When I wrote my first article for Plane & Pilot, a meditation on flying for the airlines and reaching the milestone of 15,000 hours, I was excited at the prospect of having other pilots read my work. The feedback I received was largely encouraging. It seemed I had weeded out most of my dangling participles. What I was unprepared for was a few critical comments by GA pilots regarding not my grammar or style, but the nature of my job. One reader wrote:
“15,000 hours, or the same hour 15,000 times?”
Although I feel I could plea bargain this down to “the same three hours 5,000 times,” I was willing to grant the spirit of his argument. Flying for the airlines can be repetitive. Another likened airline flying to:
“Empty hours, sitting and waiting to land again.”
I was a bit more offended by this one but could allow his premise. There is a bit of waiting involved in my chosen profession, much of it at Gate B19 at O’Hare. The comment that caught my eye, and stung just a bit, was the following:
“15,000 hours [at the airlines] generally equals 14,000 hours using autopilot. Who’s really flying? Quality over quantity.”
My beef with this sentiment goes back to an argument I have heard my entire career regarding the dreaded (or beloved) autopilot. Much like the iPhone vs. Android debate, there are strong voices on both sides, and your intractable opinion is often in perfect alignment with the type of equipment you happen to own.
I will come right out and say it: I love my autopilot. I think it is an asset for both convenience and safety. I think it gives passengers a better flight, reduces pilot fatigue, and enhances situational awareness. As with any form of automation, it is necessary to “fly” the autopilot just like you fly the plane. Skill is required to get the desired results, and study and practice are rewarded. Much like a throttle or an aileron, an autopilot is simply a tool. It may be used properly or improperly.
October 19, 2004, was a long day for my crew. We began at 11:15 a.m. at the Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. Our first leg took us to St. Louis, pretty near the effective range of our aircraft with a full passenger load. We grabbed a late lunch, and a little after 4 p.m., we departed for Denver. In Denver, we did a 30-minute turn and landed back in St. Louis at 9:04 p.m.
The average hourly worker in this country would probably call 11 hours of duty a long day, and it is. For a regional airline pilot in 2004, though, such a day was pretty standard fare. In my logbook I show a 13-hour duty day a few days later and, a couple of months earlier, a grueling seven-leg, 14-hour duty day. These things happened, and to some degree still do, although the FAA’s update to Part 117 flight and duty limitations helped.
A couple of hours before I landed in STL, another flight crew was coming to the end of a more arduous day just a few miles north in Kirksville, Missouri. The two pilots, operating Corporate Airlines flight 5966, had departed STL just a few gates down from where I parked my jet. Their long day bore some similarity to mine but also some critical differences. A subsequent NTSB report highlights this:
The pilots’ duty period began about 0514 at BRL after about 9 hours off duty. They departed…about 0544 and flew to STL, where they arrived about 0644. The pilots were originally scheduled to…fly to UIN and then return to STL; however, those two flights were cancelled because of poor weather conditions. They then resumed their normal flight schedule, departing STL again about 1236. They flew to IRK and returned to STL, where they arrived about 1453. The pilots departed STL again about 1513, flew to BRL, and returned to STL, where they arrived about 1745. The accident flight departed STL about 1842. The pilots were flying their sixth flight of the day and had flown about 6 hours and 14 minutes in 14 hours and 31 minutes of duty time when the accident occurred.
It is possible that flying six legs (supposed to be eight) in 14 hours and 31 minutes represents a certain amount of repetition (the same hour 15,000 times), and it is likely that my longer flights that day included “empty hours, sitting and waiting to land.” Almost any pilot would grant, however, that these Corporate Airlines pilots had a really challenging day.
I reflected on that when I heard about the accident. My proximity, both in space, time and circumstance, compelled me to compare my day with theirs. Was this a “but for the grace of God,” situation, or did my crew have fundamental advantages lacked by the pilots of Flight 5966? I read the NTSB report.
The NTSB determines that the probable cause of the accident was the pilots’ failure to follow established procedures…including their descent below the minimum descent altitude…(which continued unmoderated until the airplane struck the trees) and their failure to adhere to the established division of duties between the flying and nonflying pilot…The pilots’ unprofessional behavior during the flight and their fatigue likely contributed to their degraded performance.
I remember reading this and being offended on behalf of the Corporate pilots. I remember thinking, in silent reply to the sterile language of the report, “Yeah, easy for you to say.” I had flown that day and the weather was, for lack of a better word, crap. I had a long day, but nothing like the grueling hours these fellows had put in. The report was critical of the captain for remarking on the CVR that “you gotta have fun” and transmitting a burp over the radio. It noted that the first officer “engaged in banter with the captain, and used informal, nonstandard terminology.” A friend of mine remarked, “If you’re not cracking a joke every once in awhile after 14 hours on duty, you’re probably asleep.”
It is hard to disagree with the report’s conclusions. The Corporate crew did make mistakes, didn’t strictly follow procedures, and could probably be faulted for violating sterile cockpit rules. Accident chains are made up of many links. Still, I found it hard to buy the idea that the FO’s “barking sound followed by a groan” on the CVR amounted to a critical error. I wondered if something more tangible might have made a difference.
No one can say for certain what could have broken this accident chain. Reflecting on the report, though, I could not help coming back, over and over, to a couple of statements that did not make it into the NTSB’s conclusions. They were the only “first-hand” observations from actual Corporate pilots:
According to several pilot friends, the only complaint the captain had about Corporate Airlines was the lack of an autopilot on the BAE-J3201, which resulted in pilots having to fly the airplanes manually through any weather and workload.
One Corporate Airlines captain/check airman stated…that the lack of an autopilot could increase crew fatigue especially when operating in adverse weather.
I was disappointed by the NTSB report because I believed, fervently, that having an autopilot during this 14-plus-hour day might have broken a link in this accident chain. It certainly seemed a more likely “chain-breaker” than preventing “pilot banter.” We will, of course, never know.
I had an autopilot on my jet that day, a silent assistant, to hold the course and keep the plane level while I consulted my charts or programmed the FMS or ate a sandwich. On my 11-hour day, I got at least some relief, a few moments to relax and decompress. The Corporate pilots did not have that luxury. They had to consult their charts, set their radios, talk to ATC, get the ATIS, and, yes, perhaps eat a sandwich, while endlessly scanning the instruments and actively, every minute, manipulating the controls, adjusting the throttles, trimming. That level of concentrated effort and attention is hard to maintain. It is hard to maintain for an hour or two hours. Anyone who thinks it wouldn’t have a cumulative effect over the course of 14 is being naive.
Would having an autopilot have saved the pilots of Corporate Flight 5966? I can’t say that. But would it have made a difference to their workload, to their level of fatigue on that last leg? There can be little doubt.
Virtually all airline pilots call the autopilot George. That anthropomorphism occasionally extends to conversations with our inanimate buddy. “What in the world are you doing, George?” or “no, George, your other left.” It is common to hear the nonstandard phrase “George has it” when the autopilot is engaged.
There is much disagreement about the origin of the name. Some have suggested that it refers to George DeBeeson, an early aviation pioneer and autopilot developer. Others contend that GEORGE is an acronym for Gyro Operated Guidance Equipment. And some maintain that the name began with early RAF pilots honoring King George VI.
The name has become ubiquitous, and though some airline pilots claim that overuse makes a pilot “soft,” most captains will groan a little when they are assigned an aircraft with a deferred autopilot. We have a fondness for George. We are grateful for his presence, especially when days are long, weather is crap, and workload is high. So, “15,000 hours equals 14,000 hours using autopilot. Who’s really flying?” I guess my answer is: George and I are flying together, and I’m glad to have him aboard.