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Seeing the Big Picture: Balancing Automation and Pilot Skills

Avoiding overreliance on automation and loss of situational awareness are among the risks of flying technologically advanced aircraft.

“I guess those jets just about fly themselves, right?”

We’ve all heard that one. But while pilots never want to admit they are not the complete masters of their fate, we do have to acknowledge that this may be partially true. The trick is in defining which part.

Today’s technologically advanced aircraft are marvels of automation and precision. In many scenarios, they can, in fact, fly the airplane better than the pilot, alleviating a significant portion of the workload. And now, with Garmin’s Autoland technology, should the pilot become incapacitated, automation can even take over with the push of one button and “fly” safely to an airport, land, stop and shut down the engine. It can even give passengers instructions on how to open the door.

That’s the good news.

The downside is a very real concern – overreliance on technology in day-to-day flying – which too often leads to pilot complacency and loss of situational awareness. The intended role of technology is to perform tasks the pilot could perform in order to lessen the aviator’s workload. When a pilot loses awareness and clarity on what he or she has directed the systems to execute, there is potential for a chain of errors that can lead to disaster.

So, the challenge is to ensure that pilots balance their use of technology as a workload reliever, with the need to maintain a “big-picture” real-time overview of every flight.

Basic Flying Skills Important

Mark Lowdermilk is an FAA-designated flight examiner based in Charleston, WV, and a member of NBAA’s Small Flight Department Subcommittee. Though he believes that modern flight-deck technology has great value, he has strong feelings about ensuring that pilots do not fall into bad habits when it comes to overreliance on automation. It starts with knowing where they are. “If you can’t take raw data and build a picture in your mind of position, you lose situational awareness,” he said.

Lowdermilk is also concerned that today’s training doesn’t put enough emphasis on basic airmanship and flying skills, instead paying too much attention to “buttonology.”

“Too many instructors want to show the student how much they know [about the avionics systems],” said Lowdermilk. “We’re not teaching students how to think and solve problems. We’re teaching them that ‘the avionics can do the thinking for me.’”

Lowdermilk urges a re-focus to ensure that pilots – new and old – have a solid foundation in the fundamentals of what goes into a safe, successful flight. Then they can begin to build the automation skills on top of that – not the other way around. He acknowledges that there has been a shift in emphasis to pre-flight planning – laying out the plan and its alternatives before engine start. But he questions whether lower-time pilots have the experience to anticipate enough of the potential obstacles that would require a change in strategy mid-flight.

With overreliance on automation, he said, “Pilots might not be able to know when something isn’t happening. ‘What’s the simplest way to get this to do what I want to do?’ But you’ve got to get them to where they know what you want it to do. I’m simplistic in teaching how to fly. The steps and intuitive feel of what looks and feels right is what they need to learn.”

“We’re not teaching students how to think and solve problems. We’re teaching them that ‘the avionics can do the thinking for me.’”

Mark Lowdermilk FAA-Designated Flight Examiner

Hand Flying to Stay Sharp

Joe Samudovsky, another member of the NBAA Small Flight Department Subcommittee, flies for Brandt Inc., an Illinois-based agricultural company. He recently upgraded to flying a Garmin G5000-equipped Citation XLS from a Citation V that was equipped with a Garmin GTN750.

“Every chance I get,” he said, “I go up in a Cessna 172 or [Piper] Archer to get back to analog gauges and basic stick-and-rudder skills. By flying an automated aircraft, basic flying skills can be degraded.”

Before joining Brandt, Samudovsky worked for Illinois’ state aviation department, conducting airport inspections and leading safety seminars, so he has a solid connection with maintaining airmanship.

That’s not to say that he has anything against modern technology. Quite the opposite: “Electronic flight instrument systems are a good thing. The many enhancements to safety [they provide] are profound. But pilots do need to understand the avionics, inside and out – that they are there to reduce workload. Another way of saying that is to ‘redirect’ the workload.”

Describing his initial training regime for the XLS and its G5000 suite, Samudovsky said, “The task in training is to determine the simplest way to get the information you need. The other [Brandt] pilot and I adopted a ‘less is more’ approach. For example, the G5000 has three 14-inch screens that you can split into six screens. That can be overwhelming. Before getting to all the layers, we kept it to the bare features. As we got more confident, we added more layers.”

The training included a two-hour online course followed by a two-day G5000 indoctrination regime. “Before our first flight, we put ground power on the aircraft and went through what we learned in training.”

But even after learning the system, Samudovsky continues to practice basic skills.

“On empty legs and when it’s safe to do so, we hand fly, and we perform visual approaches whenever possible. During recurrent training in the simulator, we practice emergency scenarios involving hand flying with failed automation.”

The Challenge of Processing Information

Davidson Taveras, a former U.S Navy aviator who flew BeechT-34s and T-44s and Lockheed P-3 Orions – all with round-dial instruments – is another big advocate of hand flying to retain basic flying skills. He currently flies a Citation Latitude for Peace River Citrus Products in Florida.

“I try to hand fly up to 10,000 feet. And I try to do every approach entirely hand flown.”

He also strives to hand fly at altitude on deadhead legs and feels it would be advantageous for flight departments to incorporate regular hand-flying in their operations.

“You will shine in [regular recurrent simulator] training,” he said. “Instructors know if you can hand fly…or not.”

Taveras loves the automation of the Latitude, but also joins the chorus in cautioning against overreliance.

“You can overextend and spend too much time on the avionics. Eighty to 90% of the time should be spent looking outside. But I’d estimate less than half of pilots comply with that ratio.”

Review NBAA’s safety resources.

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