One of the more spirited exchanges during the WATS 2023 pilot training track was generated by the presentation of self-described “human performance geek” Samantha Brown, Lead Human Factors Team Member, ALPA-International, a United Airlines First Officer. She asserted, “There is global concern that with advanced flight automation, are pilots forgetting their manual skills? Those two terms can’t be technologically exclusive. Advanced automation does not absolve pilots from not practicing or forgetting manual skills.”

Brown’s presentation was delivered with the knowledge that the FAA released last November its Advisory Circular (AC) 120-123 on Flight Path Management (FPM). The regulatory document strikes a balance between manual flight operations and managing automated systems. The United FO also invoked FAA and ALPA support for manual training for stalls and UPRT.       

Cognitive and psychomotor skills need to be developed during initial training, Brown said and added, these skills are the quickest to degrade – and the toughest to build up. The HF subject expert then offered intriguing observations gained through her own efforts and insights from industry colleagues on their company policies. In one mission flight profile activity, during takeoff, the autopilot was engaged at 100ft (Airbus recommendation) or about 11 seconds into flight; at 400ft in a second case or about 34 seconds into flight; and 800ft or about 62 seconds into flight for a third case. 

Given widebody jets may have 6-9hr flights across the Atlantic or on other routes, she noted, “There is little time to exercise manual flying skills in widebody fleets.”        

Returning to ALPA’s position on manual flight, she told delegates the pilots’ union considers automation to be a valuable skill. “But it should never be used as a crutch for flying. Pilots should regularly exercise manual flying skills. Airline policies should be amended to manually fly when safety permits [Brown’s emphasis] in addition to in simulators.”   

During the question-and-answer session, an unidentified regulatory agency representative in the audience offered that, in the post-Covid era, what has increased is the number of safety “events.” He asked, “Shouldn’t this [manual skill flying] be done in the simulator?” and concluded, “pilots should fly the aircraft as they are designed.” 

On cue, an anonymous pilot in the audience disputed the notion of solely practicing manual skills in simulators. “We can’t do it during ‘reduced workloads,’ as there are few, if any, of these periods today. We only train twice a year in simulators.”  

CAT welcomes the discussion of strategies for pilots regarding advanced automation and manual skills. If you would like to express an opinion, please contact Editor-in-Chief Rick Adams, FRAeS –