Know It All…Or Not

If I have to repair this in flight, something is beyond horribly wrong.

If I have to repair this in flight, something is beyond horribly wrong.

I punched a fist of joy into the air upon reading Bruce Landsberg’s recent editorial in the February 2014 AOPA Pilot magazine. He addressed the topic of useless knowledge being taught rather than critical overall concepts. I’ve been saying this very same thing for years, but since I don’t have a type rating in the Saturn V, I’m viewed as a dangerous menace to the national airspace system. Thankfully, his article lends credence to my stance that we often focus on useless data in aviation that is of little practical or emergency use. We should be looking at the big picture items with a lot more interest rather than the little details that only impress other pilots or examiners.

While I’d love to claim credit for being a maverick as it relates to the idea of not needing to know everything there is to know about an aircraft, NATOPS was leading the way with this mindset years ago. Anyone who has flown in the US Navy knows that the manuals for aircraft are purposely designed to exclude excess systems information. The only things that are included are things that the pilot either has control over, or any system that can cause a hazard to continued flight (and how that hazard will manifest). The reason is simple: mechanics fix airplanes and pilots fly them. This division of labor is present even in civilian aviation where the FAA makes it a point to tell pilots that save for a few preventative measures; they are not allowed to be a mechanic on their airplane.

I believe this focus on knowing every system in detail is a holdover from the good ole days of aviation (which we simply cannot move on from it seems). Systems were very complex and highly mechanical in nature. All of them were controlled by human beings, hence the plethora of people in the cockpit of vintage airliners. The flight engineer literally made sure all the systems operated the way they were supposed to. The pilots flew and if present, the navigator made sure they didn’t get lost. The crew had to understand their piece of the equation and at least a little bit of the other guy’s in order to pull off the flight.

Fast forward to today where the airplane’s flight engineer is the ECAM that collects and displays information about the status of every system several times per second. You literally don’t need to know much more from an operational standpoint for many systems other than “Is it on?”, “Is it off?”, and “Should it be in that state?” A friend of mine flies a Brazilian-built regional jet and has to memorize the starting and operating temps, abnormal shutdown criteria, and various RPM ranges…for the APU. Meanwhile, the only direct control over this device the pilots have is an Off-On-Start switch, a Stop switch and an emergency fuel shut-off switch (in the event of a fire, overspeed or overtemp, the APU FADEC will automatically command a shutdown). Does it make sense that three switches with a total of five possible selections warrants memorizing the type of compressor, every temperature limit, every RPM limit, and the type of cooling used by the APU?

While it may be interesting information to know, the role of a modern airline pilot is not to play mechanic. It is to fly the aircraft from Point A to Point B. If there is a problem with the aircraft, they write up what isn’t working and if it isn’t on the MEL, continue flying until it can get fixed by the maintenance guys. It’s not about being cavalier, it’s about being efficient with specialized skills. Ask yourself if there is any way for a motivated captain to crawl back to the tailcone in flight (there isn’t since the APU is surrounded by a firewall). Even if they could get back there, what could they do to fix a problem? Last time I checked, airlines don’t hand pilots toolkits with their Jepp revisions. What if more time in review and sim sessions was spent talking about things that are more likely to be encountered in day-to-day operations, rather than the specifics of a component that the pilot will most likely never even see and has limited control over?

Air France 447 is a perfect example of why broad scale knowledge is critical. An aircrew faced with a rare and confusing situation may be spring-loaded to go to a rather complex solution due to the way we train them. Ignoring the control input issues, had the crew been taught to look at the big picture of where is the information coming from, they might have considered the fact that the FMGS was likely showing correct groundspeed based off the GPS signals it automatically updates with. Additionally, the combination of pitch and power for a given flight condition would have led to suspicion that the EFIS PFD was at least partially lying (and thus to look for independent data, such as the FGMS). This is not an indictment of the crew, but a look at how a few seconds to consider the big picture before zeroing in on a smaller picture solution may prevent accidents like this from happening again.

The Air France accident was not the first time a high performance jet was lost at night in the vicinity of thunderstorms due to faulty instruments. A nearly identical situation occurred in a B-58 on February 14th, 1963 when the pitot tube iced up and the pilot began unknowingly following erroneous airspeed data. When the controls felt sloppy and he suspected something was wrong, the pilot cross-referenced with the Machmeter, but this was also giving an incorrect reading. It wasn’t until the pilot asked the navigator (who had an independent pitot system) what the airspeed was that he realized the delta-winged bomber was about to drop out of the sky. The aircraft ended up departing controlled flight and the crew members were forced to eject (see the article “B-58 Hustler” by Jan Tegler in the December 1999 issue of Flight Journal for the entire story). Hopefully with changes in training and multiple-source independent airdata, there won’t be any more accidents like these.

Aerodynamics is another place where we overthink things to the point that it might be causing poor decisions in some situations. My favorite horse to flog is the recent bank angle conservatism being taught in the United States. There is no magic law of aerodynamics that says if you bank 31 degrees at 999 feet AGL, your airplane will autorotate into a flat spin. Although the intentions are good, the source of this fear stems from the g-load charts that we all looked at as student pilots. In a 60 degree bank, load factor is doubled and stall speed increases substantially. The only problem is that this is only true if you attempt to maintain altitude. It is not even close to accurate in a descending turn. Nor is it accurate if one is flying an airplane with a lot of excess power/thrust. We have become so obsessed with the book numbers that the bigger picture of how aircraft actually fly in three dimensions is being lost.

Don't freak out if you hit 60 degrees of bank while descending.

Don’t freak out if you hit 60 degrees of bank while descending.

There are student pilots (and an increasing number of certified pilots) who will either fly C-5A sized patterns, or make skidding turns in order to keep the bank angle low. The former negates the engine-out glide advantage of a close pattern while the latter actually is a perfect setup for a spin. To be honest, a bank beyond roughly 30 degrees is not really necessary at speeds under 80 knots if the proper lateral spacing is used. The trap is when the pilot comes in a lot faster or much closer due to ATC request or their own misjudgment. All of a sudden as they notice they’re going wide, the rudder gets kicked in and opposite aileron starts to hold the bank angle constant. The saving grace is that usually this situation is created by having a surplus of airspeed so a spin isn’t likely provided they return to coordinated flight fairly quickly. Rather than worrying about a chart that isn’t applicable to their conditions, they should be taught the confidence to put the airplane where it needs to be to get where they want to go.

Again, before people get riled up, there is a time and a place for sticking to book numbers. Early 727 pilots who tried to eyeball the landings as if it was a DC-3 with jet engines learned about the importance of sticking to the book. But the book isn’t magic. The numbers it contains are the sum of the properties of the atmosphere plus the aircraft’s design plus the systems installed. If it takes the engines 9 seconds to spool from flight idle to “Oh crap” thrust, the obvious solution is to not be low and slow while at idle. You don’t need to know how many stages are in the low pressure compressor (six total, two fan and four compressor) to get the big picture of why you keep the power up on final. Knowing the big picture of how heavily loaded swept wings behave at high angles of attack will also give you a better understanding of why simply lowering the nose won’t immediately get you out of trouble (plus the delay in thrust buildup to further compound your woes). It is true that sticking to the book will ensure that you arrive safely, but it is better to understand both the concept and the details.

Pilots cannot and should not know it all. The FAA regulation to “Familiarize yourself with all available information concerning that flight” is a rule designed so that if a pilot makes any error that “reckless and careless” doesn’t cover, the book can still be thrown at them. Rest assured that if you put one into the ground a half-mile short, you’re getting blamed for not getting a weather briefing despite it being CAVU with calm winds, flying an aircraft with an inoperative ADF and for not knowing the airport manager’s office phone number . This is a poor way to ensure safety but a great way to have instant blame in the event of an incident. Instead of scaring pilots into trying to read everything to fit some liability model, we should be encouraging them to select the appropriate data for what they want to do.

We collectively have to accept that despite what we would like to have everyone believe, 99.2% of pilots will never know every single little detail about their airplane. This should be instilled in student pilots via the way they are taught. Start with the basics and allow them to get used to the 3rd dimension. Instead of filling their heads with regulations from day one, ease off and let them enjoy flying. Let them have a few hours of wrapping their heads around controlling the airplane before revealing that they’re going to have to become a lawyer as well to understand all the regulations. Instructors can easily move from the big picture of “Let’s do our maneuvers up high so if you make a mistake we have plenty of room.” to the verbatim description of FAR 91.303 over the course of their training. The rules will make more sense anyway if a little bit of experience and common sense are applied rather than “you need to know this for the test”.

As usual, I’m sure not many people will read this (especially this far down) and those that do think I’m either full of myself, dangerous, a crusader or a combination of the three. The truth is I love aviation but I’m also willing to point to where we can do a better job making it less daunting for newcomers to get involved, safer for those already flying and more enjoyable for everyone. If we are honest, it’s time to admit that the act of flying is not very difficult in execution. Judgment on the other hand is what kills people. Being able to recite regulations does not stop people from flying into IMC or descending below minimums. Only the proper attitude and respect for the fact that you’re suspended in the air by the laws of physics and aerodynamics will make a person accept their own limits and those of their aircraft. This must be stressed more than any chart, schematic or diagram.

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