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Alaska bucks cockpit automation trend; 'hands-on' flying still the norm

Colleen Mondor
Jeffrey Schäfer photo

The Economist posted a column recently that explored the trend toward increased cockpit automation, especially for the airlines. The article highlights the vast differences between flying large commercial airliners into major airports and the type of flying performed in Alaska, where off-airport landings on gravel bars or into remote airstrips with little available instrument support are often the norm.

While automation has come with several benefits including reducing crew numbers, fuel savings and maintenance assistance, the largely-unrecognized price has been high. Here’s a bit of the magazine’s more troubling analysis:

The problem today is that aircrew may log thousands of hours on the flight decks of modern airliners, but their actual hands-on flying experience may amount to mere minutes per flight. When things get frantic -- whether through a mistaken input or a sudden runway change by air-traffic control during descent -- aircrew can be so preoccupied punching fresh instructions into the flight-management computer that they may fail to notice their airspeed and altitude are falling precipitously.

In Alaska, cockpit automation is at a minimum even for carriers flying what are considered “large” aircraft in the state (Era and ACE for example). With the exception of the major airlines, air taxis and commuters in the state operate equipment that still relies heavily upon basic pilot skills and decision-making through all phases of flight. This is particularly true in rural Alaska and brings up an interesting difference between Alaska pilots and those who train and work Outside. While the aircraft might be smaller here, the pilots are actually much more engaged in flying them than their Lower 48 counterparts. Consider the recent UPS and Asiana crashes as The Economist does:

America’s two recent fatal air crashes -- the Asiana Boeing 777 passenger jet on final approach into San Francisco international airport on July 6th and the United Parcel Service Airbus A300 freighter coming into land at Birmingham airport in Alabama on August 14th -- are cases in point. Though investigations have barely begun, both situations point to distractions the pilots faced while trying to take control of the aircraft. In both instances, the pilots seem to have been unaware, until the last few minutes, of their proximity to the ground and of how slowly their planes were flying. Both finished up crashing short of the runway.

In both instances, federal investigators have found little evidence of equipment failure before the crash. They are now focusing more on how the pilots were trained. Babbage was recently shown a training report by a now-retired “standards captain” at United Airways, who had spent five years in Seoul instructing Asiana and Korean Air Lines crew. The account is not for squeamish passengers. The instructor describes how, when checking out even experienced crew, asking them to make a visual approach (ie, using basic head-up flying skills) for a landing “would strike fear into their hearts” -- so dependent had they become on the head-down operation of their automated equipment.

Interestingly, the July Soldotna accident involving Rediske Air did not even register as “recent” for The Economist, despite the fact that it took place one day after the Asiana crash and had a greater loss of life, killing 10 people. In likelihood, it is being overlooked here because it took place in Alaska and is assumed to be thus somewhat unavoidable. There has been no suggestion of influence from cockpit automation in that crash, nor will there be in the final NTSB report.

In Alaska, such lack of hands-on skill is unthinkable in the cockpit, if not simply flat-out impossible. While pilot error continues to be a problem here, especially in general aviation activity, situational awareness is a requirement for the shortest and most basic of flights. Visual approaches for landing are common and often necessary in the Bush and actively practiced even at the state’s major airfields. A slavish devotion to instrumentation is something that Alaska flying has never required and as equipment and navigational aids are upgraded, the cautionary tale presented by the Asiana crash in particular is one that all pilots should take to heart.

Colleen Mondor can be contacted at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com