Letter From Aviation History – January 2012

‘Fly the Airplane’

Anyone who’s ever taken flight training is familiar with that all-important command. It’s the answer to most student-pilot questions beginning: “What do I do if…”

As Dick Hallion recounts in “Solving the Problem of ‘Fog Flying,’" “flying the airplane”—particularly in bad weather—wasn’t always as easy as it is today. Before the development of an accurate altimeter, attitude indicator and directional gyrocompass, pilots had to rely on their senses and seat-of-the-pants skills if they encountered zero-visibility conditions—sometimes with fatal consequences. But thanks to Guggenheim Foundation funding, innovative engineers like the Sperrys and Jimmy Doolittle’s piloting skill, the basic instruments all pilots use today were in place by 1930.

Of course, Doolittle would be amazed to see the glass cockpits of modern fly-by-wire airliners, which nevertheless still feature those same instruments in a more refined form. The first practical passenger jet to feature fly-by-wire technology, the now-ubiquitous Airbus A320, is one of our choices for the 15 most influential aircraft ever produced (see Stephan Wilkinson’s “Game Changers”). That technology has revolutionized air travel and improved airline safety, but some say at a price.

Several recent high-profile airline accidents have raised questions about over-reliance on automated systems and the effect that has on basic piloting skills. In perhaps the most tragic example, the loss of Air France Flight 447 over the Atlantic on June 1, 2009, false airspeed readings, likely due to ice-clogged pitot tubes, evidently created confusion in the cockpit and led one of the copilots (who had control of the airplane at the time) to increase thrust and send the A330 into a climb to maximum altitude, despite repeated stall warnings. Although the accident is still under investigation, preliminary black-box data indicate the Airbus then stalled and plunged into the ocean, killing all 228 passengers and crew aboard.

Only time will tell if the copilot’s actions in fact caused the accident, but one of the first things beginner student-pilots learn is that you counteract an impending stall by lowering, not raising, the airplane’s nose and increasing power. Is it possible the Air France copilot, faced with conflicting instrument readings, neglected to follow this most basic flying principle?

Accidents such as this have led to calls for a reexamination of airline pilot training and a reappraisal of the role of automation in fly-by-wire aircraft. Some argue that an over-reliance on automation has eroded pilot skills, and that more emphasis during all training phases should be placed on manual flying techniques such as stall recovery.

All of which might cause a casual pilot to hearken back to an earlier, simpler time of stick-and-rudder flight. For a nostalgic look at flight instruction, see “Aero Poster” in this issue. It includes the most important of all flight training commands: Release controls to instructor!

One Response

  1. John Roller

    Computers can do only so much, a pilot sits for hours, and is surprised when something happens and he is at a loss as to understand what it is. Is he to take control, or is the computer in control ?. He is placed at a disadvantage because everything is ok & bam, he is in control. We all hope he knows what to due, but all systems are very complex, and we hope he will be a hero, and get the aircraft on the ground in one whole unit. Thank God for all the pilots that know when they are in control. We are building aircraft that can be programed to take-off & land, using a computer. I hope they do not fly over my home.


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