Aircraft Flight Path Management – Manual Control

Evidence-Based Training (EBT) is growing increasingly relevant, with very positive benefits for BizAv operators. Here, Mario Pierobon continues his review of core EBT competencies, exploring Aircraft Flight Path Management - Manual Control...

Mario Pierobon  |  19th September 2023
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    Mario Pierobon
    Mario Pierobon

    Mario Pierobon holds a Master’s Degree in Air Transportation Management from City University London,...

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    Aircraft Flight Path Management - Manual Control Training

    One high-profile business aircraft accident that occurred a couple of decades ago provides a valuable opportunity to reflect on the importance of Aircraft Flight Path Management (AFPM) – Manual Control.

    On October 25, 2002, the flight crew of a King Air A100 upon approach to Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport failed to maintain an appropriate course and speed resulting in a crash resulting in the deaths of all eight people on board.

    As part of the accident investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that the flight crew also did not properly configure the aeroplane at the start of the approach, making the later stages of the approach more difficult.

    According to the NTSB Aircraft Accident Report:

    “During the later stages of the approach, the flight crew failed to monitor the airplane’s airspeed and allowed it to decrease to a dangerously low level (as low as about 50 knots below the company’s recommended approach airspeed) and to remain below the recommended approach airspeed for about 50 seconds.

    "The flight crew failed to recognize that a stall was imminent and allowed the airplane to enter a stall from which they did not recover. The inadequate airspeed or the full course deviation indicator needle deflection should have prompted the flight crew to execute a go-around; however, they failed to do so.”

    What is AFPM – Manual Control?

    ICAO Doc 9995 (the Manual of Evidence-Based Training) describes the AFPM - Manual Control competency as the ability to control the aircraft flight path through manual flight, including the appropriate use of Flight Management System(s) and flight guidance systems. According to ICAO, a competent pilot:

    • Controls the aircraft manually, with accuracy and smoothness, as appropriate to the situation.
    • Detects deviations from the desired aircraft trajectory and takes appropriate action.
    • Contains the aircraft within the normal flight envelope.
    • Controls the aircraft safely using only the relationship between aircraft attitude, speed and thrust.
    • Manages the flight path to achieve optimum operational performance.
    • Maintains the desired flight path during manual flight whilst managing other tasks and distractions.
    • Selects the appropriate level and mode of flight guidance systems in a timely manner, considering phase of flight and workload.
    • Effectively monitors the flight guidance systems (including engagement and automatic mode transitions).

    In reviewing AFPM - Manual Control as a core behavioural competency, it is important to remember that ICAO Doc 9995 defines pilot core competencies as sets of skills and abilities that pilots should possess to ensure a safe aircraft operation.

    According to Evionica, ‘Pilot core competencies to become an airline pilot’ (23 November 2022): 

    “Controlling the airplane manually is probably one of the first qualities that come to mind when talking about pilot competencies. A pilot must manually maintain the desired flight path while managing other tasks and distractions, detect any deviations from the desired aircraft trajectory, and take immediate action. It’s an efficient skill that takes a great amount of time and self-control to perfect but ultimately leads to excellent control of the aircraft and smooth flight.”

    ABFM – Manual Flight Best Practices

    The transition from coupled to manual flight requires defined criteria to ensure a safe and standardized procedure.

    According to HeliOffshore, ‘Flightpath Management (FPM) Recommended Practice for Offshore Helicopter Operations’ (September 2020), “To address the potential degradation of manual flying skills due to use of automation, crews are encouraged to fly manually in Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC) and Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC). In addition, cockpit workload should not be excessive, and the crew briefing shall be explicit in stating where the manual handling segment starts and ends. Night offshore let-downs, approaches, and circuits/patterns shall not be flown manually.”

    In the US, an FAA Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO 13002; Date, 1/4/13) encourages operators to promote manual flight operations when appropriate. “The Federal Aviation Administration believes maintaining and improving the knowledge and skills for manual flight operations is necessary for safe flight operations,” the FAA says.

    According to the FAA, modern aircraft are commonly operated using auto flight systems (e.g., autopilot or autothrottle/auto thrust).

    “Unfortunately, continuous use of those systems does not reinforce a pilot’s knowledge and skills in manual flight operations,” the FAA argues. “Auto flight systems are useful tools for pilots and have improved safety and workload management, and thus enabled more precise operations. However, continuous use of auto flight systems could lead to degradation of the pilot’s ability to quickly recover the aircraft from an undesired state.”

    The FAA encourages air operators to take an integrated approach by incorporating emphasis of manual flight operations into both line operations and training (initial/upgrade and recurrent).

    “Operational policies should be developed or reviewed to ensure there are appropriate opportunities for pilots to exercise manual flying skills, such as in non-RVSM airspace and during low workload conditions. In addition, policies should be developed or reviewed to ensure that pilots understand when to use the automated systems, such as during high workload conditions or airspace procedures that require use of autopilot for precise operations.

    “Augmented crew operations may also limit the ability of some pilots to obtain practice in manual flight operations. Airline operational policies should ensure that all pilots have the appropriate opportunities to exercise the aforementioned knowledge and skills in flight operations.”

    With the risk of skill decay associated to the extensive use of automation in flight, AFPM - Manual Control is clearly a core competency that should be carefully considered, emphasized, and developed under an EBT program.

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