Manual Flying Skills are typically thought of as pure core flying skills, where manoeuvres are flown solely by reference to raw data obtained from the heading, airspeed, attitude, altitude and vertical speed instruments, and without the use of technology such as auto-throttles, auto-pilot, flight director or any other flight management system. This might extend as far as requiring manual trim inputs and navigation using basic systems.
Pilot Handling Skills will include all the above manual flying skills, but may also relate to combinations of manual flying, speed and directional control together with combinations of automatic speed and direction control and guidance. Such combinations may occur through pilot preference, operational or procedural requirements, or when some automated systems are no longer functioning.
Whereas commercial airline pilots may once have been assessed wholly on their manual flying (aircraft handling) skills, nowadays pilot assessment is predominantly based on Systems and Crew Management, where management of the automated systems and maintenance of situational awareness replace many of the traditional flying skills.
Pilots require handling skills in a variety of situations including:
There are many arguments suggesting that commercial airline pilot handling (flying) skills have become eroded since the growth in popularity of fly-by-wire, glass-cockpit, fully automated, system-designed aircraft. One could add to this the routine nature of many flight operations, the growth in controlled airspace and widespread availability of Instrument Landing Systems (ILS). Pilots flying with commercial airlines will typically only fly manually for the first and last few minutes of each flight. If a pilot logs 900 hours in a single year, fewer than 5 hours may involve manual flying. Also, more and more pilots flying today have never experienced an Industry where flying manually was, or is, the norm, unlike older pilots where these skills became “hard-wired”. This can further dilute the overall levels of pilot handling skills within an airline.
The majority of fatal, and non-fatal accidents, continue to occur during landing and go-around phases of flight, and loss of control (in-flight) continues to be the predominant category of fatal accidents. Other areas of safety concern, for the Industry, include unstabilised approaches, runway excursions, heavy landings, tail-scrapes, level-busts, and engine and airframe exceedance of parameters. Each of these phases of flight and accident categories (above) would appear to involve pilot handling skills. Whilst it would be wrong to identify lack of manual flying skills as the cause to all of these, especially where loss of situational awareness, system malfunction, environmental factors and poor Crew Resource Management (CRM) were involved, it nonetheless does indicate that effectively applied pilot handling skills may help prevent accidents and reduce the consequences of errors.
Therefore, any arguments suggesting that commercial airline pilot handling (flying) skills have become eroded should be examined seriously.
The increased sophistication and use of automation has improved safety by reducing the workload on pilots, allowing them greater capacity and time to make forward judgements and decisions as well as “manage” better the aircraft systems and crew. Pilots learn to fly (i.e. their core manual flying skills) by correcting aircraft flight parameters based on their predictions to a projected forward goal – i.e. straight and level flight, or touchdown. However, with multiple levels of automation and flight modes it is very difficult for pilots to predict what the consequences of various failures will be in every given situation. Part of the necessary response to automation failures is to apply manual flying (handling) skills. Increased reliance on automation by flight crews has created a risk that crewmembers may no longer have the skills required to react appropriately to either failures in automation. Therefore, operators should ensure that training programmes include means and standards to be met regarding the interaction of human performance and limitations with changes to the normal operation of the automation.
Training and Practice
Basic flying training is predominantly focused on manual handling and becoming proficient in core flying skills. By the time a pilot completes professional training the emphasis is on system and crew management. During a pilot’s professional career as a commercial airline pilot he/she will be required to demonstrate regularly proficiency in certain handling skills, and under certain conditions, i.e. conducting a safe take-off with the loss of one engine, or, flying an ILS approach to go-around at decision height, also with one engine inoperative.
It is important for airlines to monitor the skill levels of pilot handling, perhaps through flight data monitoring programmes and line flying and simulator observations; then to use this feedback to adjust training syllabi. It is also important for airlines to integrate automation use and degradation into training to reflect operational conditions involving manual handling skills – automation not just a theoretical subject.
It may be necessary to provide pilots with additional flight simulator training specifically aimed at addressing pilot handling skills deficiencies.
Accidents & Incidents
Events in the SKYbrary database which include Manual Handling as a contributory factor:
On 2 January 2022, an Airbus A350-1000 floated during the landing flare at London Heathrow and when a go-around was commenced, a tail strike accompanied main landing gear runway contact. A subsequent further approach during which the Captain took over as handling pilot was completed uneventfully. The Investigation attributed the tailstrike to a full pitch up input made simultaneously with the selection of maximum thrust when very close to the runway surface, noting that although the initial touchdown had been just beyond the touchdown zone, 2,760 metres of runway remained ahead when the go around decision was made.
On 29 November 2017, a Boeing 737-900 on an ILS approach at Atlanta became unstable after the autothrottle and autopilot were both disconnected and was erroneously aligned with an occupied taxiway parallel to the intended landing runway. A go-around was not commenced until the aircraft was 50 feet above the ground after which it passed low over another aircraft on the taxiway. The Investigation found that the Captain had not called for a go around until well below the Decision Altitude and had then failed to promptly take control when the First Officer was slow to begin climbing the aircraft.
On 1 January 2020, an Airbus A350-900 made an unstabilised night ILS approach to Frankfurt in good visual conditions, descending prematurely and coming within 668 feet of terrain when 6nm from the intended landing runway before climbing to position for another approach. A complete loss of situational awareness was attributed to a combination of waypoint input errors, inappropriate autoflight management and communication and cooperation deficiencies amongst the operating and augmenting flight crew on the flight deck who were all type-rated holders of Thai-issued ATPLs. Neither of the observing pilots detected anything abnormal with the way the approach was being flown.
On 10 September 2017, the First Officer of a Gulfstream G550 making an offset non-precision approach to Paris Le Bourget failed to make a correct visual transition and after both crew were initially slow to recognise the error, an unsuccessful attempt at a low-level corrective realignment followed. This had not been completed when the auto throttle set the thrust to idle at 50 feet whilst a turn was being made over the runway ahead of the displaced threshold and one wing was in collision with runway edge lighting. The landing attempt was rejected and the Captain took over the go-around.
On 19 January 2021, a Boeing 737-400SF on an ILS approach to Exeter became unstabilised below 500 feet but despite multiple EGPWS ‘SINK RATE’ Alerts, a go-around was not initiated. The subsequent touchdown recorded 3.8g and caused such extensive damage that the aircraft was declared a hull loss. The Investigation found that the First Officer, who had more hours flying experience than the 15,000 hour Captain, had failed to adequately control the flight path below 500 feet and noted that whilst the Captain had commented on the excessive rate of descent, he had not called for a go around.
On 10 June 2018, a Boeing 737-800 departing Amsterdam with line training in progress and a safety pilot assisting only became airborne just before the runway end. The Investigation found that the wrong reduced thrust takeoff performance data had been used without any of the pilots noticing and without full thrust being selected as the end of the runway approached. The operator was found to have had several similar events, not all of which had been reported. The implied absence at the operator of a meaningful safety culture and its ineffective flight operations safety oversight process were also noted.
On 31 August 2019, all six occupants of an Airbus AS350 B3 being used for a sightseeing flight in northern Norway were killed after control was suddenly lost and the helicopter impacted the terrain below where the wreckage was immediately consumed by an intense fire. The Investigation found no airworthiness issues which could have led to the accident and concluded that the loss of control had probably been due to servo transparency, a known limitation of the helicopter type. However, it was concluded that it was the absence of a crash-resistant fuel system which had led to the fatalities.
On 23 January 2020, a Cessna S550 departed George to conduct a calibration flight under VFR with three persons on board and was about to begin a DME arc at 4,000 feet QNH when control was lost after entering IMC. Recovery from a significant descent which followed was not achieved before the aircraft hit mountainous terrain 1,800 feet below and was destroyed killing all occupants. The Investigation considered that the transition into IMC had probably occurred without preparation and that the inability of the crew to perform a prompt recovery reflected unfavourably on the conduct of the aircraft operator.
On 21 January 2019, a Piper PA46-310P en-route north northwest of Guernsey was reported missing and subsequently confirmed to have broken up in flight during an uncontrolled descent. The Investigation found that neither the pilot nor the aircraft involved were able to be used for commercial passenger flight operations but also found that although the direct cause of loss of control was unproven, it was most likely the consequence of carbon monoxide poisoning originating from an exhaust system leak. The safety implications arising from operation of private flights for commercial passenger transport purposes contrary to regulatory requirements were also highlighted.
On 14 March 2017, control of a Sikorsky S92A positioning in very poor visibility at 200 feet over the sea in accordance with an obstacle-marked FMS ground track in order to refuel at a coastally-located helipad was lost after it collided with late-sighted terrain ahead before crashing into the sea killing all on board. The Investigation attributed the accident to the lack of crew terrain awareness but found a context of inadequate safety management at the operator, the comprehensively ineffective regulatory oversight of the operation and confusion as to responsibility for State oversight of its contract with the operator.
On 2 February 2013, an ATR 72-500 bounced repeatedly when making a night landing at Rome Fiumicino which, in the presence of dual control inputs causing a pitch disconnect, resulted in complete detachment of the landing gear and a veer off before stopping. The accident was attributed to uncharacteristic mishandling by the type experienced Captain in the presence of ineffective crew resource management because of an extremely steep authority gradient resulting from a very significant difference in flight time on the aircraft type (9607 hours / 14 hours). The Investigation attributed an unacceptable delay in the rescue services’ response to managerial incompetence.
On 30 August 2018, a Boeing 747-400F making a crosswind landing at Hong Kong which was well within limits veered and rolled abnormally immediately after touchdown and runway impact damaged the two right side engines. The Investigation found that the flight was an experienced Captain’s line check handling sector and concluded that a succession of inappropriate control inputs made at and immediately after touchdown which caused the damage may have been a consequence of the Check Captain’s indication just before touchdown that he was expecting a landing using an alternative technique to the one he was familiar with.
On 7 August 2020, a Boeing 737-800 making its second attempt to land at Calicut off a night ILS approach with a significant tailwind component became unstabilised and touched down approximately half way down the 2,700 metre-long wet table top runway and departed the end of it at 85 knots before continuing through the RESA and a fence and then dropping sharply onto a road. This caused the fuselage to separate into three pieces with 97 of the 190 occupants including both pilots being fatally or seriously injured and 34 others sustaining minor injuries. Significant fuel spillage occurred but there was no fire.
On 28 January 2019, an Airbus A320 became unstabilised below 1000 feet when continuation of an ILS approach at Muscat with insufficient thrust resulted in increasing pitch which eventually triggered an automatic thrust intervention which facilitated completion of a normal landing. The Investigation found that having temporarily taken control from the First Officer due to failure to follow radar vectors to the ILS, the Captain had then handed control back with the First Officer unaware that the autothrust had been disconnected. The context for this was identified as a comprehensive failure to follow multiple operational procedures and practice meaningful CRM.
On 4 February 2020, an Airbus A350-900 initiated a go around from its destination approach at 1,400 feet aal following a predictive windshear alert unsupported by the prevailing environmental conditions but the First Officer mishandled it and the stop altitude was first exceeded and then flown though again in a descent before control as instructed was finally regained four minutes later. Conflict with another aircraft occurred during this period. The Investigation concluded the underlying cause of the upset was a lack of awareness of autopilot status by the First Officer followed by a significant delay before the Captain took over control.
- ^ a b Flight Safety Foundation Increased Reliance on Automation May Weaken Pilots’ Skills for Managing System Failures.
- ^ Boeing Statistical Summary of Commercial Jet Airplane Accidents 1959 – 2012
- ^ EASA Annual Safety Review 2012
- ^ Airbus Flight Operations Briefing Note: Preventing Tailstrike at Landing.
- ^ Airbus Flight Operations briefing Note: Preventing Tailstrike at Takeoff.
- ^ A332, en-route, Atlantic Ocean, 2009
- ^ EASA Automation Policy: Bridging Design and Training Principles. Version of 14 January 2013.