What it takes to be one sharp pilot, part 3: coordination
Before you accuse me of throwing gasoline on a fire, I’ll say up front that is exactly what I am doing.
I read all the comments that readers post on our site and I am always impressed with the battle lines that form with youngish technonerds on one side and the oldish purists on the other side. John Zimmerman’s article on the contributions of the Cirrus parachute to the airplane’s safety record is the most recent example of this happening.
Because I had coordination on my list of pilot attributes for the “sharp pilot” series, I considered whether or not the way the requirement for this skill has developed over the years is a major cause of the debate.
When I was instructing, mostly in the early to mid-1950s, coordination was a big deal. It was then discussed entirely in relation to the coordinated use of ailerons and rudder plus pitch and power. As airplanes evolved the aileron/rudder coordination became less important but pitch/power remains at the top of the list of things that need coordination.
Today, coordination relates to a lot more than what we do with the controls. I will tell you about two flights that occurred roughly 57 years apart to illustrate how this has changed over time. The flights were my first and my last solo cross countries.
The first was on 12/21/1951 in a Cessna 140, N1808V. I had been flying that airplane as well as a Cub and a Champ and it was the best choice for cross-country flying. Not only was it faster, it also had a starter so I wouldn’t have to find someone to prop the airplane at every stop.
The trip was contained in south Arkansas and was from Camden to El Dorado, then to Hope (yes, that Hope), and then back to Camden. No long legs in other words.
I had flown these legs dual and, while good checkpoints were limited in that heavily-forested part of the country, there were enough. Following roads or railroads was not allowed.
I drew the lines on the chart and went through the business of correcting true for magnetic and deviation. Then I used the mostly inaccurate wind aloft forecast and drew wind triangles for all three legs to get an idea of any drift correction that might be required.
Excellent weather was a necessity and I listened to the scheduled broadcast (at 15 and 45 past every hour on an LF range) and verified that things were relatively calm and mostly clear.
Then I hopped in the 140 and flew away.
We had to get our logbook signed at each stop, I presume to prove we had been there. The person in El Dorado had an indecipherable signature after which he added “C&S.” That stood for Chicago and Southern, a DC-3 airline that flew in the area for a few years and was then merged into Delta. L. C. Martin signed me off in Hope and when I got back to Camden my instructor, Rudy Peace attested that I landed solo there.
The coordination that day was between me, a simple airplane, and a simple form of navigation that included my looking out the windows, a map, a compass and a clock.
My last cross country was on 07/15/2008 and was IFR from I69, home of Sporty’s, to Hagerstown, Maryland.
I looked at some weather using a computer terminal, computed in my mind that there was plenty of gas in the Cessna 400 for the trip, cranked up, loaded the flight plan that was stored in the G1000, took off, activated the autopilot and watched it fly to Hagerstown while the air traffic control system coordinated the movement of my flight with all the others in the area. Once near Hagerstown, I turned the autopilot off and landed. The takeoff and landing had been the only tests of my basic flying skill.
A lot more things had to be coordinated on that trip but they were pretty automated and by the time I flew that trip I had done it enough times that it was second nature. However, what was a simple trip could have turned complex if there had been weather issues or mechanical problems.
When I think about it, the thing that stands out most is that despite the huge technological changes and increases in complexity in those 57 years the flights were identical in outcome: I got where I was going. In both cases I put all the pieces together and solved the puzzle. There are just a lot more pieces to coordinate now than in the good old days.
Flying, for most folks using airplanes for transportation, has come to include a lot of relatively complex things that have to be done using memory, and while there are ever more safeguards there are also, for lack of better words, technological traps. The final element that has to be considered is that it is still an airplane and it has to be flown or operated with a complete understanding of what is possible and what is impossible. That means learning all there is to know about everything in and about the airplane, technical and otherwise.
When instrument navigation first started, it was based mainly on four-course low frequency radio ranges. We navigated based on what we heard, not on what we saw on the instrument panel. To stay on the beam, that is to follow one of the four legs, you listened for a steady sound. If it started turning into an “A,” a Morse dot dash, or an “N,” dash dot, you knew the airplane was moving off the beam and a heading correction was required. That was pretty crude and you probably have trouble visualizing it but it did work and it did not require much coordination.
Navigation evolved through the VOR/DME system, which is still there to use, that requires the nav instruments be set properly and the visual cues followed. That required eye time which had to be diverted from the flight instruments. It was still pretty simple though many pilots did have trouble making peace with radials. I never thought that figuring reciprocals would stump so many people.
GPS navigation added the requirement to properly program the equipment to fly the desired plan or procedure and in newer airplanes the use of the autopilot has to be coordinated with the navigational equipment. Where navigational equipment and autopilots used to be loosely wedded, they are now almost one. All this is why so much training is required on the use of this equipment. The airplane, it seems, has become almost secondary. It is this that has sparked the debate. Is the tail wagging the dog?
The most well-publicized failure of pilots to properly deal with high-tech equipment has been the Air France A330 that crashed into the Atlantic. The pitot tubes iced over, the automated systems lost their airspeed reference information, and, as the system was programmed to do, it shut the autopilot down and handed control of the airplane to the pilots who quite obviously didn’t know what to do with it.
Other examples have been the Turkish 737 at Amsterdam and the Asiana 777 at SFO. The Air Asia A320 that went into the Java Sea might join this list and you can bet there have been a lot of tech-related incidents that did not result in accidents.
In private aviation, accidents are not as well documented but I have studied (and written about) a lot of accidents that were connected to the pilot becoming discombobulated. These often involve a complex time in a flight when almost perfect coordination of the avionics system is required for a successful outcome. In some cases, the pilot freely admits that he is confused or having problems. In other cases, that is obvious from the outcome.
One particular type accident comes to mind. There are a relative lot of loss of control accidents that come soon after takeoff, especially in instrument meteorological conditions. In reading the reports you can almost feel control being lost as the pilot becomes confused by things happening that he did not expect to happen. This could be something as simple as activating an autopilot improperly or putting in an incorrect first waypoint.
Nothing will jangle a pilot’s brain faster than something unexpected right after takeoff and that is why it is so important to make sure all is properly coordinated before starting out.
Virtually all new airplanes, whether from a production line or out of a garage, have some form of glass cockpit. The few that don’t probably feature an iPad on the pilot’s lap. All this electronic finery is one thing that started the debate about high-tech gadgets ruining the purity of flight.
The purists just have to get over this. Advanced instrumentation and automation is here, it is popular, and it is going to stay. Folks like having this stuff. Where we used to entertain ourselves with a crossword, a deck of cards, a library book, or spending endless hours updating Jeppesen charts, it’s now computers and tablets and smart phones. Most pilots have come to enjoy the challenge of integrating electronics into flight operation.
Airplanes are not alone in this. New cars have a whole host of distractions on the instrument panel to help drivers keep from getting bored by looking outside at a plain old road.
I was able, in my 57 years of flying, to embrace all the new avionics and when I retired my airplane (a year before I retired myself) the panel sported the latest and greatest of everything, including ground prox and traffic, with one exception. In my personal airplanes (the ones I paid for) I never had anything other than a single-axis (roll) autopilot. I flew all the sophisticated autopilots and I never got back into my airplane and wished for that bit of finery. If I were to buy one more new airplane, I would probably have to have a special one built without a full autopilot.
I guess that keeps me from being a complete technonerd.
The latest debate in Air Facts came about from that post about the Cirrus parachute. For some reason, the purists don’t like airframe parachutes any more than they like automation.
There is a Caterpillar Club for people who have saved their butt by bailing out of an airplane. Last I looked it has 100,000 members, people who did that last necessary bit of coordination and decided it was time to hit the silk.
When I think about the Cirrus chute, I like to try to put it in context, too. The Cirrus and what is now the Cessna Corvalis TTx (nee Columbia 400) were developed at about the same time. There are a lot of similarities between the two airplanes and some differences. For example, the Cessna is more fun to fly but the Cirrus has better payload numbers. The huge difference, though, is that the Cirrus has a parachute and the Cessna does not.
Folks vote with their check books. The 2014 results: Cirrus 308, Cessna 22. That says it all. Properly used, the Cirrus parachute is just another piece of equipment to use as and if necessary. According to the record, Cirrus pilots want this and are doing an ever better job of coordinating the use of the chute when events unfold unfavorably.
I am going to relate two parachute tales with a personal connection. Both happened in this country, involving jet fighters.
In the first, over 40 years ago, I was IFR in my Cherokee Six, in clouds, eastbound near Fort Smith, Arkansas, when a controller called and gave me traffic. The he added that it was a jet fighter and that the pilot had ejected because of a landing gear problem. What was I supposed to do about that other than hunker down in the seat and try to be smaller?
I wrote a snarky item in my FLYING column questioning whether it was proper to risk other people’s lives by leaving an airplane to descend through many IFR altitudes, in clouds, to impact in an unknown location, just because the landing gear malfunctioned.
I got a nice letter from a public information officer setting me straight about my snarky comment. On this particular jet it was standard operating procedure to eject if the landing gear couldn’t be extended. The airplane was apparently not well suited to gear-up landings and the pilot was doing what he was trained to do.
Another event involved the late Bob Smythe who was chief test pilot at Grumman when the F-14 Tomcat was developed.
Bob and another pilot had flown a relatively brief first flight in the prototype and had then set out on a second flight on 12/30/1970. Not long into that second flight the pilot of the chase airplane reported that something smoke was trailing from the F-14.
It wasn’t smoke, it was hydraulic fluid. It was enough to cause them to head home and the closer they got, the more the loss of hydraulics rendered the airplane uncontrollable.
On short final, at about 100 feet, the nose pitched down. In what must have been the most perfectly coordinated ejections ever, the pilots punched out and in the video it looked like the chutes blossomed full just before they reached the ground. If you want to see this, Google “F-14 Tomcat first crash” and have a look.
When visiting with Bob Smythe at industry events after he retired, it was always enjoyable to listen to his tales, aviation and otherwise. He was in the disastrous 1979 Fastnet sailboat race where he skippered a Naval Academy boat with a group of midshipmen. The storm disabled many sailboats, resulted in 18 fatalities, and prompted the largest peacetime rescue mission to that point in time. To say that it was a harrowing experience for all the people involved is an understatement.
Bob was a special and quite cool guy. When we would part, his words were always “safe home.” The way he said it indicated that he had been in places and seen times where there was some doubt about that happening for him.
As we look at the changing pilot population and the challenges offered up as we balance technology and airplanes, it is obvious that our friends at the airlines are thinking about this as well. United Airlines management recently acknowledged that a changing pilot population can be a problem for them.
In an urgent United safety message to pilots, the following: “We are currently seeing a lot of movement in the pilot group, such as retirements, seat movements, and new hires, that – while welcome – introduces significant risk to the operation.” That is the same as in private aviation where the old guys are leaving through one door while new ones come in another door.
The United memo gave some examples of mistakes that had been made and emphasized that company policies and procedures must be followed. In other words, toe the line.
Most purists don’t like the part about policies and procedures because that takes the individuality out of flying. This is absolutely necessary in airline operations. There is just a lot that has to be coordinated with a high degree of precision. I think this is also required in the more complex forms of private flying, one of which is certainly single-pilot IFR.
One thing is certain, too. The argument will rage on but will slowly abate as the passing of time silences more and more old purists. About all that is left for us do is sit on the porch, rock the rocker, and hope these high-tech whippersnappers are able to answer all the questions and solve all the problems. We sure as hell never did.