Keeping Skills Sharp: Part II, What You May Have Lost (without knowing it)

In our last post, we shared the premise and the general conclusions of one of the most important recent studies into flight crew proficiency on the automated flight deck. With this posting, we look at the study’s implications for modern airmanship, (if you need a refresher, click here).

Scientific research can be daunting for the non-scientific public to digest—and finding any singular conclusion that can multiply understanding is often like looking for a needle in a haystack, for the non-scientific or non-research population. But Casner and his colleagues serve up several in this paper that every contemporary aviator should know.  

To appreciate the weight of this finding, it’s important to review one of the study’s central tests: how well pilots managed to navigate along a pre-determined navigation sequence using conventional navigation instruments, without the assistance of cockpit automation. Now, if you are of the opinion that these skills are simply outmoded or unnecessary in contemporary aircraft navigation, recall that in several of the most recent and widely discussed air transport accidents, the mishap crews demonstrated an inability to comply with basic navigation procedures like joining the final approach course of a non-precision approach or executing a routine missed approach when the approach was judged to be unstable.

This study looked at errors made by pilots that included:

Specific Navigational Task

Number of Pilots evaluated as making an “operationally significant” error

Manually tune a VOR and set an inbound course

1 of 16 (6%)

Navigate to a VOR station

1 of 16 (6%)

Comply with a published altitude assignment on an approach

5 of 32 (16%) *2 attempts per pilot

Set the published final approach course

4 of 16 (25%)

Properly identify the missed approach point

7 of 16 (44%)

Not descending below the MDA (“busting” minimums)

3 of 16 (19%)

Maintain missed approach heading

6 of 16 (38%)

These numbers suggest some areas of improvement (even if only for this group, but remember, this was a pretty highly-qualified study population). It’s no stretch to say that contemporary flight training, in virtually any setting involving advanced training for automated cockpits, does not devote very much time to practice with conventional navigation. But in our view, the singular most important finding of this very sound study is that of 16 highly-experienced, currently qualified and very “proficient” pilots—only one subject was able“…to complete the arrival, approach, and missed approach without committing any of the errors described.”

I think it’s safe to say that in our profession, there are many pilots—arguably most of them—who would readily claim that on any given day they could follow an arrival procedure to a non-precision approach procedure, fly to the missed approach point without busting minimums, and then proceed to the missed approach holding fix without committing an “operationally significant” error. In the face of this evidence, what can we all do to insulate our flight decks from errors like these? We think the answer is two-fold. The first is obvious, and that’s practice. The second, technique, is not so obvious, and can be applied on every leg.

In the last of this 3-part series we’ll take on both Practice and Technique and how you can adopt habits in both areas to improve your own resilience to errors when flying without autoflight systems, when autoflight systems fail, or simply when it’s time for you to execute a “routine” non-precision approach.

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.

The Retention of Manual Flying Skills in the Automated Cockpit. Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. Published online 16 May 2014

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