you understood the amount of redundancy in the computers, hydraulic, and control systems, you would not be so apprehensive about the lack of steel cables between the pilot controls and the control surfaces themselves.
      Unless you’re afraid of electricity stopping (like the premise of the laws-of-physics-be-damned TV show Revolution) you have little to fear of the possibility that the “computer drops out completely.”
      The Airbus A330, for example, has five flight control computers of two types powered by different electrical sources (powered by any one of four generators) that drive control surfaces shared among 3 hydraulic systems. Pretty much any combination of 1 working leaves the airplane controllable. Newer aircraft (eg., 787) have controls also operated by electrical servos that allow control even in triple hydraulic and/or total flight control computer failure.

    • Eric Auxier

      As I mentioned in another reply, fly by wire affords more redundancy–that is, built-in backups. Even “cable” airliners have, at the end of their control cables, hydraulic pumps boosting said controls–in other words, aritficial actuators. As mentioned in another reply to a comment (below), the infamous United DC-10 Sioux City crash may have been avoided, had the DC-10 been equipped with more redundant fly by wire systems than the traditional, LESS redundant hydraulic controls.

      We are all familiar with the “white screen of death” on our computers. But we are NOT talking about home PCs. In today’s modern airliners, there are backups to backups to backups.

      Thanks for your comment, Sidusnare!

  • Jonas

    Dear Captain,

    Quoting MLK which somehow relates to aviation? Bad association to say the least. With google you can do better (try Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Richard Pearse, Gustave Whitehead, anybody really) But that is just the beginning of dubious logic and folksy axioms. Perhaps that passes for “cool” in certain sectors? To me this article smacks of PR, ignorance and conceit. The tone is set; you begin by impugning WSJ and Gizmodo on their ability to disseminate news. Fair enough on both counts. Yet it’s purely a distraction because they report what the FAA findings were. A 277 page report which is curiously not linked in your article. You do however, link various books (your and your friends), bathtub falls??…wtf!, selective safety statistics, etc. Well done Captain on mixing fear and commercialism at the same time! So the FAA recommendation indicate that pilots receive inadequate training. Later you admit to “drinking from a fire hose” insofar as understating and mastering the Airbus avionic systems. Perhaps if your training was longer and more thorough it would be like “sippin’ lemonade on a warm summer night” Ah, but there in lies the rub. The corporate accountants figured that costs more, so why not cut pilots salaries, reduce comfort (to fit in more seat in the plane) and while we’re at it, cut down on “inefficient” training! Eureka…more profits! Listen bud, just fly the good people home and hang up your PR corporate shilling days.

    • Final_Word

      Please tell me you don’t fly. My worst nightmare would be getting stuck next to you on a long international flight.

      • Jonas

        What if I told you I fly a lot, or I’ve never flown ever. What difference does it make? Stick to the facts. Can you tell from an internet post that the “real captain” wrote the above mentioned article? Say your counter argument or “get off the pot”

  • Eric Auxier

    Folks, thanks all for your comments!

    Brad T, I agree, the inexorable march of progress inevitably moves us, willingly or kicking and screaming, into a future that no doubt includes increased automation.

    Sidusnare, you certainly have a point about physical connections from the pilots’ controls to the actual control surfaces. But on nearly every airiner, those surfaces are at a minimum boosted by hydraulics. So no direct, physical links, whether by cable or wire. I for one feel that “fly by wire” tends to be safer than cables, as the drastic cut in weight allows more redundancy—that is, more wiring channels from pilot to airplane. I believe the legendary United 232 Sioux City DC-10 crash (admittedly a miracle in survival and an excellent example of pilotage and CRM) may have been avoided if the -10 had fly by wire. Why? Again, because of built-in redundancy in the fly-by-wire systems.

    Jonas, goodness gracious! So sorry you take me the wrong way, and to such an extreme! I wonder, do you work for Gizmodo?

    The FAA report was not linked because it had not been issued at press time. If you had read my piece more closely, you would see that we did not have access to it, and that my article is a reaction to others’ reports on it.

    Mixing fear and commercialism? I wrote this piece to dispel the hysteria this FAA report has generated by the press! And how sad that you assume because there are links to my writings that this a purely PR piece. 50-100% of my novels’ proceeds go to orphan charities, so Hell yes I shamelessly promote them! As for my “selective statistics,” people compare risks all the time. Nothing new there, sir. Should I have used, “7 times more likely to be struck by lightning?”

    “Dubious logic and folksy axioms.” Hmm. I wish you would have provided examples rather than vague complaints. If my logic is truly dubious, and if, after 33 years and 20,000 hours of flying, I am still truly ignorant on the subject, then I suppose I’ll never wise up. I do take issue with your accusation of “conceit;” I believe most readers would agree that my aviation experience makes me somewhat an authority on this matter. Besides, haven’t you ever heard of pilot egos? By the way, my fellow pilots and writers thoroughly vetted this story before publication and agreed with my “logic,” if not 100% on my opinions.

    Not sure why you dis the MLK quote; I felt it apropos for the point I was making. Feel free to write in your own style and use your own quotes for your own publications, sir (again, Gizmodo?) I spoke my mind and said what I believe, as I always do…

    I agree with you 100% on corporate profits vs. pilot salaries, training, etc. While “safety” is always touted as “Number 1 priority” at any airline, the challenge is always to balance that with profit. Like the design of an aircraft, it’s a compromise. Of course I would love to go back to the days of $300+k pilot salaries and instill 6 month training jags. But that simply isn’t practical, and never has been—airlines have failed because of it. I said training is “adequate,” but could always be improved. And I sincerely believe US airlines have the highest quality training in the world, and in history.

    As for being a Corporate shill, sorry sir you’re barking up the wrong tree. I am simply a line pilot, with, I believe, an “educated” opinion on this matter. If you still think me false, then I invite you to ignore my writings in the future. Sigh. You can’t please all the people all the time.

    Contrary to “Final Word,” I would welcome the opportunity to next to you on a long flight, Jonas. Perhaps we could work through our differences.

    • Karlene

      Eric, I appreciate your post and the issues with this dilemma. And a dilemma it is. Aviation is far safer in today’s world because of technology. We have greater awareness and that big picture opens when we’re connected. But without actually flying the plane, skills will diminish. I think this is more of a problem with international flying than domestic. You get lots of circuits. I could fly a full schedule and never get a takeoff or landing. And when I do, I always plan to click off everything and fly. Which sounds like a great plan at the beginning of the trip. But after I’ve been awake all night, and my body is approaching 0200…it’s still dark, the weather is not all that good. The reality is… it’s far safer to keep the automation engaged and monitor it’s doing the right thing.

      What goes first with fatigue is reaction time. I can see it in myself.
      Then we look at the young pilots growing up on automation. Will they have the skills you brought to the table in the beginning? Probably not.

      We have a challenge ahead. As long as we’re aware and keep looking

      for the balance we’ll be fine.

      Your analysis of the aviation arc is right on. It is pointed toward safety. With that said, we must still keep working and watching for those situations where people and procedures could slip through the cracks.

      Excellent post!

      • Eric Auxier

        Thank you , Karlene!
        I didn’t really address the subject, but I truly think we’re barking up the wrong tree. While we all could use more manual flight training and practice, I think the elephant in the room all along has been fatigue. I know you address this very issue in your novels.

        The FAA supposedly attempted to “fix” fatigue with the most recent rest requirements…but only wound up mucking it up even more. They need to focus on what the NASA studies have found: If you work long hours, or get short sleep, or work the backside of the clock…you get fatigued!

        I also agree: this generation growing up on Flight Sim and such are missing out on the basic stick and rudder skills that bring with it a fundamental working knowledge of flying.

        Thank you so much for your comments!

        • Karlene

          This is a tough question to answer. A double sided knife. And fatigue is the issue. And the fix, I’m not sure is the fix. Time will tell. Be even passengers know how fatigued they feel after an international flight. Some it takes days to catch up. And we’re just getting in a plane to do it again. Fly safe.

  • jumbybird

    I can sum up in a 6 words. “Autonomous planes have made pilots lazy”

    • Eric Auxier

      Can’t argue with that! As I said, it is the temptation and challenge of every pilot to kick off the automation and fly once in awhile.

  • Bill Palmer

    As an A330 captain, long time instructor/check pilot and author of the book “Understanding Air France 447,” I have to agree with the premise of the article.
    Hand flying skills are not routinely practiced as in years gone by. Studies show that pilot manual flying skills degrade without this practice like any skill. Those studies also show that the skills degrade more than the pilots realize. (links to studies and info provided at )
    Karlene Is absolutely correct in pointing out that long haul pilots especially can have a difficult time even staying current – an average of just one takeoff and landing a month. The percentage of time spent hand flying is small. The amount of time spent on total manual flight (i.e., with the flight directors and autothrust also off) is miniscule. I encourage it with the pilots I fly with, and it is often a rare treat for them. But they also realize that it is more work than anticipated- and this is on a nice day. Unfortunately, when things go wrong, it’s often not a nice day and sometimes it’s because it’s not a nice day (e.g., AF447).
    Pilots must be skilled enough to take over manually at any time. Those skills need training and practice. Training can’t’ “kick in” if you’ve never received it, like the high altitude stall training that the AF447 pilots never received.

    Loss of control in flight is now the number one cause of civil aviation accidents, mostly because other causal factors have been greatly reduced by technology. This is something that proper training and practice can effectively reduce. The aerodynamics of modern airliners is also not the same as in the 727 days, yet the training doesn’t reflect that. Upset awareness and recovery training is in need of great improvement. Fortunately there support for this movement on several fronts. I recommend a visit to the International Committee for Aviation Training in Extended Envelopes website for an excellent selection of additional information.

    • Jonas

      Curious. You agree with the premise of the article which argues against the need for more manual control which mocks the FAA report. Are most pilots as anti-logic? Maybe I should stop flying or give up on reading comprehension?

      • Eric Auxier


        Go back and read my article. I agree with the conclusions of the FAA report–more manual training would be helpful.

        The only people I mock are those in the media that take the report and turn it into a sensationalized fluff piece.

        Here, let me make it easy for you: “what is most misleading about the FAA report are the sensationalized headlines surrounding it. Written by nonflying laymen who scream, ‘The sky is falling!’…”

        Now you’re arguing with an industry leading expert who’s written, by all reports, a fantastic book analyzing the AF447 crash. Yes, I believe you do need to practice your reading comprehension.

      • Karlene

        Jonas, may I ask who you fly for, and what equipment? This is an interesting discussion. I know the background from Captain Auxier and Captain Palmer. I would love to know your background to further understand where you are coming from.

      • Bill Palmer

        Perhaps we disagree on the “premise” of the article. But when it states “As for the report’s remedies, however, I mostly agree,” in combination with the quotes from pilots Petitt and Berry, I find that the article is inline with my input. Don’t get me wrong, I think automation is a wonderful thing. The protections offered by fly-by-wire aircraft have probably been life savers for an unknown number of accidents that never happened.
        However, the exclusive use of automation has led to the degradation of pilot skills, which has in turn been a factor in other accidents. A balance is needed. Pilots need to be experts at operating the automation and using it to their advantage, as well as knowing when to turn it off – as Captain Berry points out, and to be able to perform when the automation cannot.

        • Eric Auxier

          Thank you once again for chiming in, Captain Palmer. I think that is a point that I could have made more succinctly in the article:

          “A balance is needed.”

          Karlene has certainly made some good points along these lines as well.

    • Eric Auxier

      Thank you, Captain Palmer, for chiming in! I appreciate your comment.

      “Understanding Air France 447” is on my short list. I’ve heard nothing but accolades for it. Can’t wait to read it!

    • Capt. Jeff

      Exactly. Nailed it.

  • Bettina Ybarvia

    Bravo! Awesome post and very revealing! I consider the FAA findings interesting. But, rather than statistical numbers, nothing compares to a first hand feedback/report from the very subject itself—-the PILOT. I appreciate the coverage on both subjects, automation and manual operation. A well balanced report and a fair detail on its highlights and vantage points. What I’ve gathered here is a humbled admittance and acceptance that automation truly has its benefits. Yet not undermining your confidence in human experience, training and knowledge of which still greatly accounts for a safe and successful operation. Call it “conceit” Mr. “Jonas” but it is what I want to hear. It gives me the peace of mind that we have competent pilots flying our skies out there.

    Thank you for this post. I am learning that I need to look deeper into any study done by the FAA before taking it as the “ULTIMATE WORD”. To be suspicious about other reports before deeming it credible or merely”sensationalism”. Mr. Jonas, I guess, SUCKED in spelling and used the word “distraction” instead of “sensationalism”. Yet to discover or trust the “auto-correct” feature of your computer program Mr. Jonas? Pure arrogance and a total lack of understanding, comprehension his part. Yet Mr. Jonas would rather aim his ire towards your credible pilot “friends” ( thank you btw, glad to know you’re not the only one) because he wanted a link to the FAA report. Who needs to google now? There are so many flaws to JONAS’ comment, but I refuse to add anymore pain to his failed dream of being a pilot. And if in case he is..Please God..I hope he is not flying my plane!!” Go read your horoscope or something. You’re like a little boy who didn’t get his “quote for the day”. Here’s one for you, YEAH BABY by Austin Powers. That’s as far as I could describe the level of your comment post. Pure bullying zero intellect!

    • Eric Auxier

      Thank you, Bettina, for your comments.

      Jonas has his right to speak and make his points, though I am still usure as to what exactly they are. That is ok. I welcome the dialogue.

      Not sure I can work in an Austin Powers quote in my future articles, but I’ll try my darndest–yeah, baby! 😉

      Thanks again for commenting.

  • JosephGuindi

    I think an interesting question is to determine the place of greater aircraft automation in pilot training. Automation is increasing in all areas of life as a means to increase safety at the cost of lower human agency.

    Take the calculator: it effortlessly calculates without error, requires only sunlight to operate, and is extremely fast. But does that mean we should teach students to use calculators instead of learning their tables? In primary school, we were forbidden from using calculators. In high school, we were forbidden from using scientific calculators, which would prevent you from cheating during calculus. In university, we were forbidden from using matrix-enabled calculators when solving a finite element problem. All of this helped me develop a “feel” for numbers if and when I made a mistake using a calculator, so that when I’m designing a mission-critical system that I would notice in my result that I forgot the decimal point.

    I like to think that it’s important to teach how the fundamentals work. But then again, an aircraft is a hell of a lot more complicated than a calculator. Is it best to focus on doing the basics, or to focus on proper trouble-shooting skills and flight physics such that the AF447 pilots would realise they were causing their own stall and leave the stickwork to the computer?

    • Eric Auxier


      This is a fantastic analogy to the basic point that automation aids, but does not supplant, the human mind in the cockpit. Thank you for sharing! Believe me, I will be “borrowing” your analogy in any future articles about automation!

      I absolutely agree, one needs (in ANY field) a “feel” for the basics of operations. I cringe every time I offer up $5.02 to pay for my $4.77 burger, and the McDonald’s cashier looks at me like I’ve given him a moon rock! I just sigh and tell him, “Type in $5.02″…wa la! $.25 change! I can never tell if the light bulb even goes off! YES, we need fundamentals before punching those automatons!

      At the risk of further inciting Jonas’ ire, here’s a link to a blog post I wrote entitled, “The Future of U.S. Aviation,” that addresses our automation dilemma. One subsection is humorously entitled, “Automation, or, ‘Nothing Can go wrong…click! Go wrong…click! Go wrong…'”

      Thank you so much for your refreshing insight, Joseph!

      As for your AF447 question, I shall yield the floor to our resident expert, Bill Palmer, should he choose to chime in.

      Thank you again!


  • Keith Mendoza

    From a software engineer with 10 years experience, and a private pilot, I completely understand why the FAA pointed out that pilots needs to keep up on their manual flying. Let’s admit it, computer software are only as good as the input they receive. Any software engineer worth their salt knows that one cannot think of every possible scenario that the software must be ready to handle, so you put a “catch-all” which is to inevitably hand it back to the human operator. Considering that there are programmers out there who cannot explain how a portion of software they wrote indented to handle a specific use case suddenly just started working, it’s safe to say that if that section would stop working that there’s no “exception handler” to recover from it if some invalid input is given to it.

    Let me ask you a few questions: are autopilot capable of recovering if the aircraft somehow gets flipped upside down by the wake vortex of the aircraft that went past that’s landing on the parallel runway? Assuming that the aircraft has enough control authority to recover, what would a pilot whose never had any aerobatics exposure (no, having seen the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds perform doesn’t count) do instinctively in that situation? What about if the pilot on that aircraft has won a few IAC unlimited category aerobatics contest?

    I ask these questions because if I were the software engineer tasked with handling upset recovery for an autopilot that would be the types of questions that I would be asking. I only know to ask these questions because I happen to have gone to a flight school where spin recovery training is mandatory before you can solo. I also have been fortunate to have had some aerobatics training, so I know how to execute a loop, barrel roll, wing-over, and spins. If the software engineer that doesn’t even know what “control authority” means how can you guarantee that they will even ask the right questions?

    • Eric Auxier

      I apologize for the tardy reply. The thread was “fizzling,” so I have not checked up on it in some time.

      I can only answer for my aircraft, the A320. However, the basic concept is, as you pointed out earlier, that “catch-all”, or “fail-safe” that is built in. At least initially, we have had “upset recovery” training as well. We do have it occasionally in Recurrent training, but not often. Perhaps an area we could beef up?

      In a nutshell, the autopilot does indeed kick off (past specific parameters, such as 75° bank, etc.), handing it back to–what did you call it?–the “exception handler” to recover (a new great name for the auotpilot-babysitting flight crew!)

      As for the design of this, I am wondering just how much “code” really goes into it. Rather than training a software engineer in spin recovery, it seems there are simpler, mechanical (i.e., laws of physics-defined) parameters built in. In Normal Law (normal flight in the Airbus), the stick controls, believe it or not, g-force. Again, when it exceeds straightforward parameters–speed, attitude, etc.–things start kicking off (grossly oversimplifying here), and you have a more “direct” stick-to-control relationship–in other words, more control authority to better recover from an upset. This same direct control phases in for the flare and landing.

      I always loved teaching my students spins, but have yet to execute loops, barrel rolls and wing-overs. Aerobatics is most definitely on my Bucket List!

      Thanks so much for the comments and questions, Keith!

  • ewrcap

    Thank you for the fine article. Somehow your name reminds me of another great writer with a French name, St. Exupéry!

    I wanted to add that the AF 447 accident was not really related to the other failures to monitor such as Asiana 214. It was more a matter of lack of situational awareness. Long before fly-by-wire and highly automated flight control systems there were several crashes due to pressure instruments. NWA 6231 in 1973, Birgenair 301 and Aeroperú 603 in 1996 all resulted in fatal loss of control.

    I disagree with the assumption that training for recovery from low speed situations is more important that training crews to constantly monitor and verify. Teaching a student pilot to do great spin recoveries is useless if he fails to monitor his airspeed and attitude while buzzing his friends house. In the case of Asiana, the pilot ultimately DID attempt a stall recovery. The plane hit just as max thrust kicked in. It was just too late. Once again, not an inability to execute a stall recovery, but a failure of all three crew to monitor airspeed.

    • Eric Auxier

      Thank you for your comments and input!

      I will not turn down an opportunity to be associated with the great Antoine de St. Exupéry!

      I agree with you on the AF 447. Perhaps Captain Palmer can chime in here, but I do have my suspicions that the erroneous data was possibly overriding pilot input. It’s simply hard to believe experienced pilots would ride a stalled airplane all the way down without trying a simple stall recovery.

      Again I agree, monitoring and verifying are a constant human factor challenge to instill and continue to enforce, for hours of boredom on the line. As captains, we have some of that responsibility to do so.

      Thanks for bringing up some great points!

  • If there was one thing I’d like to see more of in airline/corporate recurrent training, it’d be a discussion of our decision making processes about when to use the automation and when to turn it off and hand-fly.

    The days of hand-flying these kinds of airplanes all the time are long gone, but we also must maintain sufficient manual flying skill for those times when the automation either fails or doesn’t do what we want it to. What I’m realizing is that this balance is not easy to maintain. We’re left to our own devices (no pun intended) and from what I’ve seen, we often underestimate how our skills have degraded.


    • Eric Auxier

      100% agree! And I think those discussions are coming. Nice to see you here!

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  • Woman Voter

    Dateline: March 26, 2014 and I find it hard to believe just with what I’ve heard to believe that a homicidal 28 year old German co-pilot deliberately rammed into the Alps. How about answering some more questions: 1) who were the people who listened to the recording and interpreted what it meant? what is their experience? 2) isn’t it a coincidence that the co-pilot did what the pilot explained they were going to do (lower altitude) as they neared their destination 3) who advocates for the co-pilot? does he have an upstanding, credible family who can vouch for him?
    Yes, call me cynical, but you have an airplane that is unforgiving when it comes to human error–yes, ironic since all of that automation usually makes flying the Airbus such a relief for pilots. But remember the AF 447 flight? The co-pilot had what, half the experience of the pilot (who had 110,000 hours under his belt) and this Germanwings co-pilot had 6,000 hours? 4? why don’t we look at the things that were obviously not best practice? You won’t find a single person in the cockpit of US planes? why is that? and here you have a relatively inexpereinced co-pilot alone. couldn’t something have gone wrong? I wouldn’t put it past governement and Airbus to rather have us think we were victims of a homicidal maniac rather than Germanwings pilot flying Airbus crashed a plane because they don’t have best-practice procedures/ safeguards.

  • Woman Voter

    Today is March 27, 2014 and honestly what I am hearing on the news today still does not confirm for me that the 28 year old co-pilot of the Germanwings Airbus flight was a homicidal nut!
    More questions: Why haven’t we even gotten the name of the pilot? Who is he and what is his background? Obviously Lufthansa and Airbus are digging into his past as well. How could this pilot not be able to get back into the cockpit?
    Isn’t it still possible to think that this crash was due to incapacitation or stupidity or a combination?
    Once a best practice is established how can others not adopt it?
    Never solo in the cockpit! Hard way for Lufthansa to learn this lesson.
    The media, and therefore, the public is being manipulated to believe that the co-pilot was mentally ill and crashed this plane on purpose. This will be the story line for the next few days until the public is bored with the story. If and when the real story ever comes out no one will ever care anymore.
    But we can never learn from our experiences unless they are truthfully understood.
    I am starting to believe that the true story may be that crashes can happen to nice guys, decent pilots when they don’t know all the things they are supposed to know and why all these issues on Airbus, just coincidence? Or does taking control out of the pilot’s hands like Airbus does mean it’s much harder to recover from mistakes?
    So today we still ask–the “prosecutors” who listened to the voice recorder–how did they reach their conclusions? Precisely and step by step. And who are they? And why do we not know anything about the pilot? What do others in the industry have to say about Lufthansa not following the extablished best practice of “no solo in the cockpit?” Was this a cost issue at Lufthansa?
    Didn’t the pilot tell the co-pilot about making the descent as they neared Dusseldorf? Isn’t it odd that to crash the plane the co-pilot instead of simply crashing the damn plane immediately just followed the pilot’s order albeit too early? Why couldn’t the pilot access the cockpit with the secret code? Did he not know it? What happened to that little safety back-up?
    Lots of unanswered questions.
    Willing to bet that Andreas has no prominent spokesperson advocating for him now. But seems like the pilot does.

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  • LazLong

    There should always be a manual override, except, perhaps, in negatively stable designs. Or have we not learned the lessons of QF72 in 2008?

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  • Soccom

    I read the report of the AirAsia Airbus 320 crash on 28 Dec 2014. Pilots accidentally disengaged the autopilot in the air and COULD NOT FLY MANUALLY. Plane stalled and crashed killing everyone on board. The investigation highlighted 1. pilot error in shutting down the flight augmentation computers, 2. miscommunication between pilot and co-pilot. These are valid reasons but the report failed to highlight the utter panic of both pilots not being able to fly A320 manually. The fly by wire system may not give enough “feel” for A320 pilots to keep the plane even level at high speed.

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  • Basic flying training is predominantly focused on manual handling and becoming proficient in core flying skills. By the time a pilot completes professional training the emphasis is on system and crew management. Though pilots may hand fly from time to time for a number of reasons, in today’s crowded airspace the use of autopilot is increasingly important as it is very accurate at tracking courses and maintaining altitudes. All pilots like to hand fly from time to time to maintain proficiency and ability to fly by hand in event of auto-flight failure. But there is a right time and a right place to do so…