Safer Than Ever, So Let’s Change Everything
There are reports that a list of new pilot training recommendations has been presented to Congress and the FAA. Near the top of the list is a new and big emphasis on hand-flying during all phases of pilot training and, presumably, during normal operations.
Let’s see. The major airlines in the U.S.—read that to mean jets—have not killed a single passenger since 2001. The longest major airline fatality-free period before this was two years, not 10. And following those previous brief safety interludes were higher-than-ever periods of fatal accidents.
The system has worked. Training, automation, new systems such as TCAS and GPWS have all cut the accident rate to a level I never imagined possible. So instead of celebrating success and saying we’re on the right track, the public and “experts” are wringing their hands about an imagined crisis.
Yes, the rest of the world does not enjoy the same level of airline safety as we do in the U.S. Not to be smug, but the rest of the world needs to do the changing.
And, yes, there have been two turboprop airline fatal accidents in the 10 year period where there have been no jet fatalities. But that record for turboprop safety is almost more astonishing than that for the jets because the turboprops had a so much worse record before the decade of unbelievable safety began.
Plus, why lump the turboprops in with the jets. For a host of reasons, turboprops, whether they fly in personal, business or airline missions, simply have not had the same level of safety as jets flying the same missions. So go after turboprop safety and don’t lump the jets in with them. Bring turboprop safety up to the level of jets before making changes in the obviously excellent job we are doing with jet safety.
As pilots, it’s hard to admit that cockpit automation and envelope protection systems that are part of fly-by-wire have made flying safer. But the record is clear. Increased automation is the only change that can possibly explain this enormous improvement in safety. Certainly pilots flying jet airliners 20 years ago were as skilled as those in the cockpit today, yet 20 years ago we averaged more than two fatal accidents a year. Now we have gone 10 years with none.
This whole frenzy over hand-flying and using automation less really comes from two accidents—the Q400 turboprop at Buffalo and the Air France Airbus over the Atlantic.
I don’t know what to say about the Buffalo accident. When a pilot pulls at the stall warning, and pulls against the stall barrier stick pusher, what can you say? Maintaining a safe airspeed is so fundamental to flying—no matter whether hand flying or on autopilot—I can’t imagine how a failure to do that can be cured by any type of training. That’s like training in lowering the landing gear before touchdown. How do you train for something even four-year-olds know how to do?
In the Airbus accident, the crew apparently suffered multiple cascading failures that handed them an airplane in turbulence in the middle of the night with no reliable airspeed indication and a list of warnings and messages that would confuse any pilot. Instead of pilot training changes, how about a new and fresh look at how an automated system transitions from one mode to the backup modes when extremely unlikely failures happen.
Bottom line, what we have been doing in airline and business jet pilot training is working, we have safety records that are unbelievably good, and we should keep fine tuning what we’re doing. If the goal is safety, I want more of the same.