What Happened to Stick and Rudder?

Martha Lunken makes the case for getting back to the basics.

(December 2011) “Anybody who learns to fly these days in an airplane without a Flight Simulator cockpit, an autopilot and a ballistic parachute is living in the last century,” went the opening gambit from a student pilot I flew with recently.

Reasonably current and qualified in a variety of singles and light twins, I admit to having been dragged, kicking and screaming, into 21st century cockpits, and it’s a challenge for me to stay up to speed in technically advanced aircraft (TAA). I qualified as a Cirrus instructor to have the knowledge and ability to fairly evaluate applicants, but I don’t fly Cirruses often enough; these aren’t airplanes you climb into once every six weeks and feel real warm and cozy about the systems and avionics, not to mention maintaining the skill to hand-fly them with precision.

The first check rides I gave in TAAs were as an FAA inspector with little or no time in the airplane. Oh, I read the book, sat in the cockpit and knew the Garmin 430/530. But MFDs and PFDs were awkward, and it was hard to wean myself from using those familiar little round instruments at the bottom of the panel.

One of the requirements on the instrument practical is a nonprecision, partial-panel approach. So you “fail” the primary flight display (PFD) by dimming the screen or by (very) judiciously pulling circuit breakers. On Avidyne equipped airplanes, these breakers can’t be reset in flight so you do this on the last approach and only in VMC. See, if you dim the PDF screen, the autopilot’s altitude hold and descent rate functions aren’t accessible to the pilot. Since Cirrus recommends — in an actual PDF loss — that you select a “T” GPS approach and let the autopilot fly it, pulling the breakers is the only realistic way to simulate that “emergency.” This doesn’t hold true with the G1000 equipped models.

Maybe I was a little draconian in those years by requiring that the approach be flown without the autopilot. It didn’t seem unreasonable; with the PDF disabled by dimming the screen, you were left with what many of us have under normal circumstances — an altimeter, an airspeed indicator, a whiskey compass (or use nav page 4 on the Garmin 430), a CDI and no auto-pilot. But the outcomes were often less than pretty — it’s a damned challenging airplane to hand-fly — and I issued a fair number of pink slips. Then I realized that the Practical Test Standards don’t require the applicant to hand-fly the partial-panel approach. So in effect I was creating two emergencies — not considered fair play in the flight-test world.

So, hey, all you guys from back then who didn’t pass the first time, I’m sorry … I guess.

Back to my check flight with a pre-solo Cirrus student. Phase checks aren’t required in a Part 61 school but Lunken Flight Training Center does them anyway, using an airline pilot/instructor and, in a pinch, me for these periodic checks during a student’s training. This was a smart, successful, middle-age businessman who had logged 33 hours dual without soloing because he was waiting on a special issuance medical. His instructor felt he was competent and that a solo phase check might be a confidence builder in the interim.

When we met, thinking he might be discouraged about all the dual time, I commented that the Cirrus was a challenging airplane for a new pilot. It was when I added that I thought initial instruction in the Cessna was maybe a better idea that he came back with the “living in the last century” remark. It was a little off-putting, and my immediate reaction was that this guy was a smart aleck. So I took a couple of deep breaths, calmed my bruised ego and sternly told myself to be sure I treated him fairly.

We went flying and he was fine with all the bells and whistles working but a disaster without the autopilot. There was no semblance of precision in airspeed and altitude control or even in straight-and-level flight. Steep turns and slow flight were painful, and my attempts to “teach” seemed to make him more uneasy, even resentful. Finally I said, “OK, just show me a plain vanilla, power-off approach to landing stall and recovery.” When he couldn’t or wouldn’t pull the power to idle, I put my hand over his to bring it back against the stop, and he came unglued. He wanted to go back to the airport, so we immediately engaged the autopilot and turned for home. I was amazed when, after a god-awful approach, he pulled off a pretty decent landing. Obviously I wasn’t the right person for this assignment and no doubt he wholeheartedly agreed.

When I issue a pink slip to private and instrument applicants in TAAs, many, especially on the private pilot tests, are related to basic aircraft control — or lack of. I’ve gotten beyond my steam gauge mentality and truly like these airplanes for their looks and for doing what they were designed to do magnificently — get you from point A to B comfortably, quickly and safely. But I question if these are the right machines for the early stages of a pilot’s training, when he needs a grounding in hand-flying skills. The technology is wonderful and here to stay, but I believe you first need to hand-fly an airplane with precision and develop proficiency in airspeed and altitude control, trim techniques, coordination, stall recognition and recovery, stabilized approaches and accuracy landings. And I believe the “stick and rudder” stuff is hugely important whether a person goes on to become a sport pilot, a private pilot or an airline pilot. Like the Airbus, G550s or the Space Shuttle, small general aviation TAAs are designed to be flown by an autopilot with the pilot acting as a manager, monitoring and interpreting a huge amount of information and making informed decisions. In my opinion, an automated cockpit is fine for transition or upgrade stages but maybe not such a great idea in the beginning.

I’m also distressed with the initial training concept developed by the FAA, academia and industry. (C’mon, anything cooked up by the FAA and academia is inherently suspicious). Anyway, this FAA/Industry Training Standards (FITS) program (I know, another acronym, but you ain’t seen nothin’ yet) replaces maneuver-based lessons with scenario-based training. From the get-go the student pilot “acts like a private pilot,” planning and flying missions like he would a golf outing or a business trip. In the process he learns instrument flying, use of the autopilot and glass cockpit technology. Traditional maneuvers (stalls, slow flight, ground reference, etc.) are inserted or incorporated somewhere along the way. It sounds suspiciously like professor Harold Hill’s “think system” for teaching the River City High School Boys’ Marching Band how to play their instruments in The Music Man.

I don’t know how many schools strictly adhere to one manufacturer’s Integrated Private Pilot and Instrument Training Syllabus, developed under the FITS concept, but I painfully plucked the following from the introductory section — and I promise I didn’t make this up:

“FITS training is conducted in FTDs and TAAs equipped with FMS, GPS and MFDs and PFDs. The facilitator interacts with the PT in SBT which is similar to LOFT and CRM and encompasses the ‘5 P’s’ of SRM … TM, AM, RM, ADM, SA and CFIT. Learning is experiential.

“Learner Centered Grading is an evaluation based on the terms ‘explain,’ ‘practice,’ ‘perform’ and ‘manage/decide’ in place of the traditional ‘satisfactory’ or ‘unsatisfactory.’ The facilitator and PT evaluate lessons separately and then compare their assessments in a debriefing session.”

We’ve seen, in the Buffalo commuter accident and the Air France 447 tragedy over the Atlantic, situations in which flight crews were trained from the beginning on and “flying” only sophisticated, glass-cockpit airplanes that depend on autopilots. In modern, preprogrammed, fly-by-wire airliners, hand-flying is not only discouraged but also prohibited. A recent statistic put the average hand-flying time per leg of a commuter flight at 80 seconds.

Last year, in a “safety stand-down” after a series of incidents and accidents, one TAA manufacturer specifically addressed airspeed control on approaches and landings, telling pilots and owners, “It is critical that you understand the energy management of your aircraft to assure the proper speeds are used throughout the traffic pattern to achieve a safe and comfortable landing for you and your passengers.”

I began to write this piece before all the publicity surfaced about piloting skills — or the lack of — in airline cockpits. Most of the pilots I’ve known are unhappy with their role in modern airliners; at least the older ones have basic (but rusty) hand-flying and stall recognition skills, but younger pilots train from the beginning on TAA equipment and in “flight simulator” cockpits.

AOPA’s Bruce Landsberg put it best when, referring to technologically advanced airplanes, he said they were no place “for low-time pilots or complacent aviators.”

Things do malfunction or fail, and pilots find themselves in tight situations because of these failures or poor decisions or mismanagement of resources. We don’t stop being human when we get smart enough and rich enough to buy a technically advanced airplane.

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