Could gliding be the low-cost training answer to keep airline pilots’ manual flying skills fresh and sharp? TIM ROBINSON reports from the recent RAeS International Flight Crew Training Conference, held on 25-26 September. [caption id="attachment_8631" align="alignnone" width="403"] Could gliders hold the key to improving airline safety? (Stemme)[/caption] The 2013 RAeS International Flight Crew Training Conference this year was noteworthy for a number of reasons; its highly international make-up (some 71 of 125 delegates were from outside the UK, from 19 countries). Its focus: ‘Upset Prevention, Recognition and Recovery Training’ was rated “the best and most productive conference held anywhere on the work to prevent aircraft loss of control in flight”. A key point agreed by many (if not all) speakers and delegates at the conference was that in the past 15 years, manual flying skills of airline pilots has atrophied. Increased cockpit automation, rigid standard operating procedures, more use of flight simulators and a reduced pool of military pilots has conspired to erode basic flying skills in a new generation of pilots. This, as AF447 and perhaps more recent incidents, have shown, can result in hull losses or be fatal in certain, rare circumstances. Loss of control incidents (LOC-I) or ‘non-normal’ (eg high angle-of-attack or bank) situations are thus a major safety issue. Though the conference detailed the high-level work going on by airlines, training schools, manufacturers, regulators and stakeholders, including the Society’s own International Committee for Aviation Training in Extended Envelopes (ICATEE), an intriguing presentation from Captain Sarah Kelman, a safety officer at easyJet, highlighted a more simple solution to manual flying skills erosion – gliding.  

Jet airliners and gliders

[caption id="attachment_8634" align="alignnone" width="375"] Capt Sarah Kelman, easyJet (and British Gliding Association) gives her presentation. (Lukas Willcocks)[/caption] At first glance, there may be little in common between a glider weighing between 500-800kg and the latest single-aisle jet airliners carrying hundreds of passengers. One is powered, utilises complex computers, has radar, flies higher, faster and is heavier being made out of metals (and composites). What does a professional airline crew with the weighty responsibility of the safety of their passengers have in common with a two-place sport glider, flown for fun? However, Capt Kelman, an accomplished glider pilot herself as well as an airline pilot, observed that there were skills that she maintained in her glider that are directly relevant to her day job as an Airbus pilot and, which indeed, enhance her situational awareness and ability to deal with these non-normal, and recover quickly from, upset situations. She said that already many commercial airline pilots fly gliders already in their spare time, because of the direct experience of flight and that every flight is different and a challenge. (Indeed the most famous example is Capt Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger whose gliding experience proved critical at the right time in the Hudson River in 2009 - saving all 155 people on board.)  

Unusual attitude is the norm

Capt Kelman noted that gliding needs a number of skills that may have application to the hi-tech airline cockpit – especially when things go wrong. For example, she pointed out that ‘unusual attitudes’, which an airline pilot may be fearful of getting into, are second nature for the glider pilot. The glider pilot experiences an “unusual attitude” from the first launch as a 40deg winch launch (combined with a semi-reclining seat) means the climb (at 3,000feet per minute) feels almost vertical. The pilot also cannot see the horizon at this point. The pilot is trained to fly by visual attitude and airspeed cues, and ignore somatogravic illusions that can trick the senses. “They must aviate, aviate and aviate” she said.  

A ‘high alpha’ culture

Secondly, she pointed out that glider pilots were steeped in a 'high-alpha culture' – where awareness of the angle-of-attack, the onset of stall and steep bank angles were second nature. Flying regularly at the extremes of the glider’s flight envelope also reduced the ‘startle’ factor – a key element in the onset of an abnormal situation where a pilot’s decision-making can ‘freeze up’. She noted that “stall and spin awareness” are paramount. Steep turns, which in airliner, would result in spilled coffee in the cabin and possibly an interview with the airline chief pilot, are the norm in gliding as the pilot aims to keep within thermals and optimise lift.  

Comparable handling

[caption id="attachment_8632" align="alignnone" width="366"] Long wing spans gives gliders some similar handling qualities to airliners. (Schempp-Hirth)[/caption] While not powered, the modern sporting glider is a high performance vehicle and very dynamic, said Capt Kelman. Interestingly she explained the latest long wingspan gliders are sluggish in roll and yaw and handle very much like a 737 or a degraded A320. Wingspan is the key factor in scaling between the two types of aircraft. Indeed, according to Capt Kelman, the ‘surprisingly ponderous’ handling of long-wing span gliders is a better match for a medium airliner, than a small single-engine piston type.  

Energy management

Glider pilots also bring energy management skills to the cockpit, said Capt Kelman. Again at first glance, this might seem superfluous – with engines an airline pilot can increase or reduce energy simply by moving the throttles. However, Capt Kelman noted that these skills of managing energy (glider pilots only get one chance at a landing!) can also be beneficial to airline pilots. In particular, regional or secondary airports that low-cost carriers like easyJet use often have fewer navigation aids available, and may be located in mountains or near restrictive terrain. If a pilot has honed the art of energy management in gliders, then they can use these skills to perform tighter, shorter approaches if permitted, saving valuable fuel and time. The ability of an airliner pilot to manage non-precision and visual approaches can thus be enhanced by exposure to glider energy management skills.  

Meteorology awareness

Finally, Capt Kelman outlined that glider pilots also develop an enhanced weather awareness and appreciation. While airliners may boast sophisticated weather radar, wind shear warnings, the ability to rapidly and quickly assess weather conditions and to anticipate disturbances is a human skill that can be honed by time piloting an aircraft that, without an engine, is completely at the mercy of the elements.  


[caption id="attachment_8633" align="alignnone" width="378"] Could gliding offer affordable upset recovery training to airlines? (Airbus)[/caption] Capt Kelman’s presentation at this high-level flight training and safety conference, was a valuable reminder that whatever the weight, size, cockpit avionics or number of engines aircraft has they all obey the same laws of aerodynamics and physics – enabling certain skills to be valuable whatever the type. While normal flight sees the airliner pilot rely on computers and complex automation her talk highlighted the similarities between abnormal airliner situations and normal glider flight. She also highlighted a critical point for those wondering about the expense of extra flight training for airline pilots – its low cost. With winch launches costing £10, Capt Kelman argued that gliding is a very affordable way of maintaining hand flying skills. It was also clear that as a safety officer for easyJet, she was passing this knowledge and experience on within her airline – enhancing its overall safety. So in the quest for aviation safety and addressing the ‘startle factor’– is the answer to the erosion of hand flying skills to go right back to basics?   Buy Conference proceedings here. In March 2014 the RAeS will hold a Conference entitled 'Aircraft Commander in the 21st Century: Decision-making are we on the right path?'      

Tim Robinson
18 October 2013