“Don’t forget to fly the airplane!”
How many times have you heard a CFI say that?
It sounds like such a simple instruction, yet when faced with a cockpit full of state-of-the-art avionics, a pilot sometimes forgets this important task. Instead, he or she is absorbed in pushing buttons and twisting knobs to program the EFIS, G1000 or GPS.
While that is happening, the aircraft is going off heading, possibly entering into an unusual attitude, where stick and rudder skills, not programmer ability, will save the day.
“The pilot’s ability to stick and rudder fly begins with the flight instructor,” says Doug Stewart, a Master CFI from Egremont, Mass. Stewart, the 2004 National CFI of the Year and a Designated Examiner, owns DSFI Inc., a company that provides instrument instruction. Many of his clients own high-end Technologically Advanced Aircraft (TAA).
“They have to do hand flying first,” he says. “Even if they are in IFR and reading gauges they need to be able to fly the airplane. Until that foundation is built, we don’t move on to automation.”
According to Stewart, some of the pilots he sees in his guises both as CFI and Designated Examiner fixate on the glass instead of looking out the window.
“You will ask them to do a steep turn and their eyes will be inside on the glass,” he says. “They even watch the glass for traffic information, although the aircraft out there could be a Piper Cub without a transponder and they won’t see it on the glass.”
Max Trescott, a Master Ground Instructor and Master CFI from the San Francisco Bay Area, agrees.
“I try to remind pilots at least to look outside during the commercials,” he says. “I’m kidding, of course, but people seem to watch the screens with the same intensity that, as small children, they watched ‘Sesame Street.’ They get better with time, but the first few hours their heads are inside the cockpit too much.”
The problem with pilots who don’t look out the window enough comes from CFIs who don’t look out the window enough, Stewart grumbles.
“They are being trained by CFIs who have learned on glass and, as a result, they don’t look out the window,” he says.
Stewart suggests that if major manufacturers such as Cirrus, Diamond and Cessna put more emphasis on the importance of basic stick and rudder skills, it might help pilots develop those skills.
“It appears to me that this is not the case right now, as the emphasis of the training given to purchasers of their new aircraft is primarily on the operation of the glass,” he said. “When manufacturers such as Cirrus encourage pilots to turn on the autopilot upon reaching 400 feet AGL and leaving everything coupled up until the runway is in sight on final, it is only natural that pilots will neglect their stick and rudder skills. Neglect leads to a very rapid atrophy of those very same skills.”
Not all that long ago, the FAA changed the Practical Test Standards to read that if a GPS or autopilot were installed, the examiner was to test those skills, he notes.
“This was because many of the ‘old time’ examiners were reluctant to allow a pilot to use that equipment on a check ride,” he says. “I think that the FAA should make stick and rudder skills a special emphasis area for all applicants who show up for a check ride in a TAA. I know that, whenever I am conducting a practical test with an applicant in a TAA, I will not only ensure that they have a very thorough understanding of the automation management of their aircraft, but that their skills in hand flying the airplane are equal to their technical skills.”