Sky Kings: Are Pilots Losing Stick and Rudder Skills?

Getting back to the basics.

Sky Kings Cockpit

Sky Kings Cockpit

"Don't do that. Don't ever do that," my instructor said. I was confused. I wasn't even sure I understood what his complaint was. But when I did, I realized the issue lay at the very heart of the debate about how to deal with cockpit automation.

I said, "Let's talk about it on the ground." And so we did — at length. The instructor was, in my opinion, absolutely right and absolutely wrong.

What was happening? I was getting a single-pilot type rating in a glass-cockpit jet — in the airplane and not a simulator. It was my first flight in the airplane, and right after takeoff air traffic control gave me a left turn away from the departure I had programmed in. All I really had to do was select "heading" on the mode selector and rotate the heading bug to my new heading. But my brain did not come up with the location of those controls right away. So I clicked off the autopilot, ignored the flight director, and turned left to quickly follow my new clearance.

The instructor's complaint was that I did not turn off the flight director and was flying with the commands all askew. The instructor was right. If I wasn't going to follow the flight director, I should have disabled it. But I couldn't remember how to do that right away either, so I just ignored it.

The instructor was, in my view, wrong when he wanted me to fix the programming first instead of immediately flying the clearance. I believe the rule should be that, if the cockpit automation is not helping you do what you need to do, you should fly the airplane first and worry about the automation later.

To give the instructor a break, it was his job to teach me the automation of this particular airplane. He knew I could fly the jet. I had been flying jets for over 26 years. So from his perspective my hand-flying the airplane indicated that I wasn't mastering the automation. And to fly a single-pilot jet safely you have to be proficient at the automation.

Cockpit automation does a lot of wonderful things for us. It allows us to shift our workload from times when we are busy to times when we are not busy. For instance, we can use time in cruise when we are not busy to set up the approach we will fly. Then, when we are in the busy terminal area, the airplane automatically flies the procedure we set in earlier.

When we've got the automation down, it helps free up our brain during busy times, greatly increasing our situational awareness. But if we don't have the automation mastered, any little change can completely tie us up. This increases our workload and sends our situational awareness down the drain. This is why my instructor was so adamant about my learning to use the automation properly.

Using cockpit automation can certainly make us safer, particularly when flying single-pilot IFR. It also increases the number of things we have to learn. But advanced avionics cockpits with high levels of automation are here to stay — just look around at the panels installed in almost every new GA airplane, including light-sport airplanes.

On the other hand, all pilots need to have the stick and rudder skills to comfortably and confidently hand-fly the airplane.

Some flight instructors feel strongly that student pilots should learn in round-dial airplanes, not airplanes with glass cockpits, and preferably in taildraggers, in order to really get the feel of the airplane — and that any cockpit automation should be ignored until the very end of training. These instructors feel that time spent teaching the automation takes away critically needed training time from the student's development of stick and rudder skills. Depending on the quality of the training program, there may be some justification for that concern.

The National Transportation Safety Board says the No. 1 cause of fatal GA accidents from 2008 to 2012 was loss of control in flight. While loss of control in flight covers a multitude of situations, it basically refers to accidents that result when a pilot should have maintained, or regained, aircraft control but failed to do so. The biggest percentage of loss of control accidents occur during approach and landing. And the biggest culprit is the base-to-final turn, when the airplane stalls and then spins. Some instructors make the argument that pilots who are flying airplanes with advanced avionics, and keeping their planes on autopilot most of the time, are not getting the feel of load factor and of slips or skids in the turns.

But this lack of airplane feel and stick and rudder skills in students is not new. I remember doing my private pilot training, longer ago than I care to admit, in the Cherokee 140 that John and I had bought to learn to fly in. My instructor spent quite a bit of time trying to get me to pay more attention to the feel of the airplane, apparently without much success. The day before my check ride was scheduled, he showed me what could happen if I kept doing uncoordinated base-to-final turns. The resulting incipient spin entry made me a believer.

Many instructors are concerned about "automation bias" and "automation dependency," which happen when pilots have more confidence in the automation than they do in their own physical skills. That is not a good situation, since automation can and does fail — or at least occasionally does things the pilot does not expect — and the pilot must be able to cope successfully.

Can quality training in both stick and rudder skills and cockpit automation be done in 35 or 40 hours for the private certificate? Maybe, maybe not. But very few students solo in seven or eight hours anymore, either, and the national average for getting a private pilot certificate is around 77 hours. FAA minimums are just that — minimums, not necessarily targets. A complete training program should produce pilots with both good stick and rudder skills and a thorough understanding of the automation in whatever airplane they are flying. Instructors owe their students this, and these pilots — at whatever level — should demand it from their instructors. Simulators and avionics procedures trainers can be a tremendous help in accomplishing these goals, and in helping to hold down the hours needed in flight.

The FAA feels so strongly about the need for flight instructors to be able to competently teach both physical skills and cockpit automation to their students that the new draft advisory circular on the conduct of flight instructor refresher courses (FIRCs) incorporates both as core topics.

So what does this mean to us as pilots? We need to find a balance between using all of the cockpit resources available to us and maintaining our physical skills at flying the airplane. There are only two rules of safe flight: (1) Keep it under control, and (2) Don't hit anything. In most cases, the automation in our airplanes will help us with both of those tasks. But no one level of automation is appropriate for all flight situations. When the automation gets in our way, for whatever reason — as it was during my type rating — then we need to be able to downgrade, or even abandon, the automation. That means we need to have a thorough understanding of how our cockpit automation works and how to tell what mode we're actually in, plus how to disengage it and remove any flight director displays. But it also means we need to be comfortable hand-flying our airplanes, so we're not reluctant to abandon the automation when we need to.

Flying back from Ontario, California, to San Diego recently, I contemplated again the debate between those who advocate better stick and rudder skills and those who advocate better training on the appropriate use of cockpit automation. Using my autopilot en route on this short flight relieved my workload and gave me time to plan ahead, visualize the weather and traffic, and set up my cockpit correctly for the coming approach. But when Socal Approach kept me high, and then gave me a slam-dunk descent onto the approach, close in to the airport — a situation I knew from experience that my autopilot couldn't handle — disconnecting the autopilot and using my physical skills let me intercept the ILS on speed and on altitude. I needed both sets of skills, not just one.

Learning cockpit automation skills does not prevent us from learning physical skills. But it does take time and effort — on our part and our instructor's — to learn both, and to stay proficient in both. The effort is well worth it. Both are powerful tools for managing the risks of flight.

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