What Does Modern Airmanship Actually Mean?

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Talking about airmanship in the second decade of the 21st century can open a whole lot of issues that in the last century were largely absent from the discussion. I’ve been studying the dynamic of the human-machine interface in earnest since 2001, the year I transitioned to my first fully-integrated, glass-cockpit airplane. By that time, I had over 5,000 hours of total flight time between the military and six years at a 121 carrier, had been an aircraft commander and instructor pilot, and the notion of re-evaluating my approach to the profession wasn’t in my cross-check. In fact, I was struggling in a way I suspect is familiar to many readers of this piece—unable to improve by merely reading a few lines of wisdom or encouragement from someone we’ve never met.

Even so, the question of modern airmanship was in the back of my mind every time I sat in the new airplane. Something was missing, and it took me a few hundred hours to put my finger on it. The realization that my concept of airmanship needed some refining was apparent from the start of training—and my curiosity for making sense of the human-machine relationship has never waned since. I was hungry for the kind of knowledge and insight that the best pilots around me were displaying on the flight deck, and thirsty for a refined technical approach to flying that wasn’t completely satisfied through my training (although it was world-class for the time).

Though there was a lot of published research going back almost two decades (to the mid-1980’s), nowhere could I find a well-thought-out, uniform approach that would explain most of the capabilities and challenges of the modern flight deck, and an organized and disciplined approach to developing the kind of performance the most experienced pilots around me were demonstrating already. For almost ten years my “Handbook for Glass Cockpit Airmanship” was a row of loose-leaf binders containing hundreds of research papers from some of the finest human factors and engineering organizations in the world. It wasn’t always easy to find what I was looking for, and I wasn’t always satisfied with what (mostly) non-pilots were concluding about contemporary airmanship on the modern auomated flight deck.

At about the same time I was beginning to unlock some of the secrets to consistently better performance—fewer errors on the flight deck, and “smoother” operations overall, I became engaged in programs whose endgoal was to promote more efficient and clearer interfaces between the flight crew and the automation. Specifically, the flight documents—procedures and operator guidance—that users in both civil and military flying organizations identified as deficient for operational crew use. A decade later, the development team I was privileged to lead had compiled thousands of hours of direct interaction with new users of the latest airplanes featuring the most advanced flight deck technology. Forced by necessity to distill the knowledge and expertise of a rapidly expanding field of human performance, we had found a way to organize the vast amounts of research, results of our field work and observed “industry best practices” into a group of principles that aviators of every stripe could access and identify with. After turning all this information into operational guidance materials and protocols for training and briefing, we consolidated the approach in our book, “Automation Airmanship: Nine Principles for Operating Glass Cockpit Aircraft” (McGraw-Hill Professional, 2013). I have told many pilots and crew that we didn’t set out to write a book—all we really wanted to do from the beginning was to help others succeed faster—but in the end, we wrote the book that we could have used all those years before when we were starting out.

In the first chapter of my friend and colleague’s seminal book on modern aviation human factors, “Redefining Airmanship,” Tony Kern writes:

“Expert flyers are said to have good hands, judgment, discipline, common sense, and situational awareness, but no one seems to agree with an all-encompassing picture of superior airmanship. Perhaps the inability to put our finger on a precise definition of airmanship illustrates a problem that goes beyond mere semantics. How can we train to become what we cannot define and might not fully understand?”

In the 25 years since its publication, the global aviation fleet has had a nearly 100% turnover in its makeup of primarily “steam-gage” (round-dial) aircraft whose cockpits were manned by—in many cases—a crew that included a dedicated flight engineer. And like many researchers have observed (including myself), no one could have foreseen the complications and unique problems that a smaller crew in a more complex cockpit would create.

I don’t think I have to elaborate on the many examples that continue to pile up as evidence that airplanes and aircrews continue to surprise us by committing the same mistakes over and over again, year after year, in what appears to be a consistent ratio when measured against failure of the hardware itself. After 20 years of work in the field and many thousands of hours of operations as a crew member, instructor, check airman and FAA designee in automated aircraft—I am surprised that the industry has failed, uniformly, to adopt a principle-based approach to operating automated aircraft, one that would allow crews of modern aircraft in contemporary airspace to organize their personal airmanship around solid principles that incorporate traditional “CRM” virtues along with the unique requirements of the highly-automated flight deck. Our definition of Automation Airmanship has remained unchanged for over 10 years—perhaps a sign that it just may possess the resilience to hold its meaning for another 10. Here it is for your reference:

Automation Airmanship: the understanding and application of automation to airmanship, to ensure balanced situational and mode awareness and crew workload through the full realm of automation, from no automation to fully-coupled, in order to provide for the safest and most efficient flight.

A Persistent Problem for Operators of Automated Aircraft

Over the course of all our research and investigating, I can cite one particular, repeating problem that continues to vex operators and pilots alike in its persistence. One of the terms used in safety circles for this phenomenon (which was much rarer before the proliferation of modern glass cockpit aircraft) is the “dirty dive”—an unanticipated and/or unnoticed descent below minimum segment altitude of an aircraft on approach or arrival in any conditions, IMC, nighttime, daytime or VMC. I continue to read safety reports written by crews who are experienced, rested, proficient, and current of situations where their aircraft did not behave as expected (but exactly as programed) because the crew lost situation and mode awareness during a critical phase of flight. These events are usually accompanied by EGPWS activations, ATC (controller) interventions, or the last-second realization by one or both pilots who recognize that the aircraft altitude, airspeed, rate of descent or configuration (or all 4) are incompatible with the briefed or desired flight path. I’m personally stunned that this continues to persist—and undoubtedly has occurred already, today, somewhere across the globe—despite the many years of crew experience and the “safe design” of most airplanes in the global aircraft fleet. If you’re skeptical of the prevalence of this kind of incident, head on over to the NASA ASRS database and search for yourself.

Self-improvement Requires an Inward Look

I don’t claim to have a “magic bullet” to defend against this particular “UAS” (Undesired Aircraft State) but I hope I can inspire individual pilots to look introspectively at their personal airmanship standards and adopt the kind of disciplined, principled approach to the profession that can build defenses that are more likely to block an event of this type from happening to them. And it’s worth avoiding this occurrence if only because it requires the full battery of post-flight reports: an ASAP report, a chat with a FOQA gate keeper, a Flight Safety Report and an ASRS report, and quite possibly, a conversation with an FAA Flight Inspector. That’s a lot of paperwork, and many crew members have reflected while writing these reports that even so, it’s better than not being around at all.

When in Doubt, Fly First

I’ve had the opportunity to examine accidents and near-accidents over the span of two decades, specifically when they involve advanced, highly-automated aircraft. One theme continues to be present in nearly all of them, and this you can take to the bank: Crews that have experienced an undesired aircraft state (UAS) while managing the flight path through the flight guidance system fully coupled (both speed control and flight guidance engaged) consistently attempt as a first course of action to manipulate the flight guidance and autoflight to regain control of the aircraft flight path and exit the undesired condition, when the quickest and safest course of action would be to disconnect the autoflight and assume “manual control” of the aircraft flight path. This continues to prove to be a perilous choice of all possible actions—using the autoflight to get out of a situation that poor autoflight use got the crew into—and in many cases only deepens the undesirable condition, literally making things worse.

The 9 Principles in Automation Airmanship, learned and applied and elaborated on over time with experience and insights gained from personal curiosity, research, and training can form a resilient pattern of flight deck discipline that can fundamentally change how an individual pilot interacts with the aircraft and crew in the 21st Century. It does, however, require an above average commitment to breaking with normal routines and what we at Convergent refer to as “the crushing grip of mediocrity.” This kind of commitment is not only hard to start, but hard to continue in the face of past habits and organizational norms. But to improve constantly over an entire career, eventually one must break the grip of complacency. Better yet is to have the entire organization take on the challenge as a group—replacing norms of complacency with norms more aligned with excellence.

I will restate my earlier dilemma in regards to this post: reading this, alone, will not make you a better pilot tomorrow. But acting differently inside of the normal routine and flow of activities in your own flight department will make you a better pilot. I will, however, warn you that doing so will be harder before it becomes easier. But the outcome is raising your own level of professional airmanship, and quite likely, increasing the safety margins of yourself, those around you, and of your whole flight department.

Think about it.

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