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.