Is it time professional pilots receive more than just familiarization instruction on modern avionics systems? Robert W. Moorman looks into this often asked question.

Safety expert and former airline pilot John Cox admits to being a “digital immigrant,” who learned to fly on aircraft with round-dial analogue cockpit systems, then later gravitated to the digital variety.

Other pilots in this learning triad include the young “digital natives,” who learned on digital systems, followed by digital dependent pilots, who rely heavily on digital systems, with little curiosity on how they and work and what to do if they fail.

When Cox learned to fly in the 1970s, pilots were taught how each independent cockpit system worked and what to do if a particular system failed. When he trained on the early model Boeing 737, pilots were required to draw the electrical system from scratch and how the busses, relays and transfers worked.

“Compared to today, those systems were relatively simplistic,” said Cox, president of Washington D.C.-based Safety Operating Systems. Pilots were expected to know every inch of the aircraft and its systems.

“In the old days, in addition to flying, pilots had to know how to build the airplane,” recalled Captain Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association (APA), which represents American Airlines pilots. “They had to be able to have a MacGyver moment,” he added, referring to the TV series about an unconventional secret agent, who could fix anything with off-the-shelf materials.


That expectation of cockpit systems knowledge all changed with the introduction of the Airbus A320 fly-by-wire aircraft. The day of the independent avionics systems drew to a close with the introduction of the A320 into commercial airline service. From that evolution came more complex integrated systems on aircraft, such as the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350.

The complexities of these systems evolved to a point “where it was no longer reasonable for the pilot to have to know everything. It was a hard transition for some pilots,” said Cox.

The challenge for trainers of cockpit systems today is how to design a program for the digital immigrant, native and dependent. How do you develop a training program in today’s world where digital aircraft systems are the norm?

The irony of installing sophisticated automatic cockpit systems to make flying safer and more efficient is not lost on pilots and accident investigators when those systems help contribute to an accident. Advance training on these complex systems, which includes instruction on what to do if something goes wrong, remains an ongoing priority for pilot and safety organizations.

The call for advanced avionics training first began in the 1980s when many pilots posed the question: “Are we pilots or are we systems managers?”


What resurrects the call for advanced avionics training typically is a high profile aircraft accident. The incident was the October 29, 2018 crash of Lion Air Flight 610, a Boeing 737 MAX. The airliner was en-route from Soekarno - Hatta International Airport in Jakarta to Depati Amir Airport in Pangkal Pinang when it crashed in the Java Sea minutes after takeoff, killing 189 passengers and crew.

While an official cause of the accident has yet to be determined, the aircraft had recorded faulty angle of attack (AOA) readings on the flight displays during climb out, and related problems with the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), a stall warning device. These problems may have contributed to the crash, according to early reports of the accident. Turning off the MCAS, a modern “stick pusher,” might have prevented the accident.

MCAS is implemented on the 737 MAX “to enhance pitch characteristics with flaps up and at elevated angles of attack.” MCAS function commands nose down stabilizer to enhance pitch characters during steep turns with elevated load factors, stated an APA member message, which was attributed to Boeing.

The APA message also contained the following statement: “At the present time, we have found no instances of AOA anomalies with our 737 MAX 8 aircraft. That is positive news, but it is no assurance that the system will not fail. It is mechanical and software-driven. That is why pilots are at the controls.”

Boeing stated the operating manual for the 737 MAX includes procedures for turning off the system. But pilot groups stated initially that it was unaware of these procedures. APA, The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association roundly criticized Boeing for not providing detailed information about MCAS and how to disengage the system.

A lack of knowledge of onboard automatic systems and what to do and not do in the event of an emergency factored into the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447, according to accident investigators. The Airbus A330 airliner was en-route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris when it plunged into the sea, killing all 228 passengers and crew.

A combination of factors brought down the aircraft into the Atlantic. A study authored by three University of Edinburgh Business School professors, which was published in Organization Science stated: “Transient icing of the speed sensors on the Airbus A330 caused inconsistent airspeed readings, which in turn led the flight computer to disconnect the autopilot and withdraw flight envelope protection, as it was programmed to do when faced with unreliable data.”

This event forced the first officer (FO) to manually fly the airliner, while the Captain worked the problem. Manually flying the aircraft at high altitude can be challenging, and the FO overcorrected a roll, which caused the aircraft to roll sharply from side to side. In addition, the pilot pulled back on the yoke, which caused the aircraft to stall. The Captain took over the controls, but the FO continued to try and correct the problem, which exacerbated the issue.


The training and manufacturing communities were relatively quiet when queried about the apparent need for advanced cockpit systems training for professional pilots. A major avionics manufacturer and large training organization declined to be interviewed for this article.

Honeywell Aerospace, a manufacturer of aircraft engines and avionics, provided the following statement regarding enhanced avionics instruction: “… Professional training is typically provided by many aircraft OEMs and third-party training providers, and pilot training is usually not by product, but by platform, in accordance with regulatory requirements.”

Boeing provided the following statement from Ariel Landau, director of Learning Development Solutions: “As aircraft achieve higher levels of automation, our training programs and devices are designed and developed to allow safe and efficient use of this technology in all phases of flight. We also adopt new training devices and technologies that are suited to meet various training objectives. This can include interactive training manuals, highly interactive computer based training, flight training devices and full-motion flight simulators.”

Honeywell Aerospace, which provides numerous avionics for airlines, stated it did not provide training for its devices, indicating that aircraft OEMs and third party training providers typically performed this task.

For years, Universal Avionics has trained professional and leisure pilots on its flight management system (FMS) and other devices. The training has evolved from familiarization instruction to more in-depth training in recent years.

“There is an expectation when you upgrade the avionics, there should be some formal means of training that goes with it, particularly for professional pilots,” said Scott Campbell, director of Airline Sales, Universal Avionics.

Some critical systems are automated on modern airliners and that is a concern for pilots, who feel out of the loop. Campbell said: “Comprehensive training on how to properly operate these critical systems and what to do when they aren’t operating correctly is important.”

Universal provides pilots a three-day course on its FMS SCN 100X, and offers an EFI-890R Advanced Flight Display course at its training facilities in Wichita, Kansas and Tucson, Arizona. A one-day course on the Universal Avionics Terrain Awareness and Warning System (TAWS) too is available and covers theory of operation and actual system operation.

Advanced training includes instruction on what to do if something goes wrong. Image credit: Collins Aerospace.
Advanced training includes instruction on what to do if something goes wrong. Image credit: Collins Aerospace. 

From the Beginning

Training pilots on glass systems at the ab initio level might be the way to go.

“Based on my personal experience, one of the biggest cognitive loads for new pilots is transitioning from the round traditional gauges to the glass cockpit environment,” said Darren Buss, vice president of the Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC) and veteran training pilot. “If the goal is to train airline pilots, I would recommend that trainers modernize the aircraft on which new pilots train. Instead of training on the round dials, train pilots on a glass cockpit equipped aircraft. It makes the transition much easier when moving to a more complicated aircraft.”

There has been a growing collaboration between ab initio flight training schools and industry to maximize the ability of pilots coming through flight training to be exposed to more advanced flight decks sooner, said Buss.

ATAC has held numerous discussions with Transport Canada on improving pilot training on modern cockpit systems. But CAT was unable to determine whether those discussions could lead to any regulatory action.

The greater use of modern fixed-based simulators during ab initio flight and systems training remains an ongoing goal of ATAC, which encourages training that provides a thorough understanding of aircraft systems.

Enhancements to avionics training can occur through an Approved Training Organization (ATO) structure, an ICAO concept, where an alternate means of compliance may be approved quicker than prescriptive regulations can be changed. Many European operators use the ATO framework to be more responsive to the needs of the air transport industry. Transport Canada is hoping to implement the ATO concept in Canada, pending the successful conclusion of a limited pilot project, added the ATAC executive.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Carrier Training Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ACT ARC), now in its fifth year, has a Flight Path Management Work Group, which has developed 11 recommendations that the FAA has provided guidance on various topics, such as automated systems, training autoflight modes to avoid mode confusion and pilot monitoring. But these are recommendations. The FAA has no plans to issue a Notice for Proposed Rulemaking on mandating advanced avionics training anytime soon, said one source within the agency.

Enhanced Training

CAT posed the following question to safety and accident investigators: Do you think commercial airline pilots need enhanced training on the complex, integrated cockpit systems on advanced business aircraft and commercial airliners?

“Yes, as long as the definition of ‘enhanced training’ means to ensure that pilots understand and maintain currency on all of the aircraft systems they are operating,” said Don Knutson, head of Knutson Aviation Services, a Wichita, Kansas-based company that specializes in aircraft accident and wreckage reconstructionist and failure analysis. “This question parallels the many safety issues that have been brought up for many years regarding the need for pilot training on technologically advanced aircraft,” added the former air safety investigator for Beechcraft.

Enhancing avionics training for professional pilots is only one element of the solution, some in the air safety community believe.

“I do worry that, ‘more training’ is a bit of an automatic response,” said safety consultant William R. Voss, former president of the Flight Safety Foundation. “Maybe it is time to look beyond changing what the pilot does to sharpen his/her abilities during a couple of training days a year, and focus instead on how we can change the system so that pilots can sharpen their abilities every time they fly.”

Voss continued: “Technology can isolate the human from the system, but it can also be used to visualize, practice and rehearse complex behaviors. Maybe it is time to start thinking about using EFBs for top-of-descent rehearsals rather than top-of descent checklists?”

For airline pilots, the solution is simple, yet difficult to attain.

“When you’re responsible for safely carrying hundreds of lives in a metal tube, being just familiar with your aircraft systems is not an acceptable standard,” said APA’s Tajer. “You must have intimate knowledge about every system that keeps your aircraft flying and your passengers safe. The foundation for that expert level of knowledge is advanced training, not just familiarization.”

Tajer concluded with a request to industry from the pilot fraternity: “We have a right to know and have an intricate understanding of all the aircraft systems. The aircraft manufacturers and airlines have an obligation to provide us advanced training on all of those systems because our lives and that of our passengers depend on it.”  

Published in CAT issue 1/2019