Modes of Modern Airmanship, Part II: “Now that I know what a mode is, how do I apply that to Airmanship?”

A few weeks ago we began a discussion on the meaning of the word mode as it applies to the contemporary flight deck. Our intention was to bring some personal focus to our readers with respect to this often misunderstood yet ubiquitous concept. With this posting, we aim to complete the conversation and offer a checklist of steps that individuals and organizations can use to custom-tailor this discussion to their own unique operation.

In our previous post, we offered a simplified definition of the word mode as,

“…a way that pilots use aircraft flight guidance, autoflight, and speed control to manage aircraft speed, pitch, and roll.”

But knowing only what a mode is, is only the beginning—knowing what a mode does, and how it relates to other activities inside and outside of the cockpit—this is the pathway to even deeper knowledge. It’s this level of knowledge that can help prevent a breakdown in flight discipline, or help crews recover from one. That knowledge is widely described as “mode awareness” and it has played a leading role in many contemporary aircraft accidents. Air France 447, Asiana 215, and UPS 1354 are each excellent examples of how crews’ lack of complete knowledge of specific aircraft modes can be costly on the flight deck. You can practice applying your knowledge of what a mode is and what a mode does by reviewing these (and other) accident reports through the lens of “mode awareness.” We also provide other examples of both failures and successes among some well-known (and not-so-well-known) aviation accidents in Automation Airmanship.

In 2013 we devoted an entire chapter of Automation Airmanship to the relationship of Situational and Mode Awareness, or SMA, finally blending these important “CRM” concepts into a unified definition, and establishing the importance of SMA as the 6th of 9 principles for operating glass cockpit aircraft. That definition is:

“The accurate, useful mental model of relevant aircraft automated tasks, including configuration, flight and powerplant states, flight guidance, flight control and sensor modes, and their dynamic relationship to the present and future flight path of the aircraft.”

So now you have a concise description of one of the most ever-present processes on the modern flight deck. No, we don’t expect you to memorize it, but you should “know it when you see it” and definitely know when that “accurate, useful mental model…” has begun to break down.

Here is a short checklist that you can use to connect this knowledge to practical outcomes in your own flying:

  1. Make a list of all of the flight guidance modes that your aircraft cockpit has available in each of these categories: Pitch, Roll, and Speed (you may want to consult your specific aircraft flight manual); some modes may have subtle and lesser-known “sub-modes” – list these, too.
  2. After each mode, note the “engagement” or “active” limits associated with it (for example, at what altitude can “Go Around” be activated, or, when does the pitch mode enter “capture mode” during level-off?).
  3. Review how each mode does or does not interact with other modes (for example, how does “HDG” interact with “LNAV” and “ILS”?).
  4. Study each mode’s annunciation symbology, including “selected,” “armed,” and/or “active.”
  5. Put this knowledge into practice by annunciating (using standard phraseology) mode transitions during each flight (for example, “heading active, localizer armed”).
  6. Consider adding mandatory callouts of some critical mode transitions to your operation (for example, “localizer alive,” “altitude capture,” etc.).

Expert, high-performing crews across our industry demonstrate high levels of SMA every day, and are part of why aviation remains the safest and most reliable form of transportation in history. Studying what they know, how they know it, and then practicing with this new knowledge can significantly raise personal performance, across the board.

Think about it.

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


Automation Airmanship: Nine Principles for Operating Glass Cockpit Aircraft. McGraw-Hill Education. 2013. New York, NY.

Final report on the accident on 1st June 2009 to the Airbus A330-203 registered F-GZCP operated by Air France flight AF 447 Rio de Janeiro – Paris. Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses pour la sécurité de l’aviation civile.

Descent Below Visual Glidepath and Impact With Seawall: Asiana Airlines Flight 214

Boeing 777-200ER, HL7742. San Francisco, California, July 6, 2013.  Accident Report NTSB/AAR-14/01 PB2014-105984.

Crash During a Nighttime Nonprecision Instrument Approach to Landing: UPS Flight 1354, Airbus A300-600, N155UP. Birmingham, Alabama, August 14, 2013. Accident Report NTSB/AAR-14/02 PB2014-107898.

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