Keeping Skills Sharp: Part I, Did You Lose Something?

In this posting (the first in a three-part series), we share the basics of an important new study into pilot proficiency in automated aircraft. Hopefully, it will get you thinking, and perhaps even sharing your own experience with your fellow professionals. In our next posting, we will highlight what we think is the most important finding from this study, and what it might mean for every pilot operating advanced equipment.

For much of the past decade, pilots have been bombarded with accusations that flight deck automation in modern aircraft have made them soft, complacent, and out of touch with their aircraft. Tough talk for a profession that prides itself on precise, safe outcomes—but some of the most high-profile accidents in recent years have exposed some real problems associated with basic instrument approach procedures and flying without the assistance of autoflight. In two of these high-profile accident reports, the NTSB states:

“…the captain demonstrated poor decision-making by continuing the approach after the profile did not capture, failing to communicate the change in the approach method, not monitoring the descent rate and altitude, and failing to initiate a go-around when the approach was unstabilized below 1,000 ft.”1


“If the PF had been provided with more opportunity to manually fly [the aircraft] during training, he would most likely have better used pitch trim, recognized that the airspeed was decaying, and taken the appropriate corrective action of adding power.”2

Fortunately, while these two accidents were making headlines, a group of NASA researchers in California, led by Stephen Casner, were studying just the issues at the bottom of the proficiency debate that these accident investigations have helped to highlight. Specifically, the study team looked at how much knowledge of basic navigation and instrument flying that experienced pilots of advanced aircraft have retained, and how this knowledge is put into practice without the aid of automated cockpit systems that most pilots have grown accustomed to using. Additionally, the team examined the response to some basic cockpit flight instrument failures, and how experienced pilots responded to them. We think the findings of this study should be discussed and shared among our colleagues flying all kinds of modern aircraft, to the same level that we talk about the headlines generated by high profile accidents. It’s that important.

Casner’s team designed a study that would isolate pilot ability across a few key areas of flight deck performance, which together with the makeup of the pilots who participated, makes this study very important. Here are some of the basic qualities of the study:

  • The study examined the performance of sixteen active B747-400 pilots employed by U. S. Carriers;
  • Each pilot had on average almost 18,000 hours of total pilot time;
  • Each pilot had accumulated over 600 hours during the previous 12 months;
  • Each pilot was tested on Instrument Scan and Manual Control abilities;
  • Each pilot was tested on Navigation and Instrument Failure Recognition;
  • They were all measured on Task-Related and Task-Unrelated Thought during the test;
  • The study used a full flight, B-747-400 simulator;
  • Each pilot was tested with the same copilot, so as to isolate their individual performance.
  • The study showed some pretty interesting results—which we will share in our next post, alongside some practical suggestions for improving proficiency. But on the whole, the investigators state in their findings,

“We found pilots’ instrument scanning and manual control skills to be mostly intact, even when pilots reported that they were infrequently practiced. However, when pilots were asked to manually perform the cognitive tasks needed for manual flight (e.g., tracking the aircraft’s position without the use of a map display, deciding which navigational steps come next, recognizing instrument system failures), we observed more frequent and significant problems.”

Our own experience, research, and field work with organizations operating highly automated aircraft caused us to conclude in our 2013 book, that familiarity and routine are not a substitute for proficiency and vigilance. In the face of accidents since then, and findings of studies like this one, we feel pretty secure in that observation.

In our next posting, we’ll offer our viewpoint on what part of this study may actually be the most revealing for pilots practicing contemporary airmanship. In the meantime, consider how your proficiency in basic flying stacks up to a time in your career when you didn’t have autoflight to help you maintain aircraft control.

Think about it.

Until our next post, fly safe, and always, fly first.


Stephen M. Casner, Richard W. Geven and Matthias P. Recker, Jonathan W. Schooler.

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