Royal Aeronautical Society Conference

May 8, 2012 at 8:26 am | Posted in Conferences | Leave a comment

Royal Aeronautical Society Conference
“The Aircraft Commander in the 21st Century”
(Source: Forwarded to the AAP Chairman by Gen Des Barker)

Command lessons from QF32

Airlines are now adapting their pilot training for aircraft captains in the light of recent aviation incidents involving highly automated airliners. Herewith a report of some of the key issues at the recent RAeS ‘The Aircraft Commander in the 21st Century’ conference:                 

What skills will the aircraft commander of the future need? (Lufthansa)

On 20-21 March the Royal Aeronautical Society held its first ‘The Aircraft Commander in the 21st Century’ conference. Organised by the RAeS Flight Operations Group, the conference sought to explore the changing role of the aircraft commander, particularly as civil airliners get ever more automated and complex.

This issue has recently been thrown into sharp focus, as incidents like Qantas QF32 and Air France AF447 have demonstrated differing responses from pilots to ever more complex aircraft.

In particular, the industry now is reassessing the training given to pilots. A major theme that emerged from the conference was that, in the past 20 years, pilots have been taught to ‘Follow the ECAM (Electronic Centralised Aircraft Monitor)’ – the computerised glass display that in Airbus (and Boeing as the EICAS Engine Indicating and Crew Alerting System) which shows critical engine and systems information. While this ECAM display makes life easy in many respects, following it blindly can lead to disaster. Previous training, said one speaker, relied on following the ECAM procedure step-by-step and pilots ‘never considered not doing the procedure’.

‘Use the force, Bruce’

Conference keynote speaker, Captain David Evans.

This issue of displays showing spurious information was highlighted graphically by the keynote speaker at the conference Captain David Evans who, as a Qantas A380 Training and Check Captain, was one of the five flightdeck pilots who successfully resolved the QF32 incident in November 2010 after the No2 Trent engine suffered an uncontained failure. With the ECAM ‘information overload’ deluging the crew with a barrage of error messages the experienced captains had to sort through and examine what these meant for the aircraft. In particular, the ECAM recommended that the crew shift the fuel balance from one wing to another, as an error message said ‘wings not balanced’ as the imbalance limit had been exceeded. However, the reason why the aircraft was becoming unbalanced was that there was a serious fuel leak caused by the exploding engine – a situation that was obvious to anyone looking out of the window and seeing the damaged left hand wing leaking fuel.

Yet, had the crew followed procedure to the letter instead of ‘using the force’ and disregarding the computer, they would have ended up pumping fuel into a leaking fuel tank with unknown consequences. At the very least this would have dramatically shortened the available time for the crew to think through and solve the problem.

Reliance and dependence that the computer always knows best can be dangerous. As Captain Evans notes: “What needs to be brought back into the skies is a ‘healthy skepticism’ about technology”. This view was echoed in a later presentation by Captain Scott Martin, an experimental test pilot at Gulfstream, who said the correct approach was to treat the cockpit automation ‘like a third pilot’ but to be prepared to question it if it was not making sense. In the final analysis, says Evans – ‘airmanship’ or ‘does this seem sensible?’ should trump any automated ECAM/EICAS messages.

Yet this natural suspicion of technology runs counter to the future generations of pilots who will be drawn from today’s ‘Generation Y and Z’ now at college or school. As Evans and others point out, these future captains born in the 1980s and 90s, while being able to grasp new technology and systems far quicker than their predecessors as well as absorb new information, will also, growing up with computers, iPads and smart phones, instinctively trust technology more.

The problem is not only one of younger pilots relying on technology too much but also of older pilots who may be losing touch with basic flying skills after years of relying on the autopilot. Though aircraft accidents remain rare – a noteworthy statistic from the conference showed that while the most common incident was a runway incursion/penetration – the most lethal in terms of lives lost is now loss of control in flight (LOC-I). The RAeS is in the forefront of work with both national and international regulators in addressing this problem and introducing loss of control awareness and recovery training.

So what else can be done? As well at efforts from regulators to address the issue, the conference also highlighted how individual airlines are addressing these commands issues themselves, with more realistic dynamic flight simulation scenarios, a back-to-basics approach and even mentoring and recurrent leadership training for older experienced captains.

Qantas adapting training

A380 ECAM displays on the actual QF32 flight. (via David Evans)

Lessons from QF32 are already making their way into Qantas’ training. At the conference Captain Evans explained how Qantas has started to introduce simulator scenarios based on real (but rare) scenarios to expose pilots to difficult command decisions.

One example chosen for a recent simulator LOFT (Line oriented flight training) exercise was the scenario of flying an A380 through a volcano ash cloud, which could simultaneously set off fire alarms on the flightdeck and elsewhere (thanks to smoke detectors) as well as flame out the engines. In the simulator exercise, pitot tubes would also be blocked by ash.

So what happened? With smoke warnings, engines flamed out, the airspeed went blank and the aircraft went into direct law with no autopilot. In particular, Evans noted, the ECAM logic prioritised the multiple (spurious) fire warnings over the engine flame out warning. However for the pilots, understanding that the ash had caused the smoke detectors to trip, the priority should be to restart the engines.

This simulator exercise clearly demonstrates to pilots how a highly automated aircraft could revert to a challenging manual flying task for the pilots – whilst simultaneously presenting them with information overload in the form of ECAM messages. However, doing this in the sim allows them to hone their command and decision making skills in a safe environment.

Lufthansa – recurrent command training for captains

Lufthansa are introducing a concept of ongoing command training for pilots. (Lufthansa).

Captain Benard Kruse, VP Crew Training Lufthansa, explained how the German flag carrier is implementing a form of ongoing training for its commanders. The idea is that pilots continue to develop leadership competencies over their whole career. Thus, after moving up into a command position, regular training in ‘soft skills’, such as decision making, situational awareness and CRM would continue along the career of a pilot – no matter how experienced he or she is. In small groups of their peers, captains will be able to dedicate time to discussing and learning from each other on command issues. In a sense, this lifelong learning might be thought of as ‘recurrent training’ for non-technical command skills, much as the ‘sim check’ provides a demonstration of a pilot’s continuing technical proficiency in operating an aircraft.

The training, called Captain’s Competence Enhancement (CCE) by Lufthansa would see tailored training for the individual captain over the course of their entire career. Lufthansa’s concept is that captains would attend this two-day classroom seminar course every four years. The first day would see a refresher using a diagnostic personal skills assessment tool (KOBE) while, on the second day, the captains would be able to pick a module such as ‘conflict’, ‘leadership’ or ‘stress’ to concentrate on.

Emirates goes back to basics:

Emirates are expanding fast, but are not satisfied with ‘minimum regulatory standards’.

Emirates Airlines is also adapting its approach to training in the light of recent events and is aiming at the highest standards, a point well made by Captain Martin Mahoney, SVP Flight Training at Emirates. The fast growing Gulf carrier is recruiting and training a huge amount of pilots – with some 624 new recruits training in the last financial year and 322 new command slots created in the same period. In Emirates a pilot can expect to spend 3-5 years in the right-hand seat before being put forward for a command slot.

Despite the airline only recruiting experienced pilots (First Officers with a minimum of 2,500 hours on aircraft over 30 tonnes) Emirates believes it needs to supplement the skills (especially human factors/soft skills) that candidates already have and refresh ones that may have gone stale.

To that end, the carrier has introduced a ‘basic aerodynamics’ course to refresh new entrants about the fundamentals of flight. Intriguingly, it has also reversed the trend for distance learning in favour of a return to ‘chalk and blackboard’ classroom learning. Why? Captain Mahoney contends that not only do pilots learn better by being in the presence of other pilots (as well as reinforcing the pilot culture – an important factor in multicultural airline like Emirates) – but also in that the instructor can watch the students’ eyes to see if the lessons have really understood. In addition, Emirates is also boosting its pilots’ skills with two manual handling simulator sessions every year for new commanders.

The airline has also introduced personality profiles for command upgrade candidates which are pilot’s eyes only (management does not see them) and which provides potential captains with individual, practical feedback on their leadership style as well as strengths and weaknesses.

However, Captain Mahoney had harsh words for ICAO’s Level 4 English standards – arguing that they are “not worth the paper they are written on”. In fact, he revealed that recent simulator tests of pilots from an unnamed defunct European charter carrier saw a 50% failure rate due to their English not being up to the standard needed by Emirates.

These training methods, especially classroom-based learning, are not cheap but are significant in the airline’s efforts to make sure its standards are the highest it can possibly achieve. In fact, Captain Mahoney noted during his presentation that Emirates had even banned the phrase ‘minimum regulatory standards’ from its in-company lexicon – arguing that it has no place in the airline’s culture.

Lessons from the operating theatre:

Professor Rhona Flin, from University of Aberdeen.

But it is not just airlines themselves that are adapting their training of current and potential commanders. There is also fresh input from outside the profession. Though the flightdeck is regarded as the gold standard for CRM (crew resource management), there may be lessons from the medical sector, especially from surgeons, who have a similar high-skilled job with large responsibilities and operate in teams.

Indeed, Professor Rhona Flin, an industrial psychology expert at the University of Aberdeen observed that that in order to access and fully exploit the ‘working memory’ (analytical, which experts now believe can hold up to four ‘chunks’ at the same time), it may be a case of the ‘slower the better’.

She noted that one surgeon had once been given advice “Don’t just do something, stand there”, indicating that slowing down rather than rushing into action may contribute to better decision making in medical operations. Though this may not be possible in some circumstances (Captain Sullenberger’s Hudson ditching and the BA 777 Heathrow landing short of the runway needing fast reactions), taking a step back from the flashing displays and warnings may actually improve critical thinking. Was it perhaps due to the extra critical thinking time brought to the QF32 incident by five experienced captains that resolved the problem successfully?

Conversely, when thinking time is limited –decision-making relies on long-term memory containing models of the world that we use, together with procedures and experience. These might be characterised by ‘the gut feeling’ or ‘we’ve always done it this way’. This may work in some instances but, in more novel or unexpected situations, may make pilots (or surgeons) make the wrong choices or continue down an incorrect path – even when it is obvious in hindsight that the decision was the wrong one.


Any discussion of the selection, training and roles of aircraft commanders is incomplete without the issue of seniority raising its head and that too was debated at the conference. Depending on your viewpoint and your stage in your flying career, seniority can either be viewed as older mediocre captains blocking career advancement for younger skilled pilots, or a necessary way in which the most experienced, highest hour pilots are given the most responsibility. Though some in the airline industry recognise the inconsistency of an industry aiming for the highest standards yet at the same time promoting the longest-served on a ‘it’s your turn’ basis, it is clear that completely dismantling this system would be a major undertaking.


That aircraft (and crews) are now safer than ever is not in doubt and the statistics bear this out. However, the aviation industry is always striving for perfection. Furthermore, there is a growing unease that the previous ways of learning (and command) need adapting to new and future generations of automated aircraft. Ex-military pilots with ‘nerves of steel’, experience of flying at the edges of the envelope yet unwilling to talk to juniors has given way to systems managers and team players. However, these new pilots, fluent in the latest crew management skills, may also be lacking some basic ‘stick and rudder’ skills and be too willing to trust the computer.

The highly automated aircraft also provides fresh challenges. The issue is not the technology itself but the gulf between normal and non-normal (i.e. emergency) operations. In normal operations a highly automated airliner is easier to fly than previous generations of aircraft but, in a non-normal situation, it is comparatively harder.

It is this gulf between normal and non-normal which is the issue and is so difficult to train for because of the extreme rarity of non-normal emergencies. As one speaker pointed out, in the old days he had flown as a third pilot observing the crew routine and watching them deal with multiple engine failures as part of his apprenticeship to command. Today, a trainee captain riding a jump seat as an observer would be extremely unlikely to witness an in-flight emergency to ‘learn’ from the more experienced crews.

In short, some forward-thinking airlines are already adapting their approach to training and command issues in making sure that the aircraft commander of the future has the correct mix of technical and non-technical skills and, more importantly, knows when to ignore, question or override the computers. As Captain David Evans observes, the commander must: “work out the solutions with the help of technology, not depend on technology for the solution”.


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