Captains John Leahy and Robert Scott from the RAeS Flight Operations Group argue that the Covid-19 pause in air transport provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reset airline pilot training to better meet the challenges of more automated aircraft and skill fade.

Reprinted from Aerospace magazine with permission of the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS).

Editor's Note

We welcome the voices of the RAeS in the call for an airline pilot training “reset” during this unprecedented pandemic pause in demand. CAT magazine and others have been lobbying for the past year that the industry should seize this opportunity to rethink training methodology from the ground up. Some examples:

Many other articles and webinars on address the next pilot shortage, the impact of retirements, training funding, “HoT” topics such as skills fade, EBT, Big Data, UPRT, XR technologies, and other related issues.

Many recent airline accidents have shown clear evidence of a common cause, whether from fatal crashes or devastating hull losses without fatalities. That common cause is the inability of the pilots, in far too many cases, to cope with the situation they have faced. Sometimes it was when the automatic systems failed, requiring them to fly manually. In others, they were trying to deal with what should have been a relatively benign situation and they simply did not cope.

Members of the Flight Operations Group (FOG) of the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) have been studying these matters for some time but individually, rather than as a group, with a common purpose. The members came together recently to discuss the reintroduction of the Boeing 737 MAX and what sort of training would be needed to achieve the best outcome. It very quickly became apparent that concerns about training standards on the MAX were not restricted to that aircraft alone. It was obvious that there is a need to review the way that pilots are trained to fly all types of public transport aircraft.

Pilot training has changed greatly, particularly in the last two decades. It is shorter in duration, with less flight time on real aircraft, less exposure to the resultant stress of actual flight and much of it, computer-based. Simulator time is reduced in many cases to the minimum required to achieve certification requirements. Among the drivers for these reductions have been better automation and more reliable warning systems, resulting in aircraft that are considered to be easier to fly. Currently, pilot training is a combination of mastery of basic handling skills and the ability to manage complex automated systems, with an increasing emphasis on the latter. Thus, although management of automation has improved, less and less time is now spent on developing and maintaining the basic skills that are so necessary when automation fails or causes confusion.

This article is intended to bring to the attention of pilots, regulators, airline executives, flight operations managers, ab initio training schools and safety management teams that, in our view, change is needed and needed now. ICAO has set a target of 2030 to achieve zero fatalities. That was reached for jet-powered commercial aircraft in 2017 but, since then, the accident rate has increased again, with loss of control being a frequent cause. It seems clear from accident and incident reports that some pilots are not being trained to a sufficiently high standard to manage their aircraft in anything much more than routine circumstances. Even the slightest deviations from the norm have resulted in aircraft accidents that should have been totally avoidable.

Of major concern is the fact that ‘loss of control in flight’ (LOC-I) has been the number one cause of fatalities in aircraft accidents for many years, yet the training required to address this most fundamental pilot activity is obviously not being carried out to the extent that it should. A strong safety culture with an emphasis on pilot performance excellence must be supported at the highest level in any airline, whatever the perceived financial costs.

Due to the Covid pause that has hit the airline industry so hard, there is time available to do something before aviation recovers to 2019 levels which is forecast to take three or more years. We view this as a great opportunity to start making the improvements that are so necessary in the field of airline pilot training.

This article addresses what appear to be significant shortcomings in the way that some airline pilots are trained today. However, it also acknowledges the significant contribution to aviation safety that is made by so many within the aviation industry on a daily basis.

A History of LOC-I

Commercial aviation safety has shown a massive and welcome improvement since the 50s and 60s when aircraft accidents were more frequent. The industry has always endeavoured to learn from the causes of every accident and to implement solutions. 2017 saw no fatalities worldwide on large commercial aircraft. Compared with 20 years earlier, when 2,500 fatalities per annum were commonplace, this is commendable. It might have been thought that we had reached a state of near perfection in aviation safety. Advances in technology appeared to be making up for shortcomings in pilots’ abilities. The new training model, whereby advances in technology enabled much-reduced pilot training programmes – a significant selling point for aircraft manufacturers and eagerly embraced by airlines – seemed to be working.

However, some aviation safety professionals were concerned that this apparent improvement in flight safety may be concealing a disturbing trend. Serious incidents were still occurring, some of which were only prevented from becoming fatal accidents by happenstance and a measure of luck. However, because the incidents did not result in fatalities, they were not widely reported and nor did they affect the accident statistics.

Of particular concern was the fact that a high percentage of the few accidents that were occurring fell into one category, Loss of Control in Flight. Nothing to do with extraordinary and demanding circumstances but instead the pilots’ failure to cope with the most fundamental activity, that of being capable of using the aircraft flight controls to manage the flight path of the aircraft. Although the actual loss of control was sometimes triggered by external factors, such as adverse weather, it was often compounded by human factors, such as poor decision-making, technology mode confusion, poor manual handling skills and inadequate communications between the pilots. In almost all cases, LOC-I resulted in a non-survivable accident.

This situation still prevails, so it is appropriate to ask the question, ‘How is the risk evaluated and thus the amount of training which is considered appropriate?’ It would appear that, in some airlines, the industry’s low accident rate equates to a low risk and thus any training that extends beyond satisfying regulatory requirements and the recommendations of the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) is an unnecessary expense. This completely overlooks the fact that the decision may then restrict the knowledge and skills of the pilots concerned to a narrow range and make it extremely difficult for them to cope with unforeseen events.

On the other hand, it should be noted that there have been a significant number of serious incidents over the years that were only prevented from becoming tragic accidents by the successful actions of the pilots, who demonstrated competence and professionalism that could only have been the product of sound training where basic handling skills were considered to be a fundamental requirement to operating an aircraft, regardless of its technical sophistication. In these instances, the pilots were faced with extraordinary challenges, yet succeeded in mitigating the outcomes.

Some landmark examples are:

● Boeing 747-200 – Near Jakarta – June 1982 – Four engine flameout due to volcanic ash;

● McDonnell Douglas DC10 – Sioux City – July 1989 – Uncontained tail-mounted engine failure and multiple systems failures;

● Airbus A320 – Hudson River, New York – January 2009 – Bird strike and subsequent ditching;

● Airbus A380 – Singapore – November 2010 – Uncontained engine failure and multiple systems failure.

Image credit: CAE

A Wide Disparity in Standards

Why is it that some airlines have an excellent safety record over many decades while others do not? It is the view of the Flight Operations Group that this is not just a matter of luck. It is abundantly clear, from our many years of working in the industry, that some airlines set a high standard that far exceeds the minimum required by the regulations. This may include such measures as only recruiting superior candidates from the best training colleges and training them to the highest standards, not only at the entry stage but on an ongoing basis during their time with the airline. Yes, the cost is higher but, to repeat an old phrase: ‘If you think training is expensive, try having an accident’!

At the other end of the scale, some operators struggle to even reach the bar set by the regulators, exemplified by the number of airlines that are unable to satisfy the accepted standards and end up on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) banned airline list.

The situation is complicated by the fact that there are different training methods in use globally and there is not universal agreement on which ones are better than others. In some cases, culture influences the decisions on which ones to use, while in others the decision can be financial or even based on the recommendations of regulators or OEMs. Tools, such as AQP, CBTA, MPL and EBT are popular in the industry, though have gained different traction in different operating environments. There is no shortage of good ideas plus a genuine desire on the part of many to train to the highest standards, yet some airlines stick to training to the minimum standards commensurate with incurring the least costs.

There is a view held by many, including board members of some airlines, that what keeps the world of aviation safe is a robust and uniform international system of regulation. If that is satisfied, they believe, their airlines can operate safely under that umbrella of regulatory approval, that their regulators are competent and would never permit standards to fall below a safe level. In most cases that is true but, to believe that standards are universal is incorrect because we know from experience that they are not homogeneous across all borders and nor are regulatory authorities infallible.

Indeed, even the FAA has been castigated publicly in the US by a Congressional Enquiry and one can conclude that if the FAA can be found wanting, others may too. The Final Committee Report: BOEING 737 MAX by Congress in October 2020 stated in its conclusion: “Traditionally, the FAA has been the primary leader of the world’s civilian aviation authorities, but questions raised about the FAA’s role in the 737 MAX crisis have punctured its reputation as the gold standard in aviation safety and international civil aviation authorities”.

The FOG is concerned about the wide disparity in safety standards of airlines, and of their pilots, together with a similar disparity in regulators and regulatory oversight. Alignment of training methodology on a global scale will lead to better exchanges of ideas and understanding of each other’s operational challenges and an overall increase in operating standards.

The Decline of Essential Skills

Forty years ago, technology was changing at a fast rate, which resulted in accidents due to a poor understanding of that technology. Over time, a focus on managing the technical capabilities of the aircraft assumed greater emphasis than teaching the traditional basic handling skills. This was a major change in the demands placed on pilots but made good use of the new efficiencies of modern aircraft. However, we would argue this left us with a deficit of basic skills which should be the foundation stone on which other skills are built, those that lie dormant most of the time but assume immense importance when the technology fails and the pilots need to deal with an aircraft that is exhibiting unfamiliar and challenging handling characteristics.

In the event of an aircraft accident, it is sometimes tempting to attribute the cause to some failure of the pilots to perform to the standard expected of them. This may shroud other factors behind the events which led to the accident. As the complexity of the operating environment increases, the demands placed on the pilots also increases. While automation has relieved pilots of many routine handling tasks, essential skills have declined through lack of practice and may not be present when needed, such as when workload increases dramatically. Typically, this can occur when pilots are distracted by events, particularly those known to exhibit ‘startle’ characteristics. Unless the pilots have a solid foundation of training that enables them to easily control the aircraft while they deal with any abnormalities that are occurring, the outcome will be compromised. Unfortunately, accident reports indicate that, in far too many instances, the pilots struggle to identify the problem and decide on the correct course of action, all while trying to control an aircraft in circumstances that are totally different to the ones they have become used to in regular training sessions.

The Consequences

The current accident rate is relatively low compared to the past and it could be assumed that all is well in the industry. However, it is not the number of accidents that is at issue here; it is the fact that so many of them were avoidable, had the pilots used basic skills to recover from the situations they found themselves in. The lack of these skills raises the question – were the skills ever in place or is this evidence of skill fade, due to an over-reliance on the automatics?

There are undoubtedly some excellent flying training schools that deliver first rate graduates. However, some pilots can undergo inadequate ab initio training courses with the emphasis on getting them through quickly and as inexpensively as possible. Thus, they start their careers poorly prepared for the challenges of converting on to larger, more complex aircraft in an airline setting which, in turn, is often carried out in accordance with a significantly reduced airline training model. Unless these pilots can enjoy rigorous training within the airline they have joined, they will remain at a severe disadvantage as far as skills and knowledge are concerned.

All airlines operate in a very challenging financial environment. There is always pressure to reduce costs. Fuel costs and engineering costs are largely outside the control of the management team, so the focus can move to other areas, including pilot training. Unless senior management prioritise the need for the highest standards of training, it may be tempting to make cuts to the training budget. This may be done on the basis that ‘improvements’ in automation, simulation and smarter training techniques permit this to be done without compromising safety. This group challenges that notion. This reduction in training does not encourage the development and maintenance of the skills and knowledge that are essential to safely and competently operate today’s complex aircraft, something that is borne out by those accident reports that cite lack of pilot ability as a major causal factor.

Good training may be more expensive but it should be viewed as an essential investment in safety. The loss of an aircraft, passengers and crew is not only a financial loss but a dreadful human tragedy, especially when the accident was avoidable. Aircraft manufacturers have developed amazing aircraft over the years, that contribute enormously to the safety and financial success of the airline industry. However, this has resulted in a situation where, as the complexity of aircraft and their operating environment have increased, arguably the quality of training has decreased. The automation that is meant to ease the challenges of operating complex aircraft has to be matched by pilot competency which is lacking at times.

In this modern age there really is no excuse for failing to train pilots properly. The standards are clearly established and adhered to by the more responsible airlines who recognise that a poorly trained pilot has the potential to be an enormous liability. Pilots do not set out to cause accidents and are often the victims themselves of management decisions to shortcut recruitment and training methods. In this technology-driven and innovative age, there are many ways to control the high costs of pilot training. Part-task training devices, and other proven tools, provided in an efficient training environment, can go a long way towards consolidating a pilot’s knowledge and skills. The aim is not necessarily more training but better training.

Training methods vary and different airlines may jealously guard their preferred ways of achieving the required standards. The FOG does not mandate any particular training methods but merely wishes to see all airlines strive to achieve an equal and universal standard of excellence that ensures the highest standards of pilot competency.

This, and only this, will stop the needless loss of lives and aircraft.

More about the RAeS Flight Operations Group