Hangar Talk: Editorial
Light Aircraft and Airliners
No Longer Birds of a Feather
Jefferson T. Packer
There once was a time when airline flying was simply an extension of light plane flying. Until the 1960's, the cockpit of an airliner was really just a larger version of the cockpit of a light plane; despite the intimidating number of gauges and switches, any IFR pilot in General Aviation could sit down in the left seat of an older airliner, and in a very short time, be able to recognize and comprehend almost everything that was in front of her. After all, from a technology standpoint, early airliners were really just light airplanes, built bigger, and with the redundancy of several engines and a more complete instrument/navigation package.
The instruments themselves were almost entirely the same as those to be found in a good IFR GA cockpit. Thus, the instrument-rated GA pilot could sit down in the cockpit of a Constellation, or even a 707, and say, "Here's the altimeter, attitude indicator, airspeed, needle and ball, directional gyro and vertical speed indicators, over here we have the COM radios, and here are the VOR and ADF receivers and their indicators. Back there are the engine instruments, such as manifold pressure, rpm, cylinder head temperature, oil pressure and exhaust gas temperature." The autopilot, and later the inertial navigation system, might take some time to learn, but for the most part, the cockpit of an airliner was entirely comprehensible to the experienced IFR pilot of any background, once it was broken down into its separate systems.
Those days are gone with saddle shoes and 10 cent hamburgers. The airline cockpit of today bears no resemblance to the cockpit of a light aircraft, and the ways in which they are flown differ so greatly that the GA pilot and the airline pilot are becoming increasingly distant cousins. CRT displays, Flight Management Systems, and Takeoff-to-Landing autopilots mean that the new airliner is less about flying, and more about managing complex systems than ever before. In a recent article in "Flight International," entitled "Degrees of Flying Skills," David Learmont asks, "Does the complexity of systems in modern airliners demand degree-level qualifications for future pilots?" Basically, the gist of the article is that, to properly and safely fly the airliner of today and tomorrow, airline pilots are going to need Bachelor's and possibly Master's degrees in "Airline Technology" or some such previously unknown major. The question arises from an increasing number of accidents in which there have been "Éfatal examples of what appears to be crew mode confusion, combined with injudicious automatic flight systems usage, including the 16 February China Airlines Airbus A300-600 crash at Taipei, Taiwan."
Other examples cited in the article include crashes of two Boeing 757's and another Airbus A300-600. According to the article, "the pilot error - or pilot confusion - was different in each case, but all three events involved pilot ignorance of some aspect of the automated flight control or flight management systems (FMS). In the Cali accident, confusion about why the FMS was turning the aircraft in an unexpected direction resulted in controlled flight into terrain. In the Birgenair and CAL accidents, which ended in loss of control, the pilots showed lack of comprehension of what the aircraft was doing and why. Their problems included FMS mode confusion, poor knowledge of how to interpret systems information presented on displays, and ignorance of the interfaces between autopilot data sensors and control surfaces."
Now, I don't know about you, but when I read a paragraph like the that, my head starts to hurt. I begin to think I'm smelling the dust of libraries, and feeling the weight of 1258 page books entitled something like "A-300-600 Integrated Flight Management Systems Aircrew Procedures Reference Manual" This isn't flying; it's managing a nuclear power plant with wings. The article quoted above goes on to say that in some cases, A-300/757 aircrews' first reactions after experiencing a loss of control have been to try to turn ON the autopilot, even in cases where autopilot or FMS failure was the cause of the loss of control! What does that say about who was really flying the airplane? For an aircrew with that mindset, the control yoke begins to look like an unnecessary piece of equipment. I believe that in our efforts to create an airliner that can fly and navigate all by itself, we have created a cockpit that discourages the state of mind of Pilot-in-Command. Yet it is inevitable that, as airliners continue to evolve into self-flying aircraft, the flight training curriculums at large "career-oriented" schools will follow, with increasing emphasis being put on systems knowledge, and less on basic stick-and-rudder skills. I believe that for the GA light airplane pilot, nothing could be more dangerous.
The light airplane pilot is to the airline pilot what the master of a two-masted sailing sloop is to the captain of a nuclear submarine. The sailor needs one or two small books, some navigation charts, and a working knowledge of the winds, currents and weather to operate the first vessel; the nuclear submarine driver needs an entire room full of manuals, procedures, data, specifications, equipment limitations, crew-management manuals and operations guides to operate his boat. While the sub captain is technically a sailor, I have a sneaking suspicion that he would be at a complete loss if asked to perform a come-about maneuver, tack away from a leeward shore, or calculate his position based upon observations of the sun and stars. In his defense, he would rightly say, "Those skills are obsolete! I've got 150,000 horsepower, radar, sonar, GPS, INS, radio, satellite communications, and a complete moving map display of every square foot of the planet Earth! I've got a boat that practically drives itself!!" My response is to fold my arms, smile, and say, "my point exactly."
The knowledge and skills needed to proficiently fly a light plane VFR are
similar in some ways to the skills needed by our sailing master. Whether its
performing a sideslip in a crosswind, or feeding in right rudder on the takeoff
roll, or expertly flaring for touchdown, or figuring out where you are on a
sectional chart using landmarks and a VOR cross check, or keeping situational
awareness in the traffic pattern, or gauging wind direction and speed prior to an
emergency landing, many of the things a light plane pilot does have nothing to do
with the airplane, and everything to do with her. Despite the advent of GPS,
despite the increasing number of autopilots, despite the fact that more and more
Private Pilots are flying IFR and have airplanes equipped accordingly, upon
breaking out of an autopilot coupled GPS approach, the light plane pilot is still
going to have to turn that AP off, take control, slip the airplane against the
crosswind, fly through the turbulence, touch down on the upwind wheel, brake
appropriately for the available traction, and talk on the radios. Until
Allied-Signal gives us an autopilot that can do all this for us, we would be wise
not to have our control yokes removed just yet. And if this does ever happen, I
plan to become a sailing instructor.
Jefferson T. Packer
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