Maintaining Flying Skills

Maintaining Flying Skills

Much has been made of a recent general deterioration in manual flying skills, leading to a “dumbing down” of piloting abilities in order to fill cockpit seats. But, when faced with an in-flight crisis, it still takes a professional crew to avoid disaster, even if the aircraft only requires one pilot.

There is a danger that we’re training new pilots to be excellent system analysts and procedure adherents, to the exclusion of being able to creatively belly-flop an Airbus into a river when bird ingestion leaves the aircraft without power. Everyone agrees that automation is a useful resource, a load-shedding tool that allows pilots to concentrate on critical decision-making. What it should not be is a means of prolonging decisions, or a substitute for maintenance of basic skills. The discipline needed to avoid stagnation of ability has to begin with active participation in the pilot’s seat – not by thumbing a procedures manual or programming an FMS. Whenever possible, we need to click off the autopilot, or navigate with basic equipment, just to remember how it can be done.

I can still recall training myself for the ATP checkride, fighting to maintain the close tolerances demanded by the test standards for a precision approach. Allowing the crossed needles to stray outside the CDI’s central doughnut meant a go-around, on one engine, and perhaps a very expensive retest. At times, it didn’t seem possible that one could keep those needles centered while under pressure to accurately fly the procedure. Gradually, I learned to increase my scan rate, make early, timely corrections, and get ahead of the airplane instead of chasing it. In the end, I was subconsciously willing the airplane to hold a tight course, making it an extension of my mind.

Self discipline, then, is the way to improve piloting skills. Visualizing where we want the airplane to be, and using thrust, pitch, yaw and roll to achieve that end, does not come naturally. It takes practice, initially in a procedures trainer or simulator, but eventually in the airplane. There’s no substitute for the feedback of loading and motion found in actual flight. The best of simulators is still a simulation, useful in its own right but not the real thing.

The discipline behind successful piloting starts with understanding the best technique to achieve the desired outcome, and believing that it can be done, even if it doesn’t work out on the first attempt. This methodical, disciplined approach leads to taxiing on the centerline, subconsciously, without even concentrating on steering. That desire to guide the aircraft precisely translates into a takeoff and landing roll that also adheres to the stripe.

Takeoff Discipline

In a takeoff profile, there is a target speed to be achieved in the initial climbout, usually a different one for all-engines or engine-out configurations. The airplane cannot be “driven” to this state; it has to be guided there by a disciplined pattern of raising the nose into the correct attitude, at a controlled rate, so as to make the wheels leave the ground at an airspeed slightly above minimum-unstick, accelerating toward the climbout speed with minimal pitch change. This flow of events does not happen without disciplined practice.

Behind such precise piloting is a desire to be better. To accept mediocrity is to invite atrophy of skill. If you repeatedly settle for “good enough” you will broaden the definition of that term to fit nearly all cases, and you’ll no longer improve. I am a fan of manual trim control; even though I want the convenience of an electric trim rocker switch under my thumb, I also like to roll tiny increments of pitch trim into the wheel next to my knee. I can feel the minuscule change in my seat cushion, responding to my finger strokes, in a way no stepper motor can duplicate.

Autopilots can be excellent instructors, if one observes their gentle anticipation of level-off or course capture. When it’s our turn to fly, we need to emulate the autopilot’s early, incremental application of control, so as to roll out directly aligned with the desired track. Rather than let the automation do it for us, we should attempt to fly manually in a similar manner, accepting nothing less than perfection. Practice subtle hand-flying every time the opportunity is offered.

By the same token, do not fly with the fixation of an autopilot, concentrating solely on the minutia. Our chief asset, as cognitive human beings, is to analyze the “big picture” and determine where and how to make inputs so the airplane winds up in a defined spot, properly configured and in the correct energy state. That takes a lot of decision-making and control movement, but if you can’t do it, you’re not a pilot.

Persist To The Goal

Cockpit discipline is much like the persistence of a distance runner. A runner has to analyze the route ahead, save up energy for a grade, pace himself to avoid “running out of gas” too early, and overcome fatigue and pain by settling into a stride that he can maintain. Running is as much a mental activity as a physical one. It takes practice, gradually improving performance to reach a higher personal-best over time.

Bringing a high-performance airplane into a stabilized approach path is the epitome of piloting ability, particularly when not following a published arrival procedure. In such a case, one has to plan ahead, to reach key positions with the aircraft slowing just enough to be on target for the next leg. Once acquiring the airport visually, it’s all about keeping the energy state of the airplane in balance with the deceleration required to reach a stabilized final approach.

The Final Outcome

The landing, of course, is the payoff, the subjective evaluation where many sideline judges score a pilot’s ability. But the contact of tires against pavement is only the outcome of all the prior planning and skill acquisition. I like to imagine an open window at the runway threshold, through which I must pass on the way to touchdown. At this window, I must be on speed, not too high or too low, with the aircraft configured for the landing. I cannot miss the window’s open space, and I must not allow the airplane to carry too much or too little energy beyond that window. Then, and only then, can I concentrate on the act of rolling rubber onto concrete.

When I introduce a new candidate to the task of learning to fly, I liken the process to mastering a musical instrument. One does not become a musician by learning to manipulate keys, valves and strings. Rather, one has to become part of the instrument, making it an extension of his or her will. Discipline is required to keep working at the job of growing in skill, and to maintain that skill, once acquired. Taking time off, particularly in the initial stages, invites deterioration of the meager skills so painfully learned. Discipline is key, staying the course to higher levels of ability.

Thinking ahead is the way to keep on a disciplined path. A runner has a goal, somewhere out ahead, and along the way he or she may set shorter goals; “if I can keep going until that next milepost, I will take stock there, and if all is going well I will continue this pace.” In that way, runners eventually find themselves at the finish line, just as pilots work to perfectly pass waypoints with the airplane at the proper time, height and energy state, and thereby arrive at the destination.

Never consider the task of hand-flying to be a waste of time. It should be seen as an opportunity to test oneself, against the ultimate judge, the airplane itself. Discipline yourself to fly a perfect liftoff and departure, to level at top-of-climb without disturbing the passengers, to plan the navigation in an efficient manner to maximize fuel remaining, and to fly a descent profile that leaves nothing undone. As helpful as the automation is, it’s only a tool, and you should discipline yourself to be capable of manually taking the aircraft anywhere the autopilot can go.

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