Saturday, June 23, 2012

Pilot flight proficiency - Each pilot is individually responsible to maintain his hand flying skills. Period!

Airbus A-330 - Flight 447 Rio to Paris
Fatalities - 216 passengers, 12 crew
June 1, 2009

The crash of Air France Flight 447 on June 1, 2009 as well as the Colgan Air Flight 3407 Buffalo, New York crash  on February 12, 2009 has caused the subject of pilot  flight proficiency to be discussed with increasing frequency in the media. This has caused me to do some thinking about it and I have concluded that each pilot has the primary role in determining his level of proficiency in hand flying his aircraft.

Prior to each flight, the pilot should pose this question to himself and decide whether he is proficient to take on the tasks associated with the flight. If he decides his proficiency has suffered to the point where he is not proficient to take on the flight, he should remove himself from the flight.  He should request the necessary training to reestablish his hand flying proficiency.

How do you insure your hand flying proficiency is maintained? Only you know if you are proficient or not...  

There are already established regulations to make sure the pilot is proficient.  The regulations that come to mind are the minimum required instrument approaches to be accomplished in a six month period as well as the one that requires pilots to have a minimum number of landings before he can carry passengers. Both requirements are found in the Code of Federal Air Regulations, Part 61 CERTIFICATION: PILOTS, FLIGHT INSTRUCTORS, AND GROUND INSTRUCTORS, Section 61.57.

I personally ran into the question of my hand flying proficiency in my last two years of my career at Trans World Airlines.  I was very senior and able to hold a flight pairing that only flew nonstop to Tel Aviv, Israel from New York.  The schedule was only flown once per week.  This meant I only flew one leg per week or 4 times per month.  As a result, in order to maintain my hand flying proficiency I maximized the amount of time I actually hand flew the Boeing 747-100.

I would hand fly the aircraft for the takeoff and climb to cruise altitude and hand fly the aircraft at the cruise altitude for a period of time that might amount to a time of about 45 minutes to as long as an hour before reengaging the autopilot. When I reached the point when it was time to initiate my descent, I would disengage the autopilot and hand fly the descent all the way to the landing.

This enhanced my hand flying proficiency to such a degree that I was always able to answer the question as to my proficiency, with "Yes, I am proficient."

Reduced Vertical Separation Minima

In 1997, as the result of the implementation of Reduced Vertical Separation Minima, I encountered a conflict in my attempts to maintain this proficiency. As you may know, in order to operate under the provisions of the Reduced Vertical Separation Minima you should have the autopilot altitude hold engaged while in Reduced Vertical Separation Minima Airspace.  This includes the initial level off maneuver at cruise altitudes.

There is a provision that will permit me to disengage the autopilot if the aircraft is out of trim due to fuel burn off or changes in indicated airspeed or power changes.

 It is permissible to disengage the autopilot and retrim the aircraft manually and then reengage the autopilot when the trimming process is completed. I took some liberties with this provision in order to extend the time I was gaining proficiency in my hand flying skills.

The increasing emphasis on use of the automated capabilities of the aircraft computerized flight management systems is contributing to the lack of proficiency. In other words, there is in unintended consequence of following the fully automated operational practice. On some aircraft today, the standard operational procedures requires the pilot to engage the autopilot at 400 feet on takeoff and continue use of the autopilot all the way through the landing at the destination. Total time of hand flying under that procedure can be less than one and a half minutes.

How can a pilot using the autopilot in this manner  retain his hand flying skills?  It is impossible!
Please recall that a pilot in command is the final authority and responsible for the operation of his flight.  The Code of Federal Air Regulations  Section 91.3 states this very, very clearly.  He is authorized and able to take whatever action he determines operationally. See:

Title 14: Aeronautics and Space
Subpart A—General 

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§ 91.3   Responsibility and authority of the pilot in command.
(a) The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.
(b) In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.
(c) Each pilot in command who deviates from a rule under paragraph (b) of this section shall, upon the request of the Administrator, send a written report of that deviation to the Administrator.

I believe many pilots have misinterpreted the above words to cause them to believe it only applies to emergency situations.  The words do not say that to me. What do you think they say about the pilot in command's authority? Does it only apply only during an emergency?

By the way,
Acronyms Suck!!!
Thanks for taking the time to read this post and I would appreciate  your comments. Please note no acronyms were used in this post.  This was deliberate on my part.  I feel acronyms are not of value when attempting to communicate and especially in the learning process.  I would appreciate any comments from you concerning my effort to eliminate acronyms. Do you think acronyms should be eliminated?  If so, why? Or why not?

Knots are for boats!
And while I have your attention, I have been bothered by the change from miles per hour to knots for speed values for aircraft for more than 35 years.   Lets bring back miles per hour for aircraft.  For example, since most people reference speed using miles per hour, advertising a speed in knots for new aircraft is penalizing their perceived capability.

527 knots does not sound as impressive as 605 miles per hour.


  1. You wrote: "527 knots does not sound as impressive as 605 miles per hour." I suggest the following:
    "527 knots does not sound as critically important as 527 miles per hour." Do not mix the measurements, or change the numerical designation of speed. By doing so, you defeat the impact of your statement.


  2. Dick...I was wondering as I read your post whether you are solely interested in reaching out to professional pilots or the lay public as well. If you want clarity I suggest, when adding graphics such as the altimeter above, you indicate why and what it is displaying in the context of what you have written. I doubt a layman would recognize why the altimeter is present.