Friday, November 1, 2013

Pilot skills will lead to pilotless airliners

You've seen them, the articles and surveys that ask "would you get on a pilotless airliner?"

In the future it may be like asking someone today, would you get on an airliner with GPWS (Ground Proximity Warning System), PWS (predictive Wind Shear warning), TCAS(Traffic Collision Avoidance System), weather radar, extremely reliable engines, or any of the other technological advances that have virtually eliminated the causes of numerous aircraft accidents over the years. Would you dare get on one without them?

The tallest tree left standing in a virtual forest of accident causes that have been cut down with technology is now Loss of Control In Flight (LOC-I).
See the statistical summary authored by Boeing here:

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Reader Feedback - Smart Autopilots, and Playing with Fire!

Understanding Air France 447 Reader Feedback.

A reader wrote:

I am perplexed and at times aggravated by this statement on page 106 when you say "a system that shuts itself off when it is designed to shut itself off, due to lack of data or failure of another part, does not necessarily constitute a "failure."  Here's why I dispute that statement.

I know from my days as a private pilot that when you are in trouble at altitude (vertigo, flying into a cloud, a stall at altitude, etc) you look immediately at the artificial horizon.  That saved me from a terrible accident when I had vertigo.  And we know that if you use that device to: 1)level the wings 2)put the nose on the horizon and 3) keep cruise power on the engine THEN THE PLANE IS GOING TO FLY SAFELY.  It's practically a law of physics.

So we have this amazingly capable and intelligent flight control system (including autopilot) on the A330 which senses and measures every conceivable detail on the airplane (it probably knows when the toilet is flushed), BUT WHEN IT ENCOUNTERS MULTIPLE SPEED INPUTS IT QUITS LIKE A BIG BABY "OH I DON'T HAVE MY DATA....HERE, YOU FLY THE PLANE". What it should do is go into a high-altitude safe mode where it levels the wings, maintains power, and puts the nose 2 degrees above the horizon and tells the pilots "I'VE LOST SPEED INPUTS, BUT I'VE GOT YOUR BACK AND WILL MAINTAIN STRAIGHT AND LEVEL FLIGHT FOR YOU UNTIL YOU FIGURE OUT THE UNDERLYING PROBLEM."  I'd say that's a design fault/omission!!!!

In addition, I'd say that any plane that allows multiple stick inputs is playing with fire!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Air France 447 Trial in the News

An article published today (October 2, '13)  in the Times of London reported on the testimony of Michael Oakley, the coroner in the case of the crash of Air France 447 on June 1, 2009.

The  inquest was told that the crew had no training on flying the plane manually at high altitude. The coroner stated that "The pilots were not adequately trained to handle the aircraft safely in the particular high altitude emergency situation that night" and "highlighted serious public concern of whether pilots are overly dependent on technology”.

This is a  major point in my book Understanding Air France 447.  Pilots who routinely fly the airplane only with the autopilot and flight director engaged (i.e., never without it), are ill prepared to take control when those systems are suddenly and unexpectedly unavailable. Any skill, from playing the piano, to manually flying heavy transport aircraft requires practice. Those skills degrade in measurable amounts when that practice is not performed. Those whose skills were never well established to begin with, are at even greater risk of failure to perform when that performance is required suddenly and unexpectedly.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Paperback is Available!

I am happy to announce that the paperback version of Understanding Air France 447 is now available on and
If you're having trouble locating it, try searching by the book's ISBN:  978-0989785723 , or visit my author page at:

Signed editions can be ordered from the book's companion website at, or with the purchase link on this page.

Aviation Universe in Chicago, IL will be the first brick and mortar store to carry the book.

The paperback, is 6x9 in size and 216 pages, and  like the e-book version, contains over 40 color graphics.

I've enrolled the kindle version in Amazon Matchbook, which means that if you purchase the paperback from Amazon, you can buy the kindle version for only $2.99. Kindle lending is also enabled, so you can share your kindle version.

I'd like to thank everyone for their support and encouragement for this book.   The reviews on Amazon have been fantastic. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Remembering KAL 007 30 Years Later

It was 30 years ago today that Korean Air Lines flight 007 was shot down by a Russian SU-15 interceptor west of Sakhalin Island, over the Sea of Japan.

In simplest terms, the aircraft appears to have been engaged in a heading mode, instead of following the programmed navigation course. As a result it drifted north of course and well into Russian airspace, then exiting that airspace before being attacked.

As with many accidents it is not quite a simple as that.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The 1500 Hour Rule: Ah, but what kind of hours?

In order to address the apparent deficiencies in pilot qualifications of some recent, and in particular regional airline accidents, the minimum experience  requirements for air carrier pilots has recently been increased. 

However, it seems to me that the rule still uses the old measuring stick of hours, to attempt to measure a quite different metric - pilot skill.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Understanding Air France 447 Book Released!

My new book "Understanding Air France 447" is now available on and

Addressed are the many contributing aspects of weather, human factors, and airplane system operation and design that the crew could not recover from. How each contributed is covered in detail along with what has been done, and needs to be done in the future to prevent this from happening again.

Discover the roles played by fatigue, alternate law, static port position, stall training at low altitude, flight director addiction/loss of skills, radar operation, and more.

Also visit the book's companion for a free sample chapter and lots of additional resources including a flight data recorder sheet to print out and follow along, the accident reports, voice and flight data transcripts, and related articles and studies.

Should also be available on the iBooks store soon

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Are you Ready for Your Surprise Solo Performance?

New York tourist: "Pardon me sir, can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?"
New Yorker: "Practice, practice, practice!"

Practice is not just the way to get to Carnegie Hall. It may well save your bacon some dark and stormy night when the automation stops working and you take center stage for a surprise solo performance.

It should come as no surprise that flying on instruments, like playing a musical instrument or an athletic endeavor, is a skill that erodes with the passage of time and non-use.  Simply knowing how to do it, is not a guarantee that you still can do it.

FAR 61.57 spells out the minimum recency of experience requirements for instrument pilots, wherein every six months a pilot must have performed six instrument approaches, holding procedures and tasks, intercepting and tracking courses through the use of navigational electronic systems. If one is using an "aviation training device", it calls for  an additional three hours of instrument experience and four unusual attitude recoveries, all within two months.

These regulations do not mention the use of automatic systems, but one could logically conclude that since they date back from a time where autopilots were rare or crude, the true intent was that it was the pilot who was operating by reference to instruments, not the machine.  I doubt that programming an FMS and autopilot to do the flying was envisioned as the way these requirements would be fulfilled.

Perhaps ironically, pilots of  part 121, 125 and 135 are exempt from the instrument recency requirements (see appropriate regulations for details).

Due to perceptions, policies, or procedures, the airline pilots of  today's highly automated airplanes do very little hand flying, often not much more than a few seconds after takeoff and a few brief minutes before landing. For long  haul flights especially, this reduces the percentage of the flight that is hand flown to mere fractions of 1%. But these pilots are not exempt from the human factors that deteriorate their skills from non-use, just like other mortals.

Pilots who learned to fly using highly automated aircraft may not have the a solid base to call on like some of us "old timers" with thousands of hours of autopilot-free round dial experience.

In the "it's not just my opinion" department, here are four links to some light reading on the subject of loss of pilot skills: (I've arranged them from shortest to longest).

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Roll Bone is Connected to the Pitch Bone: an Excerpt.

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book Understanding Air France 447. It picks up on a discussion on the fly-by-wire control laws of the A-330.

Here is an example of drawing a connection between the theory of the system design and how it impacted the crew.

To sign up for notification when the book is available, go to (no spam, I promise!)

When failures no longer make it possible to carry out Normal Law, other reconfiguration laws take effect. The failures could be failures in the physical flight control systems, hydraulics, computers, or the information needed to carry out the laws themselves.
Some of that information comes from the three Air Data Reference units (ADR) which are combined with the three Inertial Reference units (IR) making up the Air Data Inertial Reference System (ADIRS). For Normal Law to operate, requires two of the three air data sources to agree so that there is reasonable assurance that the data is reliable.
The next step below Normal Law is Alternate Law.
Alternate Law has two basic versions, depending on what has failed: Alternate 1 and Alternate 2.
In either case, an ECAM message displays “ALTN LAW (PROT LOST)” (Alternate Law, protections lost), and a second line states that the speed should be limited to 330 kts/.82 Mach (slightly less than the Normal Law limitations). Additionally amber X’s replace the green equal signs that are displayed at the pitch and roll limits when Normal Law is active.

The main difference between the two levels of Alternate Law is in the roll portion of the law. In Alternate 1, the roll command remains rate-of-roll, like Normal Law. Bank angle protection (67°) remains in place, but is lost in case of triple ADR failure or ADR disagree. 
In Alternate 2 the roll command is a direct stick-to-control command with no protections or stabilities. A few spoilers are inhibited to keep the potential roll rates from being excessive, and the gains on the flight controls are set according to the flap/slat position.  Alternate 2 is activated with an ADR disagree or dual ADR or IR fault as well as with some other multiple failures of the flight control system. 
At low altitude, the two sub modes do not really handle that differently, and pilots often have a hard time telling them apart, though Alternate 2 is more sensitive in roll. At high altitude, the same control deflection can result in higher roll rates due to less aerodynamic damping. In Normal and Alternate 1 laws, since the sidestick commands the rate of roll, that effect is automatically compensated for. However, in Alternate 2 and Direct laws, the sidestick commands the control surfaces, so the controls must be used with care to prevent over controlling. That overcontrolling definitely occurred on AF447, and may have directed the flying pilot’s attention away from the pitch control.
Immediately after the autopilot disconnected, the airplane rolled into an 8° right bank in about 2 seconds due to external forces. First Officer Bonin corrected with up to 1/2 left sidestick input. Within the same two seconds the airplane rolled 14° left to a 6° left bank. 
As the airplane rolled through wings level the sidestick was moved about half way to the right. The lateral sidestick displacement and the airplane’s bank angle became exactly out of phase (peak bank angle in one direction with peak control input in the other), and the airplane rolled back to the right. The second and third lateral inputs reached the full stick input to the left and 3/4 to the right. 
For 30 seconds he struggled to get the bank angle under control. The bank angle was never excessive, the maximum was only 11°. But the sensitive roll response made it difficult to control, and may have added to a lack of attention in the vertical axis. For halfway through his efforts to control the bank angle, the vertical speed reached 6,900 feet per minute and First Officer Robert called out, “Watch your speed, watch your speed.” 
Bonin started to reduce the pitch attitude, “Okay okay, okay I’m going back down,” he said, as he struggled to control both pitch and roll.
Precious airspeed was lost during this time.  It was only after the roll was back under control that First Officer Robert offered the advice, “Above all try to touch the lateral controls as little as possible.” But by then, the stall warning  had started to sound and loss of control was only seconds away.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Give the gift of Flight

Summer soaring season is here!

Time to share the Love!

Still looking for that memorable, most excellent Father's Day gift, for Dad (or for yourself?)

How about a glider ride, or glider lesson?

A beautiful ride or aerobatics, hands on or hands off  whatever suits the new pilot.

Pure fun, and pure flying, you (or Dad) are gonna LOVE it!

In Southern California, at Warner Springs gliderport, Sky Sailing is offering a free video upgrade on Father's Day weekend. See their Facebook page for details.
Ask you local glider operator if they have any specials too! 

Fun for any age!

Here's how to get started:

You might be surprised that there is a soaring location near you.  For USA locations check out this page:


If you want to go in the lesson direction, check out the FAST program (Fly A Sailplane Today)
You can purchase that on-line and be ready to go in minutes.

The FAST package is a great value at $99. With your purchase you will receive:
  • An introductory lesson consisting of a minimum of 30 minutes of ground instruction and approximately 30 minutes of flight time.
  • A copy of "Everybody’s 1st Gliding Book".
  • A glider pilot logbook.
  • An introductory 3 month membership in the Soaring Society of America, including one copy of the monthly magazine Soaring.
Did you know that you only need to be 14 to solo a glider?  What a great gift for the young aviation enthusiast!  It's also an excellent foundation to build all future flying skills. 

 If you're already a license pilot, you might be surprised how quickly you can add that glider rating (no written test, Yea!)

Hope to see you out there!

    Friday, May 31, 2013

    We Remember Air France 447 after Four Years

    It has been four years. The evening of May 31/Jun 1, 2009  Air France 447, an A330-200, flew into a thunderstorm in the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) over the Atlantic Ocean north of Brazil. Its pitot tubes clogged with ice crystals for one minute.

    Within that time the two first officers flying the airplane, while the captain was on a rest break, climbed nearly 3,000 feet, drained it of precious airspeed, stalled the airplane and lost control. Three an a half minutes later the A330 impacted the sea with devastating force, destroying the airplane and killing all 228 persons on board.

    It would be easy to simply criticize the incompetence of the two first officers, but it is not as simple as that. Is it ever?

    The inability of these pilots to instantly and competently deal with the loss of the autopilot, autothrust, and  airspeed indications, with degraded flight controls, combined with flight directors that provided inappropriate guidance, at night, in turbulent weather is a tragedy. It may be but a symptom of the level of back-to-basics flying skills possessed by a generation of pilots brought up following flight directors, whose idea of manually flying the plane is turning the heading knob.

    If we fail to train our fellow pilots to manually fly the airplane under the worst conditions then we have failed them and those that trust us all.

    There were numerous areas of misunderstanding that this accident brought out that cry for us to do a better job in educating our pilot population.

    At least some of these pilots were unaware how to properly operate the weather radar to account for the low radar reflectivity of storms in the ITCZ. When the automation was lost, the pilot flying was unaware of the proper pitch attitude and power setting to maintain cruise flight.  He was unaware that the Alternate flight control law provided no protections, would maintain a dangerously high pitch attitude without further pilot inputs, and provided nearly double the normal  roll response to sidestick input. He did not understand that the synthetic voice announcing "STALL, STALL, STALL" meant that the nose must be pitched down, as it would not happen on its own, or that insufficient power exists at cruise altitude to constitute a stall recovery.
    At least one of the two pilots misidentified the stall buffet for a high speed buffet, believing he had "some crazy speed." He even deployed the speed brakes momentarily, unaware that the wing on this airplane made Mach buffet extremely unlikely or perhaps not even possible.

    They lost the discipline of accomplishing the abnormal procedure on the ECAM, and identifying who was flying the airplane. The synthetic voice announced "DUAL INPUT" while both pilots were trying to fly the airplane, sometimes with conflicting commands.

    But as egregious as all these error seem, and indeed were, we must realize that these pilots were the product of their training and experience, as are we all. Like the loyal family dog who lets in the burglar, one cannot truly be expected to effectively handle a crisis situation, unless trained to do so.

    We must therefore endeavor to train our fellow airmen to be able to hand fly that the airplane without the autopilot, to be aware of the normal pitch attitudes and power settings that the flight directors and autothrust allow us to ignore or never learn, to understand the weather we are surrounded by, the aerodynamics that keep us aloft, and the unique characteristics of our aircraft . We must not allow mastery of the Flight Management System to be confused with airmanship.

    It is our sacred duty to each other and to every passenger that ever climbs aboard.

    We have been warned.

    For more information on all of these subjects, look for my upcoming book on the Air France 447 accident and its causes.  Sign up here to receive notice when the book is available for purchase, and selected excerpts. 

    Friday, May 24, 2013

    Wing Spotting

    In today's edition of Trendvector we learn about the supercritical airfoil. Now, this is not super critical, like some a fabled mother in law, in this case the super means fast. 

     Here we are at flight level 400 (40,000 ft) going Mach .82.  Notice how wide the operating envelope is, even up here.  So much for "coffin corner" - it's more like the entire end of the room!
    You can just start to see the little yellow area at the bottom of the airspeed indicator (around 209 kts) that is the mimimum selectable speed for autothrust, stall is farther below that. 
    The maximum speed (Mach .86) is the barber pole at the top, but that's due more to other aerodynamic load reasons than Mach buffet.

    In order to allow for high cruise airspeeds, and avoid the effects of Mach buffet, airplanes of the A330's generation employ a “supercritical” airfoil. These airfoils typically have a larger leading edge radius, a flatter upper surface, and a rather distinctive cusp at the trailing edge.

    The supercritical airfoil is not “extra critical”, but one with a high critical Mach number (super, meaning high). It allows efficient cruise speeds at relatively high Mach numbers before incurring a large increase in drag due to shock wave formation. 

    Check out this A330 wing. Notice the cusp near the underside trailing edge.

    Compare it with the 747-400 wing below. Notice the flat bottom, and the sharp leading edge. The 747 is a fast airplane, and without a supercritical wing, it achieves its high mach cruise with a large amount of wing sweep (which, of course, makes it look extra cool).

    Modern aircraft with supercritical wing profiles offer numerous advantages, which include:
    • Improved aircraft control characteristics at high speed.
    • The profile can be thicker, and  requires less sweep, which can allow for a lighter structure.
    • The large leading edge also makes for great takeoff and landing performance. 
    • The position of the aerodynamic center is virtually stable for supercritical profiles, and therefore less susceptible to adverse high Mach effects such as Mach tuck.
    • The increase in drag above a given speed is so great that it is extremely unlikely, or even impossible, to fly faster than the demonstrated speeds that ensure the absence of flutter (VD/MD) dive speed.
    • Therefore, the threat of loss of control due to an overspeed is much less than in older generation aircraft.
    On some types of airplanes (Airbus A320, for example), because of the aerodynamic characteristics in the approach to stall, the stall warning threshold is often independent of Mach.
    On the A330 and other airplanes of its generation, despite the flight school admonition that an airplane always stalls at the same angle of attack, the stall and stall warning angle of attack is greatly influenced by Mach number. 

    In the case of Air France 447's high altitude stall. Though the stall margin was initially quite tight (only a few degrees), as they lost airspeed, their stall angle-of-attack increased along with their actual angle of attack, preventing them from stalling until they had climbed nearly 3000 feet and lost 90 knots of airspeed. But at least one of the pilots thought that the buffeting they felt was due to high speed, instead of stall buffet. 

    You can learn more about this and many other aspects of that accident and the A-330 in my upcoming book on the Air France 447 accident. 
    Sign up on this page, to receive notice when it or excerpts are available. 

    Sunday, May 12, 2013

    The Lion Tamer Pilot

    Occasionally I run across a pilot who doesn't care to understand  the upper-air meteorology that affects high altitude aviation (airline ops).  Not pilots who just don't understand it, but don't care to understand it, the "eh, I don't need to know that stuff" attitude.
    So, I ask: Should a lion tamer know something about lions? Who would say no?

    But here you are, surrounded by this potentially hostile environment, traveling at hundreds of miles an hour, thousands of miles from anywhere, your life (and hundreds of others) depending on your knowledge of what to do. Don't you feel that a pilot should know as much about that environment as a lion tamer knows about lions?

    Wednesday, April 24, 2013

    Learn more about flying airplanes by flying gliders

    I'd like to convince you to take a glider ride, or better yet: glider lesson, or even better yet, a glider rating. Like your mom might say: "It's for your own good."

    Learning to fly a sailplane will supercharge your flying skills and knowledge. You will learn more about flying than you might expect.

    It's not just an airplane without a motor. It's a whole different category of aircraft. It operates on the micro. The smaller aircraft, micro-meteorology (don't be scared), the slow end of the speed scale, and attention to detail.

    Monday, April 8, 2013

    Scared Yourself Lately?

    The hanger flying stories all start out: "There I was, two turnin', two burnin', inverted, shaking like an out of balance washer on spin. Was I scared? Naaahhh, OK, a little apprehensive, maybe..."

    When's the last time you were scared in an aircraft? I got a dose the other day, but I'll have to put my pride on the shelf for a few minutes to tell about it. After all, we never lose our cool, right?

    Saturday, March 30, 2013

    It's Official: Don't Forget to Fly the Plane

    The FAA recently released a Safety Alert for airline operators reminding us that "maintaining and improving the knowledge and skills for manual flight operations is necessary for safe flight operations."

    The alert continued: "Modern aircraft are commonly operated using autoflight systems (e.g., autopilot or autothrottle/autothrust). Unfortunately, continuous use of those systems does not reinforce a pilot’s knowledge and skills in manual flight operations. Autoflight systems are useful tools for pilots and have improved safety and workload management, and thus enabled more precise operations. However, continuous use of autoflight systems could lead to degradation of the pilot’s ability to quickly recover the aircraft from an undesired state."
    In other words, click it off and fly the plane on a regular basis, so that when the magic isn't working, you're able to!

    Thursday, March 28, 2013

    Are you an Autoflight Junkie?

    Autopilots have been around for a while now.  Amazingly, the first aircraft autopilot was developed by Sperry Corporation in 1912!  I seem to have missed the hundreth birthday of the autopilot somehow.
    Two decades ago the autopilots on most airplanes still weren't all that hot. They could hold a heading and altitude pretty good, and track an ILS when things were tight. Tracking a VOR radial was like doing S-turns down the airway. The button for airspeed/mach hold looked better than it worked. Most pilots in the 727 days hand flew the airplane up to altitude, and were hand flying it for most of the approach. Autothrottles? Forget about it!
    You knew power settings and pitch attitudes for every phase of flight - you had to!
    Along with the digital computer revolution came autopilots and auto thrust systems that truley lived up to their names. Inertial Navigation Systems (INS) evolved into Flight Managment Systems (FMS), and GPS made the prospects of manual updates, plotting, lines of position, and all manner of once-necessary long range navigation techniques quaint.
    There is not doubt that these fine systems have made possible many things that were not possible - at least not safe - using the old methods. Think of RNP approaches through mountain passes, category III autolands,  RVSM separation above FL290, RNAV arrivals and departures; plus the advances in communication: SATCOM, CPDLC, and the many flavors of ADS.
    But where is the line between using these systems as assistance, and dependence on them? When the autopilot is on for all but 5 minutes of a 12 hour flight, how are manual flying skills maintained? When pilots are virtually afraid to turn off the autothrottles, what happens if those systems fail?
    When you follow the flight directors, do you look beyond the bars to see what pitch attitude is being commanded? If the flight directors suddenly went away, would you know what pitch attitude to set? For climb, cruise, descent? How about power settings.
    What if the airspeed indicator we use for pitch guidance in constant power climbs and descents stopped working? It's easy if the A/S flag pops out, or your instructor slaps a sticker over the airspeed indicator, but what if it was just a little higher, and then a little more, and slowly, a little more?  Would you notice if your airspeed were unusually high for the pitch and power you have? How far off would it have to be before you could tell? Without an operating airspeed indicator can you tell the difference between a low speed buffet and a high speed buffet? What are the sounds, how does it feel? Is that stall warning real?
    Even with all the magic, don't forget to click it all off and fly the airplane on a regular basis. Pay attention to those pitch and power settings, they may save your bacon some night.
    When we look at accidents like AF 447, we see that when the autopilot, flight directors, and autothrust went away, control of the airplane was lost very quickly. It's likely that it comes down to the pilot flying not knowing what attitude to fly. When the flight directors came back on in a mode matching an inappropriate climb rate they were likely followed. One and a half minutes later they would be falling at 10,000 feet per minute the stall warning having sounded constantly for the previous 52 seconds.
    The automation is great. But, don't let it be the only way you do fly, or can fly the airplane.
    Don't be an autoflight junkie.