A pilot with 4,000 hours never having spun or rolled? Surely that can’t be possible? Yep. It can. And it makes Brian a tad nervous…
9 February 2024
Back in 2013 Brian Lecomber wrote his last column for FLYER. He passed away in September 2015, leaving the world poorer for his absence, but richer for the memories and writing he left behind. Brian spent many years on the circuit as a very accomplished member of the Rothmans aerobatic team, and of his own Firebird Aerobatic team.
In addition to his novels, Brian wrote about motoring and, of course, aviation. We’re reformatting his previous FLYER columns, this appeared in FLYER in July 2013.
The blunt truth is that Peter in the front cockpit has the natural pilotage ability of a hamster.
As check-pilot I had to help him on the rudder as the Chipmunk tried its usual mild swing on take-off. I then had to help him persuade it into a spin and subsequently to recover therefrom. Now I have asked him to slow-roll the aeroplane, with the unappealing result that we have entered a sort of Kamikaze death-dive just after passing through the inverted.
“I have control, Peter.”
On return to our point of origin Peter achieves a bounce of quite awe-inspiring magnitude and then does nothing to rescue it, perhaps expecting it will settle of its own accord. Which it will not, or at least not without the undercarriage sticking up through the wings. I grab control and land.
I am not quite sure what to say to Peter. If he was a new 50-hour PPL I wouldn’t have been surprised by the spin and slow-roll. But if he’d been a 50-hour PPL I wouldn’t have asked him to do them on a first flight in a new type anyway. (Well, certainly not the slow-roll.)
But Peter is not a 50-hour PPL. He is a 4,000-hour airline First Officer, shortly to be promoted to Captain if the star signs continue to smile upon him.
Do not get me wrong. In my lexicon of almost religious respect there stand a goodly number of airline pilots. In current times and close to home are the likes of Paul Bonhomme, Steve Jones, Tim Barnby, Al Walker, Brian Smith – and a hundred others. On a workaday they will fly a Boeing or Airbus. During their precious time off they may fly Unlimited solo or formation aerobatics. Or a WWII fighter or bomber. Or a very high-performance glider.
These people are the polymaths of aviation – the airmen of all airmen. For what it may be worth coming from me, I salute you.
Peter, however, is not about to join your ranks. Or not any time soon.
For Peter is one of the new generation of airline pilots. About whom, along with legions of older airline pilots, I am deeply worried. Because Peter is, quite frankly, a lousy handling pilot. Or at best, a markedly amateur handling pilot. An amateur pilot with 4,000 hours and coming up for command of an airliner carrying 200-plus blindly trusting homo sapiens…
So as we climb out of the Chipmunk I don’t know quite what to say. I can’t just say, “Now sit up and fly right.” But that’s what I need to say in some form…
I say, “Let’s go and have a pint.”
Halfway through one beer is enough for Peter to open up.
“I flew badly today.”
I rock my hand and take a swig.
“And you’re wondering how to tell me so.”
I can only nod. That is exactly what I have been wondering.
“Well, today was the first time I’ve been in a spin. And the first time I’ve ever been upside-down in an aeroplane. Not to mention the first time I’ve flown…” he grins very faintly… “or failed to fly, a taildragger.”
“Ahhh…” I try to keep my face immobile but inwardly I am staggered. To me this sounds incredible, almost unbelievable. A pilot with 4,000 hours never having spun or rolled? Surely that can’t be possible?
“I know what you’re thinking.” Peter is studying his beer. “I’ve got about 4,000 hours in my logbook as you’ve seen, and I’d guess you’ve got about the same?”
I shrug. This was a long time ago.
“And out of your 4,000 hours, how much was hand-flying? No autopilot?”
I stare at him. “Well, 4,000 hours. All of it. I’ve never flown with an autopilot.”
“How much do you suppose I’ve hand-flown? Take a guess.”
“Hell, I don’t know. Maybe half the time?”
“I wish,” he says. Then, “Look, I’ll tell you. I’m on short-haul, so we generally fly four sectors on a working day – maybe three. We divide the flying 50/50, so the Skipper’s PF – Pilot Flying – for two and I’m Pilot Flying for two. The other pilot’s PNF – Pilot Not Flying. So I fly two sectors – say it averages out at about an hour a sector. What do you think I’m doing in that hour?”
“Well, I guess there’s a lot of button-punching and computer programming…”
“That’s so. But how long do you think I get to hand-fly it?”
Of course, I do not know. This is a different world. I can only look quizzical.
“Well, the average time for any modern airliner flight to have the autopilot off is about six minutes per flight. No matter the length of the flight.”
Sometimes you can only gape. Realising my mouth is open I pour some beer into it. Peter takes a sip.
“Think about it, Brian. I spent about 300 hours on initial training and that was mainly hand-flying. Then I went on the line. Apart from simulator training we get four take-offs and landings a day. Except we don’t – we each only get half of them. Two. On a clear VMC day we click on autopilot passing 1,000ft in the climb, and on descent switch if off again passing maybe 2,000ft. If the weather’s IMC we’ll engage it earlier and leave it on auto to very short finals or even to auto-land, and just monitor it.”
“Yeah. So I get to hand-fly maybe 10 minutes a day – 10 minutes when I’ve logged four hours. Beyond training that gives me – about 200 hours actually flying. The rest of the time I’m pushing buttons. And I’m lucky because I’m on short-haul. Think what it’s like on long-haul where there may be four crew and only one landing in a 13-hour flight…”
The advantage of being a pipe-smoker is that you can buy time stuffing it and lighting it while you think about what the hell to say next.
“But…” a quick puff “…that’s kinda wearing a hair-shirt, isn’t it? I mean, you’re still a pilot for those 4,000 hours. You’re still flying, whether you’ve got hands on the stick or not. Like instructing – most of the time I’m not flying myself. The other guy is. Like today.”
“Not the same.” Peter’s very faintest grin is now a thing of the past. “When you’re instructing you’re mentally flying the aeroplane all the time. You’re picking up errors, inaccuracies, talking about them, or taking over and re-demonstrating.”
“Certainly. But where’s that so different from your monitoring?”
“Might sound the same, but it ain’t. Our automatics don’t fly sloppily. They don’t make errors. They don’t have inaccuracies unless you’ve wrongly programmed them. Except…”
I finish for him. “Except – when they go wrong.”
“Except when they go wrong. 99.9999% of the time they don’t go wrong. But when they do go wrong it can happen very quickly. And be very, very confusing. Most often it’s a pitot or static problem. Then suddenly your whole comfortable glass cockpit doesn’t make sense any more. And on full automatic our Airbus will be trying to follow the TV screen.
“An Airbus on full auto for example overrides the pilots’ inputs – if the computers think you’re diving when you’re actually stalling you can push the side-sticks through the panel and nothing will happen. And because you’ve flown so much on auto your first instinct is to check the auto systems. Might sound daft to you, but there it is. In the Airbus reverting to Direct Law – full pilot control – means punching two out of three buttons – the correct two out of three buttons – on the overhead panel. But most of all it’s deciding when and if you need to punch them. Because then you’re suddenly hand-flying…”
I nod. “And that’s where you don’t feel happy?”
His eyes rise to mine. “Correct. I know I’m a lousy handling pilot. Now I want to be a better one.”
I reach over and clink glasses. “We’ll see what we can do. Now, about your take-off…”
I have never forgotten that first flight with Peter. Perhaps the fact is that every new generation of pilots bring with them a new set of problems as a sort of hand-me-down. Today the particular itch is called AUTOMATION ADDICTION – which speaks for itself. A modern airline cockpit is almost a Computer Game Room – so far removed from manual flying as to be a different expertise entirely. Installed in these computer rooms are a pair of pilots, placed there firstly to set up the computers and secondly to act as the ultimate safety device, supposedly possessed of the sagacity and airmanship to shoot the automatics between the eyes if required and thence do the job themselves.
A guy with 4,000 hours but 200 hours of hand-flying on type? In the dark of the night in bad weather and maybe with other problems to contend with as well? A man like Peter might well wish he had more instinctive flying skills to hand…
A 20,000 hour airline Training Captain recently said to me, “Our job is a bit like a goalkeeper. Most of the time you just watch the game – and then very suddenly you ARE the game. That’s difficult for the old guys like me, never mind the youngsters. The glass cockpits tend to degrade your instrument scan because it’s so easy just to follow the Flight Director needles. Could I fly a raw hand-flown ILS down to a 200ft ceiling and a half-mile vis? Well, y-e-a-h, but it would only be after a lot of unresolved automation failure, and I’d have certainly declared an emergency. How a young guy with practically all his flying behind the TV screens would get on…?”
To an extent, the problem lies with the fact that airlines today are not run by pilots, but by bean-counters. And margins being tight, bean-counters are apt to squeeze every last drop from the financial udder.
Pilot training? Make it as short as possible because they’re going into a whole different environment anyway. Hand-flying currency? Statistics show that wastes time. At least one airline Operations Manual states that: ‘Under no circumstances will hand-flying be practised during line flying. Full automation must be used at all times…’
Great safety contribution, bean-counters.
A year or so later Peter won his first aerobatic competition. A Captain now, I asked him if it had improved his airline flying. “Oh yes,” he said. “It doesn’t help with the automatics, of course, but it does help with the confidence that you CAN take over, you CAN fly the aeroplane.”