There's little debate that the prevalence in today’s airplanes of modern glass cockpit displays, GPS navigators, datalink weather receivers and the host of other high-tech gear that we now take almost for granted has in fact made flying easier and safer. Still, the already-too-high accident rate for light general aviation airplanes hasn’t budged in the past decade as a growing body of evidence suggests that the technology many of us thought would vastly improve safety is actually having little or no discernible impact at all.
But how can this be? Does it mean that the avionics we’ve come to rely on are somehow “unsafe”? In fact, just the opposite is true — today’s general aviation airplanes equipped with synthetic-vision technology, traffic- and terrain-altering capability, WAAS satellite navigators, digital autopilots and a long list of other technological tools can and do yield very real safety benefits.
Instead, the problem seems to lie with us pilots and — more to the point, say many safety experts — how we’re being trained.
We’re struggling to understand and properly manage the technology in our cockpits while simultaneously experiencing a critical erosion of our basic stick-and-rudder flying skills. We lack proficiency with the knob-twisting and button-pressing needed to make the avionics do what it’s supposed to, and at the same time we haven’t maintained — if we ever learned in the first place — the fundamentals needed to safely hand-fly our airplanes in all flight regimes.
That’s a recipe for disaster, say the experts we talked with for this report. And it’s a relatively recent phenomenon that appears to be growing more serious by the day. Blame it on the flight instructors, or the pilots, or even the technology, if you’d like. What’s clear is that pilots and flight educators everywhere need to own up to the fact that this 21st-century problem suddenly exists, and then we must decide how we can reverse the trend — as quickly as possible.
In the last year, the National Transportation Safety Board’s accident database was bursting at the seams with more than 150 loss-of-control accidents involving light general aviation airplanes. That’s an average of three a week — and almost all of them were fatal. The nagging questions are, why are we seeing the atrophy of our basic hand-flying skills, and what can we do to change that?
Tony Johnstone, a master CFI and aerobatics instructor in Winfield, Kansas, has become so convinced that pilots these days are losing their edge in the cockpit that he has created a safety seminar in conjunction with the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE) titled “Stick-and-Rudder Skills in a Glass Cockpit World.” In it, he starts out with a nuts-and-bolts discussion of basic airmanship — how to taxi in a strong breeze, why you shouldn’t be programming the GPS while taxiing, how to perform a proper crosswind takeoff and landing, and so on — to more advanced skills such as understanding P-Factor and angle of attack, knowing why a skid can be more dangerous than a slip, and deciding how and when you might consider executing the so-called “impossible turn” after an engine failure on takeoff.
Like many experts who have thought long and hard about the problem, Johnstone believes our approach to training in today’s sophisticated cockpits is partly to blame for the degradation of our hand-flying skills.
“I fly with a lot of guys who learned in glass-cockpit airplanes,” Johnstone says. “We’ll get up to altitude in the Decathlon, and the first thing I’ll do is have them establish a straight-and-level attitude. I can see their confused eyes scanning the panel searching for the attitude indicator, which isn’t there. It never occurs to them to look out the window and see what the wings are doing relative to the horizon. When they do, they’re like, ‘Whoa, this is a revelation.’ ”
Understanding the Problem
This trend, however troubling, can be reversed with a concerted effort to rethink our approach to training, Johnstone says. Not surprisingly, it all comes back to that time-tested aviation mantra: “Fly the airplane!” This means not letting a minor distraction like an open door in flight, a burned-out gear warning bulb or some small misunderstanding about your planned route in the GPS take your attention away from job No. 1: maintaining control of the airplane.
That can be easier said than done for pilots who were never properly taught the art of stick-and-rudder flying. And it’s a larger number than you might guess, as the training focus in recent years seems to have shifted from an emphasis on learning how to hand-fly to gaining proficiency with increasingly complex cockpit technology.
“It drives me nuts when a student pilot on a check ride doesn’t understand how to use the rudder,” says Jason Blair, executive director of the National Association of Flight Instructors (NAFI) and an FAA-designated examiner. “I once had a pilot on a check ride tell me that his instructor said he wouldn’t need to know about the rudder until he was going for his commercial ticket. I ended the check ride and told him I’d like to talk to that instructor when we landed.”
Yikes. That’s scary, since the misuse of rudder at the wrong time can and too often does lead to catastrophe — especially in the case of the dreaded power-on departure stall or the power-off, base-to-final approach stall, both of which are avoidable if you know how to apply the rudder properly, and both of which can be greatly exacerbated if you don’t.
The most important point to keep in mind in either of these scenarios is that if the airplane is in coordinated flight with the ball centered, the wing can stall, but the airplane usually won’t spin. If you’re yawing and skidding during these types of stalls, not only is a spin possible, but it’s also pretty darn likely, Johnstone cautions.
“In the case of a departure stall with climb power and the ball slung out to the right due to P-Factor, if you inadvertently stall, the left wing is likely to drop,” he says. “Your first instinct might be to quickly pick it back up with right aileron.” It might also be your last, since at the stalling angle of attack, with a left wing drop caused by left yaw and P-Factor, right stick will decrease angle of attack on the right wing and increase it on the left wing, and — wham! — you can experience a rapid spin entry to the left.
Just as dangerous is the approach-to-landing stall/spin, which often happens with a crosswind drifting the airplane closer to the runway. The base leg is shorter than normal because the wind is blowing from behind, and so the pilot overshoots the runway as he starts the turn to final. He steepens the turn, which looks pretty scary, so he rolls back out of the bank a touch, but he’s still overshooting. He adds left rudder to get back on the centerline, and the ball now slings out to the right as the airplane enters a skidding turn. If he stalls in this configuration, he’ll probably enter a spin — and the chance for recovery at this height is zero.
| |To really sharpen your stick-and-rudder skills, consider training with a specialist. Here is a lesson on upset recovery in a Super Decathlon at Florida’s Dylan Aviation.|
What about slips? These are uncoordinated maneuvers, so does that mean we should avoid them too? The sideslip is a correction for crosswind on landing, and the ever-useful forward slip allows us to lose extra altitude on approach without gaining airspeed. Aerodynamically, they’re the same thing. Lots of pilots are fearful of slips because they worry about being uncoordinated on final and the risk of entering a stall/spin. But during a slip, the airplane can stall, but it probably won’t spin. It’s banked in one direction but is yawing in the opposite direction, with opposing forces that make a spin far less likely.
For pilots who are struggling in a high-tech world, it’s critically important to learn as much as possible about your avionics, NAFI’s Blair says. That means reading the manuals, participating in training and practicing with the avionics every time you fly. Just as important, don’t let a minor distraction snowball into a dangerous situation, Blair cautions.
If you’re serious about honing your hand-flying skills, I recommend picking up Wolfgang Langewiesche’s 1944 book, Stick and Rudder: An Explanation of the Art of Flying, and reading it cover to cover. If you’ve already read it once, read it again. Although the language is a bit outdated (Langewiesche calls the elevator “flippers,” for instance) there’s simply no better reference for understanding the basics of why an airplane behaves the way it does.
Back to Basics
Once you’ve done your homework, that’s when the fun starts. Find an instructor who has a reputation for focusing on improving a student’s stick-and-rudder skills. If you can fly in a tailwheel airplane, all the better. Best of all is getting some stick time in a glider, where improper use of the controls just isn’t an option.
In the airplane, start with the basics of coordinated turns, power-on and -off stalls, steep turns and slow flight, Blair recommends, and then move on to more advanced maneuvers.
We’ve included descriptions of some of the maneuvers you can try, each of which will give you practice at improving your stick-and-rudder skills. Actually, we should probably call it your “stick-and-rudder-and-throttle” skills since power management is important too. We’ve included descriptions of chandelles, lazy eights and banking on a heading (what many pilots call “Dutch rolls,” even though technically that’s not right). Read through them, but bring along a flight instructor the first time you try the maneuvers to ensure that your understanding of the basic concepts is correct and that you’re performing each one properly.
Earlier, we probably piqued your curiosity by mentioning the “impossible turn.” Whatever your personal thoughts are on this hotly debated maneuver, one thing is certain: You’ll want to keep the ball centered and use a smooth touch on the controls in case of an engine failure to give yourself the best chance of making it back to the airport or another suitable landing site.
The thing to keep in mind is that the impossible turn isn’t a 180-degree maneuver. Rather, it’s more like 210 degrees, and you’ll probably be landing with a tailwind. There might even be another airplane trying to take off toward you.
So how high do you think you should be to risk attempting the impossible turn? One way to find out, says Johnstone, is to climb to a safe altitude in your airplane and try it. Pick out a ground reference as you climb at best rate, pull the power, and then count two beats (the reaction time it will take most of us to realize we have a problem). Next, pitch for best glide speed and make a 210-degree turn. Record how much altitude you lost, add a 100-foot cushion to that, and you’ve calculated your minimum safe altitude, after which a turn back to the airport can at least be considered. (This, of course, is still a bare minimum — for a great many of us, we’ll want to be at least at pattern altitude, if not higher, before we’d ever try it.)
Rethinking How We Train
Another fun way to improve your hand-flying skills is to take a few hours of aerobatics instruction, including spin training. The requirement to learn spins was taken out of the training curriculum in the 1950s after a number of accidents. Today, only CFI candidates need actual spin experience, as the emphasis has shifted to spin avoidance. After the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo, New York, and the tragedy of Air France 447, both in 2009, training experts are rethinking how we teach stall/spin awareness to pilots.
Janeen Kochan thinks a lot more than just spin training needs to be changed in the private-pilot training syllabus. A CFI and FAA-designated examiner at the Orlando FSDO, Kochan holds a Ph.D. in applied experimental and human factors psychology from the University of Central Florida and is a former Boeing 767, DC-9 and DC-8 captain. She is helping to rewrite the training manual, literally, for Polk State College in Winter Haven, Florida, and is hopeful her work can be a blueprint for changes at other training organizations.
“We haven’t changed how we teach pilots to fly in at least the last 30 years,” Kochan says. “If we’re doing such a good job, then why do we still have pilots at all levels losing control of perfectly good airplanes?”
Kochan places the blame on a lack of basic piloting skills and automation management knowledge, both of which she says go back to training basics.
“Overall, stick-and-rudder skills are deteriorating,” she says. “However, it really depends on what segments we’re looking at. For example, the sport pilot cadre has exceptional stick-and-rudder skills.”
In assessing why so many pilots aren’t getting the training they need, Kochan pulls no punches: “The certified flight instructors’ lack of knowledge, skills, ability and teaching methods have contributed greatly to this decline,” she says. “If you want to go one step further, you could also blame the pilot examiners, who are passing the pilots who lack these basic skills.”
It’s not surprising that Kochan’s training syllabus will focus heavily on hand-flying the airplane — and not just any airplane. Students at the college, where her method will be applied starting in January, will fly LSAs.
Johnstone agrees that training is the area where the aviation community should be focusing first.
“We have instructors with the minimum amount of time required to get their CFI ticket, and they’re turning around and teaching other pilots to fly,” he says. “If these instructors don’t even fully grasp the fundamentals of stick-and-rudder flying, how can we possibly expect their students to?”
Blair’s advice is to seek out a qualified instructor with a strong knowledge of both aerodynamics and technology.
“You can have the greatest stick-and-rudder instructor in the world, but he might not know the first thing about G1000,” he says. “It’s possible to create a great stick-and-rudder pilot in a technologically advanced airplane; it’s just going to take more time. The trick is finding an instructor who really knows his or her stuff and is willing to do what’s necessary to teach you everything you need to know.”