By Ed Downs
A recent conversation with friend and fellow writer, Steve Weaver, sparked some memories and brought to mind a safety issue that has heads spinning in the magical world of FAA training gurus. As “old” pilots often do, we reminisced about the days when basic skills and common sense were considered “high technology.” Today’s version of “high technology” has progressed in the manner one might expect when having crossed into a new millennium, but some are concerned about that progression.
This writer turned back the mental clock and joined Steve in remembering how simple, and potentially frightening, the “good old days” really were. My “good old days” began in the mid 1950s. The flight school I flew with sold a “student pilot course” which included 12 hours of dual instruction in a Champ, and a 20-hour ground school. The cost was $175, including materials. The idea was that you were “issued” your student pilot certificate (solo and cross country endorsement) at the conclusion of the 12-hour program. After this, you were welcome to rent their Champs and go flying. Whether or not you decided to get a private certificate so you could carry passengers was optional. There were no multiple endorsements, no 90-day “solo sign offs,” or multitude of authorizations. The Champ had only a wind-driven generator that spun fast enough to recharge a battery if flying at about 10 mph above cruising speed, meaning the battery was constantly going dead! The low frequency radio could transmit on only one frequency and you tuned the receiver like a Motorola console radio out of the 1930s. There was no starter or workable nav system. With 12 gallons of fuel, all-important in-flight decisions had to be made in about two and half hours, or the “in flight” part of the trip came to an abrupt end. Drawing lines on big, 25 cent, sectional charts was the order of the day, with a whiskey compass and E-6B your only navigation tools. Knowing where you were and having alternatives in mind were essential, as even a mild wind could greatly affect your flight.
But somehow, in some way, those old planes (Champs, Luscombes, Cubs and T-Crafts), and the planning it took to fly them, taught this pilot the need for self reliance, careful pre-flight prep, and “heads up” situational awareness that has served me well to this day. My planes became bigger, the speed of sound less of a challenge and the curvature of the earth visible. Advanced avionics, early heads-up displays, followed by full digital cockpits all entered this pilot’s 55-year career. I was excited to see this incredible technology entering the world of general aviation and, like many other aviation professionals, figured that safety and functionality of light aircraft would increase exponentially. But I was wrong, as were a number of other aviation experts, like the FAA and NTSB. While overall safety stats have improved markedly over the last half century, they have basically gone flat since 2000. The NTSB and FAA have, however, noted that a new type of accident seems to have entered the picture. While it is acknowledged by one and all that the modern, high technology cockpits should increase situational awareness and safety, the reality is different. The fact is, pilots are losing control of perfectly good airplanes, unable to properly manage feature rich integrated flight systems (instrument displays, data accessibility, auto flight capabilities and, recently, smart phone and tablet applications). Lack of positional awareness is at the top of the list, but confusion and the cry of, “What’s it doing to me now?” can reach the point where actual control of the airplane is lost. The FAA and NTSB correctly conclude that these advanced technologies do offer all the potential benefits claimed by their manufactures. The obvious problem is a lack of training in their use. The FAA now requires all curriculums for Flight Instructor Refresher Clinics (FIRC’s) to include a discussion about high technology aircraft. “Scenario based” training that includes the use of complex technology is a mandated FIRC subject. While these training efforts are well intended, it is this writer’s opinion that one important element is being missed: basic skills in pre-flight planning.
An ever-increasing number of airplanes used for flight training incorporate moving maps and GPS technology, often combined with a detailed aviation database. Students frequently supplement “steam gauge” technology with hand-held devices. Such hand-held devices may be used as primary nav systems for sport pilot check rides, and private pilot applicants my use them during a check ride as a supplemental system.
As an active CFI who teaches numerous weekend test prep classes and conducts his share of flight reviews, I am stunned to see a disturbing trend. Many Private Pilot applicants who attend my classes have already flown a dual (or even solo) cross country, or have a significant number of hours. Only a small percentage of these students know how to read a sectional chart or plot a basic course. They have no understanding of the VOR airway structure. Many even have difficulty dealing with a compass, not knowing that it has 360 degrees. It has now become common that at least half of the students attending instrument classes have never flown with a VOR or even heard of an ADF, both the main line standard of FAA instrument written exams. I ask flight review applicants to show up with a short cross country (chosen by me) planned, ready to discuss the route, nav aids and airspace being traversed. I frequently see nothing more than a piece of paper with the three letter designators for each airport written down and a puzzled look. The applicant explains, “I will give you the rest of the info when the GPS is fired up.” In other words, pre-flight planning takes place after the radio master switch is turned on!
More and more, pilots simply enter airport designators and follow the little airplane. Their total situational awareness depends upon the mileage scale set on the GPS display. They simply turn to keep the little plane on an electronic line, without regard to headings or wind effect. Traffic pattern entries and communication procedures are determined as the destination is approached by calling up the electronic database.
It is this writer’s humble opinion that such myopic flying is a recipe for disaster. The old tradition of charts on the kitchen table the night (or perhaps days) before a flight, complied with clearly stated FAR’s in Part 91 created an overall awareness that is missing from the “after engine start” form of pre-flight planning. Seeing the entire flight laid out before you means that valleys, mountains, complex airspace and the path to alternate airports are implanted in one’s mind simply because they are visible on a piece of paper. The mere act of writing down radio frequencies or perhaps hand diagramming the traffic pattern and airport layout means that the active decision making process for a flight is well under way long before the tie down chains are removed. Simply following the electronic marvels now available to pilots means that one is heavily engaged in the cognitive processes of assessing and trying to understand what electronic devices are telling you. In other words, it is “brain intensive” work, meaning that one must constantly be interpreting information, versus flying a planned scenario that is already in place. Any event or situation that arises which is not being foretold by technology becomes a task requiring significant multi-tasking. Such a workload increases reaction time and can quickly overwhelm a pilot that is not intimately familiar with the operation of complex information systems. When proper pre-flight planning has taken place, technology becomes a resource multiplier, not just another task to be accomplished.
High technology cockpits, be they installed or hand held, are becoming the norm. They are terrific! Anyone who tries to take this writer’s GPS and electronic database away is going to have a fight on their hands! But, the kitchen table is still where every flight I take begins. Current charts are neatly tucked into a flight kit that is easily accessible from the left seat. Active charts, and a flight log, are snapped into a kneeboard. By the time this pilot launches on the delight of a flight not in the vicinity of my local airport, I can actually sketch my flight, terrain, airspace considerations and, in today’s world, known TFR’s.
So here is your assignment: Put technology to use and fire up the search engine of choice. Enter “Stephen Coonts” a Viet Nam Navy pilot, aviation author (Flight of the Intruder and many more) and visit his website. Look for his book “Cannibal Queen” (Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, 1992) and order a copy. It is the story of Stephens’s relationship with his son as he flies a 1942 Stearman around the country, landing in all 48 states. Hidden within the pages of this delightful true adventure are remarkable examples of planning and decision making, told in the context of real world flying, not in the format of a text book or ranting editorial. It is a great read, wonderful gift and will change your views on what flying is all about.
Okay, are these the simply the meanderings of an old guy who misses the “good old days” when technology did not rule he world? You bet! But I hope the reader will give some thought to the realities of current safety stats and … wait a minute … that was my smart phone reminding me to take a nap – see you next month!