Keeping Skills Sharp: Part III, Getting Back What You May Have Lost (and keeping it)

In our last two posts 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 from the previous two postings, click here for Part I, or here for Part II).

Remember, we said in our last post that it’s not inevitable that pilots should expect to lose their ability to conduct operations involving basic navigation and manual flying at the same time—in fact, it may be one of the most important areas of safety when considering the analysis of several recent air transport accidents. As promised, we take up the cause of both Practice and Technique in this final post of this series. At the same time, we invite you to join in the conversation, or just access some of our other posts related to Automation Airmanship.

Practice.There’s no doubt that we can all use practice flying non-precision approaches—and the airmanship benefit from these procedures can have a multiplying affect on other types of approaches, as well. It’s a matter of making it a priority. We’re not talking here about disconnecting the autopilot and following flight guidance commands every once-in-a-while, when flying regular trips or practicing in training. Again, from the authors of the study:

“Raw data flying skills could benefit from at least some additional practice… and the current practice of manually operating flight controls in response to flight director commands probably falls short of keeping instrument scanning skills sharp.”

If you have the opportunity to make at least one annual trip to the simulator, you can probably fit in at least one “raw data” VOR approach during your training session. If you operate routine trips “on the line,” or during the course of a month of flying, you should be able to practice non-precision approaches during conditions that don’t require their use; the next time you’re offered the visual at your “home drome,” you may request the VOR or LOC approach, instead. Follow good briefing techniques, and make the pre-flight and pre-arrival planning for the approach integral to your practice. Flying without flight director guidance requires you to check your governing flight operations guidance, SOPs, and regulations; but if you can, blend that into your training routine as well.

Technique.The word itself has roots in the French word for the society and culture of tools. In German, the word technik stands for the sum of machines, methods, and engineering processes. So it’s not a stretch to think that contemporary airmanship requires pilots to blend their cockpit behaviors smoothly with the technology they use on the flight deck. One of the easiest techniques is to keep your instrument scan active—even with the autopilot on. That’s not to say during the entire time the autopilot is controlling the flight path, but absolutely during the seconds prior to an anticipated autopilot disconnect and during the seconds following an autopilot/autothrottle engagement. Blend your own, highly-trained and practiced instrument scan smoothly with the engagement/disengagement of the autoflight—you’ll see immediate results in your awareness of where you are on the approach, and how you’re doing in maintaining critical flight path parameters like altitude, heading, airspeed, sink rate, pitch, etc. During critical phases of flight such as departure, climb, leveloff, descent, arrival, and approach, the Pilot Flying (PF) should have a deliberate and active instrument scan, to include the “raw data” indications underlying the instrument approach, Navigation Display, Primary Flight Display, and Heads Up Display. Additionally, pilots should understand and apply concepts like the “Spotlight” and “Conveyor Belt,” in order to be able to deploy their innate attention system during high-workload phases of flight like those described and tested in the study (see previous posts or Chapter 8 of our book, Automation Airmanship).

In making these two assertions that both Practice and Technique should be more frequent and more deliberate, we feel comfortable in aligning with the authors of the NASA study, who say that, “…our current situation is that cockpit automation does not altogether eliminate pilots’ opportunity to use their manual flying skills.” This study is full of implications for not just our profession, but for every individual pilot. You should endeavor to read it and see how many of its findings can be applied to how your own airmanship improves over the course of your flying career.

Practice & Technique:both are a lot harder than just flying for brief periods during takeoff and landing, and casually engaging or disengaging the autopilot and autothrottles. But the payoff can be immense, even if it is “only” during that once-in-a-career “defining moment” for you, your company, and your profession.

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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