Manual Handling is Key for Optimum Situational Awareness
Written by Michael Keating, Director Flight Crew Recruitment
When pilots handle an aircraft manually, they control its movements in all axis to move the aircraft along a desired path. The desired path can be calculated by the use of the onboard computers, but a sound understanding of the geometry of the flight, the descent or climb path, the proximity to aircraft, alternates, cloud turbulence, desired navigational tracks and much more, should be constantly calculated in the pilots mind to verify the computers and their correct depiction of what is expected. This last bit is also called situational awareness or SA.
According to the literature SA means understanding the current state and dynamics of a system and being able to anticipate future change and developments.
“.. If a pilot is mediocre or poor at handling an aircraft, perception of a situation may be erroneous due to the lack of feel for the aircraft’s capabilities, normal movements vs. abnormal movements, three-dimensional perception and general spatial awareness.”
In models of SA, expectations, abilities, experience, and training plays a big part, so by inference, good manual handling skills are implied in good Situational Awareness. In fact, if a pilot is below standards in handling an aircraft manually, he will also lose a large and highly necessary part of his SA. If a pilot is mediocre or poor at handling an aircraft, perception of a situation may be erroneous due to the lack of feel for the aircraft’s capabilities, normal movements vs. abnormal movements, three-dimensional perception and general spatial awareness. These factors will impact on all levels of any model of Situational Awareness. Projection of a future state of the aircraft requires a decision of the most favorable action to take (Endsley, 1995). This in turn will often require a knowledge of the most appropriate manoeuvre of the aircraft, which will be difficult for a pilot who are less capable of handling and may lack the skill of projecting the flight trajectory or the ‘edges of the possible flight envelope’.
Thus, manual handling is an important part of a high level of SA and the lack of it may/will cause a pilot to lose vital elements of situational awareness, no matter how much he has studied the academics of flight.
Flying on autopilot will normally enhance SA as it frees the pilots from the minute details of keeping correct flight path and speed. Attention is available for other types of threat assessment. This change, however, when the automation no longer works as intended and the pilot, with little practise in manual flying, must deal with both threat factors, handling and possibly an abnormal situation, all at the same time. Here the mediocre handling pilot may use up all his attention on handling and lack capacity for anything else.
Quite a few aircraft have been lost, even in the 2000s, due, in part or fully, to factors mentioned above. Luckily authorities, training entities, airlines and others have given the question much attention lately. From upset recovery to allowing more training of manual abilities, syllabi are now being changes, training devices being rigged, and manuals being changed. All to address this important question.