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Having a bone to pick with commercial aviation

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Having a bone to pick with commercial aviation

Old 1st Apr 2019, 04:38
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Having a bone to pick with commercial aviation

After more than 42 years in commercial aviation and slowly leaving the building, I allow myself having a bone to pick with it.

To start my case I present a sarcastic resume of the latest events:

The newest marvel presented by company X is so much more powerful, that they deemed the pilots no longer capable of safely operating it without the help of new automated protections. All this is self-certfied by delegation of the friendly regulator and through grandfather rights achieved by the model’s 50 year old predecessor. The pilots will still be highly trained onto the new model by distant on-line learning modules of 59 minutes, where the above engineering achievement does not even find mention, because going into its detail would overstretch the pilots capabilities. Furthermore hands-on training in simulators is deemed futile due to the claimed vast redundancies built in. If however the extremely remote situation should arise and such automation should malfunction and pose a threat to safety, then it is up to those pilots to instantly recognise the threat and switch off the malfunctioning system.

I guess anyone realises the perversion in this statement.

Now this gets to my bone to pick:

1. Manufacturers

Manufacturers are on one hand under constant pressure from competitors and accuse each other regularly of unfair subsidies. On the other hand they are often of essential local/national economical interest. The same applies for many airlines. This led to a very cosy collaboration between manufacturer, regulator and airline. Delegation for self-supervision of training (airlines) and certification (manufacturer) are quite common. The same applies to re-certification of enhanced models based on so called ‘grandfather rights’. Any concern criticising this cosiness or these procedures are dismissed referring to the stringent ‘safety first’ mantras and professionalism of all involved, but even more with the argument of finance, stating that the regular path would increase cost beyond feasibility (meaning the competition), by that ironically devaluating the former mantra!

2. Innovation

Innovation can be a blessing. Take TCAS or GPWS that really enhanced safety with almost no side effects. Other innovations were welcomed as well, but some went in the wrong direction or went a tad too far. This can be said of many other innovations on earth and is inherent of the progress learning curve. Some outfall might be socially acceptable i.e. in high end research or the military field with both its high risk character. It is however not acceptable when adapted into public normal life as in commercial aviation. The reason I bring this up is, that there is a high reluctance to correct any appearing design weakness. Mainly due to the cost of re-design and re-training of personnel, but just as much due to the high cost of re-certification, a little bit of engineers pride and let’s not forget the omnipresent fear of litigation. Manufacturers boast their product to distinguish it from the competition, so there is no incentive at all to lose face, money or market share. The only consequences are either a software patch or a bulletin to operators to take extra precaution and to do this and that by heart in case of a malfunction. The root of the glitch however will rarely be attacked. A classic example is the side-stick design by Airbus. A welcome import from military aviation, some accident analysis showed that a no-input-duplication design in a 2-man cockpit could be detrimental to situational awareness (AF447). The refusal to correct this was argued with that it would cost too much and add a penalising weight increase, although you can buy a 300 gram rumble-stick at any game store fulfilling this function for 29$. Boeing has its case with the speed-brake design on the 757(Cali) grandfathered to the 777. Their refusal to change is based on the fear of huge litigation processes. So in both cases the manufacturer just shoves the mis-design down the food-chain (and years) to the pilots who have to remember in very startled and tense moments what to do to counteract a design weakness that could have been altered.

3. Pilot training

Training pilots for airlines has changed considerably the last 60 years. It started with mainly ex Air Force trained guys that needed some CRM but certainly no upset training. They were joined by the guys and gals working their way and hours up postal/bush/taxi flying with underpowered single and twins, then via weak regional props up to the main carriers, having acquired a good amount of experience in difficult conditions to be converted to very capable airline captains. Today there are more and more MPL/ab initio pilots going through ever shorter crash courses from zero to hero onto big twin aisle airliners, especially where there is national pride to propel young locals into cockpits of prestige born carriers in certain regions. Not to mention the fake hours pilots weaselling their way in. Not one of the latter has ever recovered from a spin, flown an Immelmann or wrestled a choking 207 over a mountain range with howling downdrafts at night . A German saying goes what Little Johnny does not learn, Big John will never learn. That is where some latest accident reports point at. As a consequence we see the incorporation of manual handling and upset recovery simulator sessions at almost all serious airlines. It is however a futile fig leaf to cover up the blatant lack of basic skills of most new applicants that can hardly be trained at later stage. If taken seriously it would imply a much more comprehensive syllabus and not only in simulators. But again, that would be too expensive, so everyone works with the bandaid only and continues to pretend it’s a fixing surgery.

4. Automation

Automation is meant to help and alleviate pilots. A lot of it does well, just think of the autopilot. Unfortunately its development has shown a tendency to push the pilot into the monitoring role. A role that many studies show does not suit humans best and would be the typical better role for automation. My first airliner, the DC-9 had a wonderful annunciator called the bowtie. The were 4 big arrows on a display, pointing outwards at 30°/120°/210°/280°. They could light up red and green. When performing a CatII approach, once the system was armed, it showed 4 greens meaning both pilots could continue automated to landing or go around. If there was any malfunction, one, two or three arrows went red indicating with the green one left who could still land or go around. Easy! Now take todays CatIIIb approaches. Below minimum the FO has to monitor and check the FMA if the system goes into align, flare and retard mode. If not, he has to call no-align etc. This typical if = then ; if not = then other situation is a classic binary computer function. This should rather be executed by the system, as in the bowtie example. It should not be the pilots having to wait for 35ft, analyse by reading the FMA if the system performed ok or not and what to say if not. Leave either partner to his particular talent: Automation to monitoring and warning, pilots to executing accordingly.

5. Protections

A newer part of automation are the so called protections. They are basically welcome, but have partly gone the wrong way as well. The word protections contains the danger already. Who is protected from whom? It seems as the industry strives to protect the aircraft and its content from the pilot rather than protect it from unsafe flight. The pending MCAS disaster is the best example. Not being fully able to shut off a malfunctioning protection is a perversion of safety and protection. I have repeatedly demanded a “red button” that allows the pilot to cut off all protections/automation and give him full authority onto flight controls, be that cables, hydraulic or electric actuators, and the full range of the envelope. If an aircraft would no longer be able to be flown manually and stable that way at any stage, it would need to be re-designed.

What do I expect by publishing this my bone? Not much to be honest. But if someone would ask me anyway, here’s my answer:

From the regulators I would expect a more distant and more precise oversight, going back to what the legislator mandated them in the first place. Higher price should not hold up as an excuse for shortcuts and self regulation by the industry. It didn’t work in finance, it seems not to work in aviation. And let’s recite that if you think it’s too expensive, try accidents! I hope the FAA and Boeing will be taught a hefty lesson with the MACS drama. As for places where regulator, legislator and airline owner are basically the same body, having both main manufacturers in still quite democratic places, there should remain some leverage to counter these dictatorial complacencies. Just think overflight rights. I also wish that the complex ‘grandfather rights’ in certification would see some limits. A 50 year old design still fathering rights for a new model stretches it too far. The thrust level and shifted pane of the MAX with its tricky consequences should be a huge warning sign that it went too far. A new certification would never allow an inadequate patch like the MCAS to pass. The same tightening I would like to see in training syllabi. They need more depth and oversight from the regulating authorities.

From manufacturers I expect a more evidence based correction of some detected flaws of design. Price should not hold as an excuse, see above. They however need assistance from the politicians, the legislators. It is high time that they should establish a decree that if there are clear findings by approved safety boards that a change of a system would increase air safety considerably, it should be a) mandated to be incorporated and b) mandated that no litigation invoking such incorporation can hold up as admittance of guilt by the manufacturer or new evidence for an accident. This might sound harsh, but the gain in safety for millions of users could outweigh such a precedent. The manufacturer would pay a hefty price in re-designing anyway, but for users this money is better spent there than on tons of lawyers and courts.

From the airlines I do not expect much. They are businesses after all, run mainly by beancounters and marketing gurus, or rich entities who don’t care about profit, only prestige. Both hide behind the debased statement “we fulfil all requirements and regulations” and the even more thumbed down “we put safety first”. They could simply try to fulfil a fraction of what they pretend on their colourful commercial posters and videos, especially concerning training and real experience of their pilots.

From IATA I would wish they’d establish a mandatory global record of stick-time for all their members. Starting from 2-man cockpit commercial twins every hour has to be logged there with tail number etc. That would allow unbiased verification after incidents or contested assessments, to avoid the 1500 hours wonder-pilots who can’t even fly a visual circuit without FD and FMC. With the actual IT capabilities this should very doable, affordable and it would protect the entire industry.

From customers, what to expect? They all want the safest, most luxurious and at the same time the cheapest product. Naively they pretend that the regulator is certainly overseeing the industry very diligently and the pilots would obviously refuse flying if their training and working conditions would not absolutely meet the required standards. Keep on dreaming … and keep on buying RyanAir flights to Malaga for 19£. Such seat-mile cost not only mocks the slimmest environmental conscience and their math skills, but also leads the very own customer safety expectation ad absurdum.

From us pilots ….. what to expect! It is difficult to act when you are at the bottom of the food chain and when your career is set up like an individual sport. No one else really cares and your voice is not heard. Just look after yourself , your provident fund and try keeping your dignity. This will lead you for your best.

I know many will now gleefully dissect my arguments like sleazy Vegas lawyers. I don’t mind, they are certainly not scientifically underlaid, but I guess you all get the drift.

Safe flights, glofish.

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Old 1st Apr 2019, 04:53
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When I retire I won't give a flying f&%k what happens. Go play some golf
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Old 1st Apr 2019, 07:32
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glofish ..as a retired B747-8/400 commander I can fully support everything in your post.
I now fly my own aircraft built on solid old-fashioned, simple principles with wires/cables directly attached from control-wheel to each control surface. Ofcourse I have electronics like an old, well-functioning autopilot, but the point is, that if anything goes wrong I can disconnect the autopilot and fly as I want and as I am trained for, w/o any underlying system interfering.
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Old 1st Apr 2019, 10:51
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Well done Glofish!
That's a pretty good analysis of the situation we're all facing those days.
I completely agree with you and won't have tell it better.
Unfortunately, I'm afraid that's only the begining of what this industry is about to become...
Thanks for the time you spent writing this post and I hope that will change every single pilot's mind that will read you.
Safe flights...!!!

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Old 1st Apr 2019, 11:05
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Write a book about it. It’s cathartic.
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Old 1st Apr 2019, 11:22
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I know of other concerned aviation professionals who on retiring have written to their airline management explaining how things might be better run.
Doing so before retirement can be...err...disadvantageous.
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Old 1st Apr 2019, 11:23
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Originally Posted by YGBSM
When I retire I won't give a flying f&%k what happens. Go play some golf
Very responsible comment ! I am playing golf , you passengers can fly in unsafe aircraft. It wont spoil my game. ! Unbelievable!!!
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Old 1st Apr 2019, 12:05
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Exactly the same as all these trucks that are motoring along on cruise control and bang into stopped traffic at full speed.
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Old 1st Apr 2019, 12:15
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Originally Posted by gsky
Very responsible comment ! I am playing golf , you passengers can fly in unsafe aircraft. It wont spoil my game. ! Unbelievable!!!
Yep. It's called retirement. No more responsibility, no more accountability.

I'm looking forward to it.
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Old 1st Apr 2019, 12:48
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Good OP.

I don’t think manufacturers, passengers or airlines will heed any of your comments though. They are working towards single pilot airliners - though goodness only knows why. There seems to be this impression that pilots and their training are too expensive. Do we say the same about medical doctors? - where errors might fatally affect one patient at a time, as opposed to potentially several hundred in one go if pilots get it badly wrong?

One concern is (lack of sufficient) training. Student pilots are being churned out from flying school, (having flown, what, 140 hours on a SEP?), straight onto highly automated jet aircraft, without actually learning to fly in a busy commercial environment on small non-automated turbo props. Basic fundamental flying skills and scans are not learned and coded into ‘motor programs’ in the brain - hence the AF447 F/O holding full backstick and deep stalling. Any airliner you do that to will stall. Weather appreciation is not learned or experienced as it is when flying a turboprop with deicing boots and props at FL180 in all the icing and turbulence.

I frequently forget to ask for flight directors off when flying manually, because I am so used to looking through the FD to my basic pitch, V/S and thrust settings.

Another concern is lack of manual flying. I am a guilty as the next pilot - If it is dark, busy, bad weather, or I am tired, the AP goes in so that I can better monitor the flightpath (and PM!). The reason is I don’t want to screw up, but the consequence is that my raw flying skills go rusty. If companies mandated manual flight until FL100 or similar, (some do), and if pilots had to log three or more manually flown raw data or visual approaches to land every six months, (as we used to do for Autolands), we might be able to prevent some of the rust building up.

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Old 1st Apr 2019, 14:47
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Glofish, brilliant analysis. I also appreciate, as I am sure most professional pilots do, the time and effort into writing this post. Good job.
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Old 1st Apr 2019, 16:25
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Excellent post glo. Thank you. Your specific points are unfortunately systemic to 'advanced' design, not merely in aviation, and the trend is accelerating. Meanwhile aviation accidents are reliable clickbait for news writers with no aviation background. Regulatory capture is only one sweetheart of complexification.
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Old 1st Apr 2019, 16:37
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True, simplistically true, but founded on the hindsight of retirement and the previous 42 yrs.

Now what for the next 40 yrs, or even 4.

Unknown, unknowable, or just uncertain. Future risk is not probability & outcome; it is the number of uncertainties that the pilot will have to manage. Probability is an assumption that the future will be like the past, or the best guess. Outcome, unknowable, the fine division between death and a dent.

So perhaps we should reflect on the day job, how we have managed, and will continue to manage those uncertainties, and how we might reduce their number, providing this doesn’t introduce more uncertainty.

But that requires foresight.

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Old 1st Apr 2019, 17:54
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Glofish, you are to be commended for an excellent overview of the current state of flight safety in the aviation industry.
There is a lot of rubbish published on Pprune ( eg the silly remark about 'go and play golf'), no help whatsoever and rather childish.
Fortunately, it is worth coming to Pprune to read balanced and well thought out posts across a whole variety of issues.
And let us hope that some of these 'bean counters' do take the time once in a while to review these serious posts. Well done.
A retired Master Mariner
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Old 1st Apr 2019, 19:01
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Despair never far away.

First-class gold-plated essay, Glofish.

Pity it's hidden away here rather than in national media.

Maybe worthwhile hawking it around the responsible mainstream press and getting wider recognition?

Well done that man.

Best wishes for retirement from another 42 years poling grumpy old man who's glad to be out of it!🐶
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Old 1st Apr 2019, 20:55
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I thought Boeing would add an “Autothrottle Mode” EICAS message if in HOLD below 1000’. Or a buzzer if the TOGA switch is pushed when inhibited. Or an aural alert if a manual input causes an indirect mode change. Or...or...or....
I guess there are actuaries calculating the economics of human life value vs insurance vs litigation costs vs customer confidence.
Not long till my 42 years now
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Old 2nd Apr 2019, 12:32
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There's no doubt that flight data monitoring has improved safety.

However, most of us fail to get enough manual handling practice and I think the cause is flight data monitoring - we don't want to ring any bells by being a couple of knots fast or a dot low on the G/S etc, so we just leave the autopilot in. Certainly, my manual flying decreased massively, after FDM was introduced.
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Old 2nd Apr 2019, 12:48
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Originally Posted by nyt
We went from "minimize risk at all costs" (WTF are life jackets doing on planes nowadays? Airbus could synchronize sticks with the saved weight and save more lives that jackets ever will) to "manage risk" aka put money first. Still, it remains amazingly safer than anything else, but crashes create so much drama on TV (and indeed in some peoples' lives) that one accident per year will still be too much. I would probably sit in a 737MAX when it's allowed back in the air although not being perfectly stable in all conditions. Risk management

Lifejackets ? Cactus 1549 ?
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Old 2nd Apr 2019, 13:03
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'Meets the requirement

More and more, our society is getting by on "meets the requirement". For passengers, the requirement is getting from A to B safely. 'Got there alive.... met the requirement (oh, and look at how little I spent on the ticket!!!). Got there with a reserve of safety, comfort, on time, with back up options - probably exceeded the requirement (or at least what they were willing to pay). Now, if you asked the passenger if they expected the reserve of safety, of course they would say yes, but are they requiring it, and willing to pay for it?

Passengers are taxpayers, and as such, the regulator works for them. Passengers (and taxpayers in general) expect the regulator to act on their behalf, with its much more in depth understanding of aircraft, to require excess safety on their behalf. But, those same passengers are demanding to pay less tax, and lower airfares, so how much excess are they requiring (based upon what they're willing to pay for)?

I think that passengers sharply wised up in early March, within days, I had two family friends inquire of my thoughts of them flying in a Max 8. Passenger taxpayers are slowly learning to take some interest in their traveling safety. Media, and social media are having a beneficial effect in that learning process. The commerce of commercial aviation will be how the customer demands, and pays for - both the airline, and the regulator. When Boeing presents the Max 8 back for service, it'll have a hard look by the regulators, on behalf of their clients (the taxpayers). Some things were missed during a certification process at an earlier stage, the regulators will take more interest in safety (and covering their butts). This won't be the last time something is missed during certification, but the bar has been reset toward safety this time!

Pilots are also reminded to take more interest in understanding the systems of the aircraft. Yes, this case seems to be nearly a situation of concealing a system from the pilots, but still, pilots can ask more, ask for more training, and discuss amongst themselves to mentor more understanding, and perhaps assume less.

These two crashes have been a very sad wake up call. But, the public awareness should make it a little easier for an airline to charge the fair cost of a ticket to pay a properly trained crew, flying a safely designed and tested aircraft. And, the public is also seeing the value in paying their taxes, so the regulators can do their job properly, and perhaps not delegate so much of it to the staff of the aircraft manufacturer with little oversight.
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Old 6th Apr 2019, 16:54
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I agree I have recently observed 2 simulator sessions where the trainees clearly could not carry out the required manouvres but were signed off/written up as good/standard met. There seems tl be a general philosophy of 'modern aircraft are so reliable' basic piiloting skills are not required/irrelevent even though clearly the evidence states otherwise.

There is no respect for basc skills or experience. There is respect for the rote learning of trivial SOPs.

Manufacturers using people not experienced or current or never having flown the particular aircraft type including those with no airline experience at all, to teach entry level cadets is a farce.
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