Stick and Rudder Skills Still Required

Airbus Shifts Pilot Training Focus to Emphasise Manual Flying

Change Is a Marked Shift From Traditional Principles That Relied on Automated Systems



Airbus Group is significantly revising its pilot training policies to focus more attention than ever before on manual flying skills.

Discussed at an international safety conference here on Wednesday, the change marks a marked shift from traditional Airbus principles that for decades relied heavily on automated aircraft systems and basically taught pilots to use them to fly out of trouble in nearly all circumstances.  But now, the European plane maker is emphasising the importance of pilots practicing hand flying, and urging that they do so as early as possible when beginning to learn how to handle a new aircraft.

William Tauzin, director of international regulatory affairs for Airbus, told the conference those principles are an essential part of the training program under development for the A350 widebody jet, which is slated to begin service with lead customer Qatar Airways around the end of the year.  In proposing the training sequence for the A350, Mr. Tauzin said "we decided to put manual flying much earlier in the curriculum," before pilots are taught to perform normal procedures using automation. The program still must be approved by regulators on both sides of the Atlantic.

In an interview after his presentation, Mr. Tauzin said pilots will experience manual flying in the simulator after only a brief introduction to the A350.  In the past, they would have spent more than a dozen sessions learning about the plane's various automated systems, and then started flying simulator sessions with the automation turned on.  The goal is to first "just have them feel the plane, and how it behaves without" turning on automation or presenting any complicated system failures or emergencies, according to Mr. Tauzin.  Experts say it is a way to make pilots feel more comfortable and confident about their ability to revert to manual flying in an emergency.

Eventually, Airbus seeks to expand the revamped training approach to other models.  "There is no reason why we wouldn't apply it to the rest of the fleet," Mr. Tauzin said.  The new focus is the strongest sign yet of industry wide concern about the hazards of excessive reliance on automated cockpits, and worries about pilots who may be reluctant to take over manual control when necessary.

The result could be to accelerate the movement of airlines toward training programs highlighting manual flight maneuvers.  The A350 training changes are prompted by "the growing realization that pilots are losing their manual skills, and it's part of the industry's risk-management focus," according to Joachim Wirths, head of operations for Qatar's aviation regulator.  Increasingly sophisticated automation has played a big part in making flying safer than ever in the U.S. and globally, but more recently regulators, pilot unions and outside safety experts have highlighted potential downsides.  A comprehensive study prepared for the FAA and released last November found that some pilots "lack sufficient or in-depth knowledge and skills" to properly control their plane's trajectory.  The study found that is partly because "current training methods, training devices and the time allotted for training" may be inadequate to fully master advanced automated systems.  Among the accidents and certain categories of incidents examined in that report, roughly two-thirds of the pilots either had difficulty manually flying planes or made mistakes using flight computers.

Airbus began making limited adjustments to its training philosophy in the wake of the 2009 crash of an Air France A330 in the Atlantic.  The crew failed to recognize the plane was in a stall and was confused by cockpit instruments.  Initial changes Airbus introduced after that crash started training pilots how to avoid and recover from such high-altitude stalls.  But the training program being developed for the A350 goes substantially further in explicitly emphasizing hand flying at various altitudes and across a wide range of maneuvers.  Some airlines already are far down that path. John Tovani, managing director of flight training for Delta Air Lines Inc., told the conference that pilots "are exploring this manual flight stuff in the simulator more and more," when instructors deliberately turn off computerized systems.  "There are times when you have to take over manually," according to Mr. Tovani, because even the most sophisticated automated systems can get planes into situations and "places from where the pilots are going to have to fly out."