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).

A 2010  article from Aero Safety World  Dimininshing Skills by Michael Gillen
A 2008 master's thesis Degredation of Piloting Skills  by  Michael W. Gillen
A 2011 master's thesis, The Manual Flight Skill of Airline Pilots by Antonio Puentes
A 2009 doctoral thesis, The loss of manual flying skills in pilots of highly automated airliners, by M. Ebbatson

These papers are based on simulator performance studies of airline pilots. Putentes' thesis states: "Research revealed that the amount of manual flight practice a pilot performed in the weeks immediately prior to the test, and during the course of normal airline operations, was directly associated with the level of flight skill decay observed across all pilots evaluated during the course of the study. The lack of recent manual flight experience was correlated with poor measured performance. The overall finding was that manual flight performance of pilots flying highly automated aircraft suffered degradation regardless of previous aircraft types flown or the type of operational experience accumulated throughout the career of the pilot."

Translation: It doesn't matter how good you were, it matters how well you keep your skills up on a recent basis.

I think that it's important to understand that the maintenance of these skills requires not just hand flying, but hand flying without the aid of the flight director, where the instrument scan is called into action.

It's quite a different environment between focusing on the cross hairs of a flight director while hand flying, and determining the pitch, bank, and power on your own, based on reference to the basic instrument data.

In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin explains that it is not some pre-ordained greatness or talent that accounts for most people with high levels of ability, it is lots of practice. About 10,000 hours of it to be precise. And it is not just any practice, but a special kind: Deliberate Practice. With quotes borrowed heavily from the book, deliberate practice is defined as "activity designed specifically to improve performance. It is highly demanding mentally whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical such as sports; and it isn't much fun." Deliberate practice has these charateristics:

  • It should be designed and have the assistance of an instructor to observe and guide.  Deliberate practice requires that one identify certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved and then work intently on them. These are activities outside your 'comfort zone,' (the easy stuff)  and in the 'learning zone' (where you really have to work at it).
  • "High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real."
  • "Feedback on results is continuously available." You must be able to see how well you are doing.
  • "It is highly demanding mentally. Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it deliberate." For many musicians and similar disciplines the maximum sustainable time period may only be an hour to ninety minutes; limited by the ability to sustain concentration any longer.
  • "It isn't much fun." "Doing things we know we do well is enjoyable, and that's exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands. Instead of doing what we're good at, we insistently seek out what we're not good at."

Our disadvantage as pilots is in our ability to find the opportunity to perform the practice. The repetition is the hard part. However, if we consider that flying Basic Attitude Instruments is a repetitive task, constantly correcting back to the desired heading, altitude, and airspeed (or turn rate and vertical speed), perhaps we'll get a pass from the judges on that.

It is certainly easy to measure our performance, as the altimeter, heading and airspeed indicators provide that. The key then is to see how precisely you can perform. Pay attention to the pitch attitudes and power settings that provide the performance you desire. When  instruments start disagreeing with each other, it may be the only thing you can trust at the moment.

For safety sake, this practice should be done in low workload environments (e.g., above 10,000 feet), where autopilot use is not required (not in RVSM airspace), and only after letting your fellow crew members know what you're up to.

So, for our flying practice to be effective in building and maintaining skills, we need to do it in such a way that we are really concentrating on what we are doing. A deliberate scan, with methodical adjustments in attitude and power, keeping the readings of the performance instruments where we want them.

For a great review of attitude instrument flying process check out  the chapter on Attitude Instrument Flying in the FAA's Instrument Flying Handbook here - an "oldie, but a goodie",

Fly safe.

1 comment:

Karlene Petitt said...

Bill, this is a timely post. Especially in light of the recent accident. Shows how important skills are. And that has nothing to do with talent, but practice, practice, practice.