As we find ourselves commencing another Gregorian Calendar-defined trip around the sun on Space Ship Earth, a review of expectations for this orbit may be in order.
In our over-optimistic, typically human assumption of being able to control, regulate and measure everything around us, the Gregorian Calendar evolved from the Julian Calendar with the assistance of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.
This was a minor correction to reduce the average year length from 365.25 days to 365.2425 days, as that annoying 0.0075-day error per year was messing up the Northern Spring Equinox (around March 21), which subsequently confused the calculation of each year’s date for Easter.
That is probably why sometimes you can’t find the Easter eggs you hid for yourself, as a result of this time / space displacement, and not one’s ailing memory.
We seem to have relied upon this extremely precise re-commencement of our solar orbit to somehow create a New Beginning within our current existence, which has magical eraser qualities and provides each New Year with a clean slate and invokes such associated expectations.
This anticipation of regeneration is also somewhat flawed by the fact that, with each new beginning, comes the opportunity of bringing its own events; be they ups or downs.
From last year, many of us would be mentally running from that main event, the pandemic. That event, for some of us in the aviation world here in South Africa, had the dubious curtain raiser of one’s employer in business rescue – both the pandemic and the business rescue seeming to have continuing encores as I write this.
This particular solar circuit kicked off with that most bizarre-turned-lethal side show of American politics. To a certain extent, the storming of the US Capitol in Washington actually made me feel a little better about our politics in this country… chaos appears to be a universal commodity when it comes to power, egos and agendas.
A few days later, we saw the almost all-too familiar flight path of a Boeing 737-500 accident in Indonesia. Airborne for only a few minutes and reaching only eleven thousand feet, it achieved momentarily a rate of descent of around thirty thousand feet per minute almost vertically downwards into the sea. Apparently, the Flight Data Recorder has been downloaded, and the Cockpit Voice recorder awaits discovery in the fifteen metre-deep (concentrated) debris field.
At the point of writing this, we only have conjecture, with my current thumb-suck being some form of Loss Of Control Inflight (LOC-I), possibly due to the convective weather in the area. This is still the current Enemy Number One for airline crew, and, throw in a bit of lack of recency with the global grounding of airlines in one form or the other, and a familiar scenario looks ready to be investigated again.
To these events, we can add five local South African aviation accidents and several others involving light aircraft around the world.
Look to training to steady the ship
I suppose starting from a low base should provide for a sense of improvement, if we contain the trend, as we progress through this year…
Pandemics and collapsing airlines aside, the aviation scenarios at both airline and General Aviation level will once again have to look to training to steady the ship, so to speak.
I was fortunate enough to do my last A320 flight at the end of August last year, while many of my colleagues have not flown an airliner since March. I have also been absolutely flat-out at my flight school at Lanseria, filling three complete pages in my logbook.
Despite this ‘recency’, I felt very much on the back foot as I did my Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) and Flight Instructor revalidation tests in an Airbus simulator at the beginning of December last year. The familiarity of the environment was quick to come back, but the instinctive reactions of an engine failure during a go-around were less than exemplary, to say the least.
A few days’ later, I was at Brakpan, test flying an additional Piper Seneca that I was in the process of buying. I was fairly ‘Seneca’ current, as I had been busy with Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) initial tests for a few candidates on my currently-owned Seneca. Still, I am used to a 45-metre wide runway, ILS indications and PAPI lights (Precision Approach Path Indicator)… everything a conditioned airline pilot likes to see.
With a reasonable amount of concentration, I managed to impress the ex-owner with a greaser on the eight-meter-wide runway and make the exit halfway down the 1400-metre runway – so the approach speed and touch down technique must have been okay.
The significance, I suppose, of this feeling of accomplishment is twofold… being able to reasonably accurately fly a ‘complex’ aircraft, and the acknowledgement of the fact that airliners and I are (hopefully) temporarily divorced, and this, at present, is as good as it gets.
Considering the current global situation with thousands of pilots out of work, and not able to get anywhere near an aircraft of any description, I am considering this lowering of one’s expectations to be a privilege as opposed to a ‘downgrade’.
Similarly, the level that I have been used to in terms of operating as an instructor and examiner have had to take somewhat of a re-calibration, as I predominantly deal with ‘newbies’ entering the commercial aviation environment.
The level that we used to operate at in the airline was a fantastically high-level, complex and demanding environment, enabled by some of the finest minds I have encountered in the advanced training world. It is quite a change of pace to now modify one’s approach to examining and assessing at what is essentially ab-initio level.
To be absolutely fair during these evaluations, I find myself literally putting myself in the position of someone who has just scraped together a grand total of around two hundred flying hours and looking at scenarios through the eyes of someone who has never flown an actual instrument approach and has not been immersed in the culture of the operational professional pilot.
Interspersed with the initial skills tests are the revalidations of instrument ratings (which maintains the competency of the commercial or airline transport licences) and instructor renewals. This is where one can explore the more technical aspects of the various ratings and the theory that supports the processes that make up that particular operational environment.
However, without the type rating complexities that accompany the normal airline-type environment, I feel there is something missing at this level. Having a look back at my development as an instructor and examiner, it is almost twenty-three years ago that I did my Grade One flight instructor upgrade and became a Designated Flight Examiner (DFE), which is where I get to wear an official Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) hat for a few hours while dealing with a nervous candidate.
To jump through this particular hoop, one has to have a nominated topic approved by Testing Standards at CAA, and this becomes the basis for one’s dissertation during the actual upgrade assessment. This is presented in front of an existing DFE and a representative from the CAA. The former is to assess the accuracy and level of the presentation, while the latter does the box-ticking exercise that the requirements of the CAA are appropriately met.
I have been involved on such ‘panels’ many times, and the most recent one I sat through was based on the high-altitude stall characteristics of Fly-By-Wire aircraft, using Air France 447 as a specific case study.
My contribution during my assessment, all those years ago, was much more down to earth, so to speak. At the time, I was fascinated with the absolute lack of any defined testing standards across all licences and ratings in South Africa. I duly produced around a thousand pages of ‘guidance’ material, using the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Practical Test Standards (PTS) as a basis. This detailed every single manoeuvre that is required to be demonstrated during all skills tests, from PPL through to ATP level, and what would constitute ‘satisfactory’ performance.
The then-DCA (Department of Civil Aviation – forerunner to our present CAA) gratefully accepted these weighty tomes from me, and promptly filed them in the back of a cupboard, never to see the light of day again.
My efforts were not in vain, as I make daily use of this information at my flight school, duly updated for the current syllabus. Students and instructors alike have access to the relevant PTS, and if one is totally honest with oneself (not a common event), one can reasonably de-brief oneself as to how well a particular training sortie or skills test went.
I have a well- documented process of lessening my expectations
Thus, as I find myself operating full-time in the basic training environment, I have a well- documented process of lessening my expectations.
Of course, if one actually reads the pre-amble on any of the Skills Test / Competency Check forms on the CAA website, there are very simplistic ‘tolerances’ for the examiner to use during such evaluations. However, if held to the absolute letter, I would say the highly capable autopilots found in all Airbus models would battle to ‘pass’ such scrutiny. There is a lot more to consider than elementary altitude or heading deviations…
I took the accompanying photo during one of my recent Instrument Rating evaluations. We should be maintaining 6400 feet altitude while intercepting the Instrument Landing System (ILS) at Lanseria. It is clear that the candidate has ‘nailed’ the Localiser, while waiting for the Glide Slope intercept. We are however, around forty feet low…
Satisfactory? We wouldn’t know without defined expectations.