Pilot training 'struggling' with modern challenges

When boarding an aeroplane, passengers occasionally try to catch a glimpse of the pilots through the open cockpit door or the windscreen. Most will do it simply out of curiosity, without looking for any tell-tale signs of the pilot's skills. After all, the flight crew has been trained and certified, and plenty of technology is there to help, right?

This line of thinking is proof that passengers very much respect and rely on pilot professionalism in Europe. Yet, ever since the first take-off of a manned aircraft 110 years ago, aviation has been undergoing constant change, and so is the definition of pilot professionalism. Flying a stabilised approach is nowadays an equally important aspect of the pilot profession as being an ambassador for your airline. Developing the required skills, however, is a process that requires years of training, studying and examinations.

Facing the inherent risks of flying and the complacent 'cosiness' of automation, pilot training programmes are struggling to catch up with the challenges posed by new technologies. Especially in times of dwindling resources, increasing competition and skyrocketing fuel prices, the pressure to cut costs is not sparing pilot training programmes either. So against this challenging environment, how do we determine the ingredients of a successful pilot training programme?

As automation has found its way to the cockpit, the temptation may be to lessen manual flying skills training. But, as accidents have shown, when all automation fails and computers cannot recover the aeroplane, the same computers hand operations back to the pilots. And that is exactly when airmanship and fundamental flying skills are most critically relied upon. Despite sophisticated technology, the laws of physics have remained the same and the good old-fashioned 'stick-and-rudder' skills, which were crucial in the past, remain essential today and in the future.

Improving basic training to build sound manual flying skills is therefore a key to forming a solid basis and building a safe and successful pilot career. Automation in itself entails challenges. Understanding what the aeroplane is doing in every situation is crucial. Ask any pilot and they would agree that anticipating and staying away from any potential problems is their main task during a flight. Hence, complex flight deck management skills are most important for any pilot as a natural complement to manual flying skills. It is therefore paramount that pilots are trained in both and are able to switch seamlessly between these skills.

Another key point is that pilot training is neither static nor like riding a bike. Career-long learning and improving the pilot's skills are prerequisites in the dynamic world of aviation. Currently, legislation only specifies a list of training exercises and how long the pilot would remain 'current' on them. This runs counter to the ever increasing complexity of both the planes and operational environment – especially given the ever increasing air traffic. The solution is to set up pilot training programmes that are tailored not only to the operational and technological demands but also to the pilot's needs for career-long studying, training and exams.

When things go wrong, when all instruments fail, there will still be an old-fashioned compass in the cockpit to navigate and the pilot must be able to carry out a safe landing with hundreds of passengers on board. So regardless of how advanced technology is, aviation still very much relies on the people you take a glimpse of while boarding. Training them to be professional pilots who are fluent and proficient is a prerequisite for each and every flight and for the future of aviation. A future that requires reclaiming some fundamental aviation principles and skills from the past.

Nico Voorbach is a professional pilot, a first officer on Boeing 777 aeroplanes, and president of the European Cockpit Association

Article originally published in EuropeanPublicService.com