Sunday, June 21, 2009

Flight Training: Skill, Drill, and a Captain's Judgment

[Photo: Capt. G. Bruce Hedlund]

G. Bruce Hedlund, a veteran captain for a major airline, writes a personal blog called "It's Not Just You ..." His blog has the same title as a book Bruce wrote, and that book has one of the best opening lines since "It was the best of times ..."

Bruce's book-opener: "It occurs to me that, more and more, I come across instances in my day-to-day life that just do not make any fucking sense."

Like almost every pilot I know, Bruce is a character, an iconoclast and a bear when it comes to flight safety -- yours and (as pilots will always point out), theirs too. And recently, Bruce has been on a personal campaign about what would seem to outsiders to be a fairly small issue of training:

On certain aircraft (I won't name the model because that would make it easier to identify the airline, and pilots who go public on their own are not allowed by employment agreement to name the airlines they work for), the cockpit instrumentation layout has been redesigned and modernized. This redesign is being slowly rolled out through that fleet.

No big deal, really. A commercial airline pilot is always rigorously trained and re-trained, and in this case, pilots who fly this particular model of big airliner -- Bruce among them -- were given a short training session, essentially a video presentation and a subsequent quiz, to familiarize them with this new and improved cockpit instrument panel design that they eventually would be flying

Bruce watched the video and passed the quiz, which was duly noted in his training record, he said, as qualifying him on the new bells and whistles. However, he was glad to be informed that before actually flying a plane with the modernized cockpit configurations, he would have an opportunity to get real-time familiarization with the layout the next time he had to report for hands-on re-training in a flight simulator (twice a year, pilots get re-trained and tested under rigorous conditions in high-tech flight simulators.)

Flying a highly sophisticated simulator is just like flying a plane (except nobody can get hurt if somebody screws up). Typically, in re-training on a simulator, instructors re-evaluate a pilot's basic skills but also throw every contingency possible at the pilot -- instant emergencies of every kind, from stalls to bird strikes. Even though he was now familiar with the display and officially listed as being qualified to go, Bruce was determined not to fly a real plane with the new instrument panel and gauges until he had made a good dry-run in the simulator and felt comfortable with the changes.

Call it an excess of pilot caution, if you will. On the one hand, pilots are men and women with psychological profiles that begin with the words, "We can make it work." But pilots also have a bedrock contract with themselves and with others in their airplanes and in the skies. If the captain of an airliner is not comfortable with conditions he or she encounters on entering the cockpit and preparing the aircraft for flight, that captain has the absolute right to decline to fly said aircraft.

This looks good on paper, of course. In reality, there is pressure not to rock the boat (or the plane). You've been officially certified to take 'er up? Well then, take 'er up! It's all officially certified! Stop yer complaining! (Pilots famously complain about everything).

Only a relatively small number of his airlines' aircraft of that model have the new configurations in the cockpit, as the roll-out continues. But as I said, Bruce walked into one -- and walked out again.

His objections sound fairly basic to me. He told me, "The new display changes the way basic flight information (airspeed, altimeter, etc.) is presented and, hence, how you locate the information and then interpret it. Wouldn't you like to think that I could immediately tell you my altitude and airspeed? And wouldn't you like to think that I could set my appropriate airspeed and altitude 'bugs' correctly?" (By that, he meant, instantly and virtually by instinct, not through fumbling around for a few extra seconds with unfamiliar gauges).

To his surprise, he came to work one day recently for a cross-country flight and stepped into the cockpit of an airliner with the new instrument-panel set-up. That was not supposed to happen before he'd had a go at the simulator.

So he made the proper notification to his superiors and walked off the plane. Another pilot was found to sit in the left seat.

Anyway, there is something of a sub-rosa brouhaha going on over this, and to me it's illustrative of the pressures both airlines and flight crews face in this environment where costs for everything are being cut and keeping the schedule moving are crucial.

"No brouhaha for me," Bruce says flatly. "I ain't going to fly it till I see it in the simulator or on the line with a check airman. That may cause some angst in the training department, but not in my world."

His world, of course, is that person up front flying the airplane.

As a passenger, as someone who has implicit faith in the pilot flying your plane, "That's how you want me to feel, right?" he said.

Right. In fact, damned straight.

Here's a link to Bruce's full blog. And here are some excerpts from his description of the situation:


"...I am currently embroiled in a debate over “qualification” with my employer (a major US legacy airline). The airline has elected to modify the instrumentation of the aircraft I fly from old, “steam driven”, round gauges to a state of the art electronic display.

This new display provides me all of my basic flight information: airspeed, altimetry, rate of climb/descent, and the like. In my 24 years at this airline, I have never flown a similarly equipped aircraft. Nevertheless, last November, in my scheduled recurrent training session, I watched a short video on this new equipment and took a short quiz. At the conclusion of this quiz, the instructor told the entire class that we were now “qualified” to fly a jet with this new display. I took exception to this and immediately contacted the appropriate powers-that-be. "Don’t worry," they said. "You’ll be down for a simulator before you’ll ever see it on the line."

Unfortunately, that promise rang hollow. I have yet to return for my next recurrent training session and was presented with the new display just several weeks ago. Knowing full well the possible ramifications, I turned and walked off the aircraft. I advised the proper folks that I did not feel qualified to fly with such a novel and untried [cockpit display] presentation without first seeing it in a simulated environment. "Well, you’re qualified," they said. Yes, by virtue of a check mark in a box I was, indeed, technically qualified. On a more pragmatic scale, though, I was anything but fully prepared to conduct a safe and uneventful flight.

We each must hold ourselves accountable when operating under the "qualifications" of any permit, license, or approving authority. Drunk driving or any other careless behavior predicated upon the theory of “it’ll be alright” is a dereliction of the responsibility accompanying the qualification. While my airline (and the FAA) consider me qualified to command an aircraft with a display format I have yet to actually touch, activate, and (yes) make a mistake, I beg to differ. The unwritten contract I have with my crew and my passengers expecting only the best from me holds far more import."


No comments: