Air Asia 8501. When will we learn?

It is becoming clear that the probable fate of Air Asia 8501 is that it is at the bottom of the ocean after losing controllability at high altitude in heavy thunderstorm activity.

Fair enough, except none of those things should have made the least difference to a safe landing. Pilots encounter thunderstorms every day worldwide. It’s a routine part of the job. So why did this one make a difference?

The problem is not the thunderstorms but with modern aviation practices.

As a retired high time international airline pilot, I feel qualified to give you a look at the practices in an airliner cockpit.

A professional pilot always expects things to go wrong. Nothing is normally taken for granted in the cockpit. The fact that a flyer flips a switch is no guarantee that the selected system is going to operate.  Everything a pilot does in the cockpit is checked, crosschecked by the other pilots and then monitored by all to confirm it’s indeed working -- but it is never just assumed to be working. That’s called good airmanship.

A dangerous over reliance on automation and subsequent degradation of pilot hand-flying skills has led to a change in the traditional pilot mindset. Pilots now assume everything selected will function and if it doesn’t, the computers will warn them or take care of it.

Is this a unique Asian airline problem that has no bearing on American or European carriers?   

Unfortunately not.  Air Asia pilots have precisely the same training and skill requirements as any other airline in the world. What happened to them can happen to any other operator.  And has happened.

The degradation of flying skills is endemic throughout the airline industry.

The sad fact is professional airline pilots struggle to achieve what private pilots do happily every day -- which is to maneuver confidently and smoothly, approach and land their machines by using hand flying skills that come only from regular practice.

Instead a modern airline pilot pushes buttons that program and operate the complex auto systems which actually fly the jets for them.               

Why should the public care about this?

Because despite the fantastic advances in avionics and autopilot technology, nothing can cope like a well trained pilot when things go wrong, plans change unexpectedly or equipment fails.  A pilot can think ahead and anticipate what’s coming unlike a machine that can only react. A pilot who is familiar with his machine’s idiosyncrasies can fly safely in conditions that auto flight struggles with such as a visual approach with no electronic aids.  That’s why you will never get to be a passenger in a pilotless drone. Drones have a high loss rate for a good reason. They get to the end of their programming and it’s all over. Drones can’t think or operate beyond that point. Pilots can.

But it takes practice. Flying is not like riding a bicycle. You need to practice constantly to maintain a high level of competence.   The less you hand fly, the less familiar you become with the handling characteristics or feel of your aircraft. You lose the feel for your jet and hand flying becomes an unpleasant, chunky experience which pilots prefer to avoid.  

So why did airline pilots stop actually flying their machines? 

As avionic technology improved and became more reliable, it offered the industry a less stressful cockpit environment with higher flying accuracy that was not dependent on personal piloting skills. Thus the need to maintain hand flying skills became less important and began to take a back seat compared to computer operating competence, which was now seen as the primary way to fly in the intense electronic environment of a modern airliner. The ability to hand fly beyond a certain point was seen as an anachronism, like round dials and flight engineers.                                                                                                                                 What was not fully appreciated was that the unique cognitive and intuitive ability of humans would also be lost by relegating pilots to feeding instructions to an autopilot. Instead of using those unique human skills and senses (a pilot’s feel for his machine) to warn them something is amiss, pilots now defer to the autopilot program which they regard as infallible and often allow it to continue doing something they are uncomfortable with.

 Air Asia, Asiana, Air France and other recent crashes are proof of this trend of blind faith in the autosystem.

The public needs to understand aviation has taken a wrong turn. 

Flying safety depends on two interdependent arms.  Technical excellence and the special cognitive ability and skill unique to humans. But one arm has been shortened by not allowing pilots to constantly practice hand flying and thereby removing the vital feel a pilot should have for his machine.

This is a bad mistake.

It is not good enough for pilots to be excellent programmers. We need both autoflight and high pilot skill for safety and the public should demand their airline pilots have both.  Airline pilots must regain the feel that pilots should have for their aircraft. They must be confident in their ability to remove the autopilot in any flight phase when they might feel uncomfortable with its performance or don’t understand what it is doing. That takes regular hand flying practice. It will also stop the current trend of using autoflight for operations where a pilot is the better option such as a visual approach. 

It is surprisingly easy to achieve this. Weather conditions permitting, a pilot should hand fly the jet from take-off to 10,000 feet on departures and from 10,000 feet to landing at least twice a month.

This will be enough to maintain a satisfactory level of hand flying.

Rob Schapiro is a retired 747 airline Captain with 34 years military / civil aviation experience.