When the Wright brothers managed to fly for 12 seconds in dec 1903, it was with a plane with only 12 horsepower and at a height of 3- 4 meters and all manual flying skills.

The level of automation today in many modern jets means that pilots rarely fly the aeroplane manually. The only manual manoeuvre that fixed wing pilots always have to perform is the takeoff. Within 5 minutes of getting airborne many pilots flying a commercial jet will have engaged the autopilot. Usually the autopilot stays engaged until less that 5 minutes before landing. It doesn’t matter if the flight is 2 hours long or 12 hours long, most pilots will not fly manually more than about 10 minutes. If the weather is poor, there are cases where the pilots can set up the aeroplane to land itself, which reduces the manual flying even further.

Speaking to our colleagues in the industry we get the feeling that flying manually has become a forgotten skill. But why has this happened and how can we fix it?

The pilot role on a modern aeroplane

The role of the pilot on a modern aeroplane is more like a system operator than someone that actually flies the aeroplane. Clever autopilot systems have been invented to assist the pilots and the likelihood of having to fly manually has decreased. However the pilot is still expected to be able to “move between various levels of automatics”. This means that if the automatics fail, the pilot must be ready and able to take control and fly manually.

Pilot training

The first way pilots learn to fly is by looking out of the window – “visual flight rules” also called VFR. At this stage it is all about basic manual flying skills, like setting a power, attitude and trimming.

The next stage is when the pilot has to learn “instrument flight rules” also called IFR. 10 years ago that would most likely mean looking at analogue and very basic instruments requiring basic flying skills. Learning to fly this way gave student pilots a lot of experience with flying manually on basic instruments. Now many flying schools have invested in aeroplanes with “glass cockpit” with a lot of modern systems. This is of course great as it prepares the student for flying with systems that are somewhat similar to those in modern aeroplanes. The downside is that student pilots today have less exposure to flying manually on basic flight instruments. Being able to go back to flying manually using basic pitch and power and possibly looking out could be required in case of having unreliable instrument indications where you cannot use the automatics.

Generation magenta line

Building experience flying turboprops and/ or light propeller aeroplanes with only basic instruments can give the pilot great manual flying skills. However for a variety of reasons flying turboprops and/ or light propeller aeroplanes is something only few pilot students will consider doing. Most pilot students enjoy the modern training aeroplanes and they dream about going straight from a flying school and to a commercial jet. In the US the rules prevent student pilots from making the move straight from flying school to an airline but in Europe this is fairly common. 

Magenta is the colour of some modern airplanes navigations system and when experienced pilots in the industry talk about “generation magenta line” it refers to pilots who will point at the navigations screen when asked where are we and where are we going. Rarely this type of pilot will look out of the window and crosscheck the system information. From a career perspective a quick way into flying a big commercial jet is great but the question is have these pilots gained the confidence to fly manually.

The visual approach

A visual approach is where the pilots fly the aeroplane manually and without assistance from Air Traffic Control. Sadly the opportunity to fly like this is not something all operators allow their pilots to do. Other times deciding not to do a visual approach can be down to lack of confidence or lack of planning or proper briefing. However a well executed visual approach can be a really efficient way of flying and a way for the pilots to maintain their manual flying skills.

The day you need your manual flying skills

The question is if the automatics fail, will some pilots have forgotten the vital skills to take control of the aeroplane and fly manually?

There are many examples of where sound manual flying skills have made the difference. For instance pilots gliding an aeroplane to a safe landing with no engine power. Even though it is something pilots train a lot in the beginning of their career, it is our guess that only a small percentage of commercial pilots regularly train for the all engine failure event in the simulator as the statistics of this ever happening is so unlikely.

The question is if the automatics fail, will some pilots have forgotten the vital skills to take control of the aeroplane and fly manually?

Change doesn’t happen overnight and the fancy systems are here to stay and help us pilots. The responsibility for a safe operation is in our view a shared responsibility between the operator and the pilot. The operator could allow for practice of manual flying in the simulator and once the confidence is restored manual flying can be increased flying on the line. Traffic and weather permitting, it could be a really good idea if pilots delayed the selection of the autopilot after takeoff or disconnect the autopilot earlier on the approach. Of course you should not operate feeling uncomfortable and the extra workload for both pilots will need to be considered. The overall goal with doing more manual flying would be to ensure pilots are comfortable and capable of flying manually “the day you need your manual flying skills“. Another reason to fly manually is that it will remind many of us why we became pilots. Flying manually can be both fun and safe.

Happy landings,

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