Pilot Proficiency with airline pilot and author Karlene Petitt

Airline pilot, author, and speaker Karlene Petitt joins me to discuss pilot training and proficiency as well as her aviation novels and her Flight to Safety Blog. Karlene walks us through flying the A330, with it’s sophisticated flight control system and extensive use of automation. She also illustrates some difference between Airbus and Boeing flight control systems in the context of Asiana 214 and Air France 447 and how daily reliance on automation can dull flying skills.

Addressing our fading stick and rudder skills, Karlene also elaborates on her idea of the FAA allowing a significant percentage of basic flight training to be in gliders.

This blog post and podcast episode 16 is part 1 of  2 parts. In the next episode/blog post we finish our pilot skills discussion and Karlene shares her remarkable career story–one that spans eight airlines and numerous type ratings–and tell us about her two novels, Flight for Control and Flight for Safety.

Mentioned in the Podcast

  • Flight to Success – Karlene’s blog and books
  • Autopilot & auto thrust – systems used to fly an airliner that reduce pilot workload
  • PAPIs (like pappies)- Precision Approach Path Indicator, lights next to a runway used by pilots to maintain the proper glide path to landing
  • Understanding Air France 447  – Book recommended by Karlene to become a better pilot through understanding the AF447 tragedy

Podcast Transcript

Dave: This is the PlaneViz aviation podcast, episode 16. I’m your host, Dave Goodwin. My guest today is Karlene Petitt. Karlene is a well known A330 pilot, author of two aviation novels, and the operator of her blog, Flight to Success, and and all around good sport for being my guest today. Karlene, welcome.

Karlene: Good morning, Dave. Thank you.

Dave: Let’s jump right into today’s topic of pilot proficiency and training, and then we’ll check in with you to see what you’re up to a little later on, OK?

Karlene: OK, that sounds perfect.

Dave: We all know by now about Asiana 214, which crashed in San Francisco about a month ago. And it’s not my intention to analyze the crash per se, but something happened after that that raised my eyebrows, I found it really perplexing. The FAA ordered foreign airlines to use a GPS approach to- I guess it would be runway 28 left at San Francisco- instead of the visual approach. And that made me wonder that, if those pilots can’t manage a visual approach, how can the FAA consider them to be proficient pilots?

Karlene: Wow, that’s a loaded question, and quite honestly, I’m not going to put any words into the FAA’s mouth. But they may not consider them to be proficient pilots, and that’s why they mandated that.

Dave: That seemed to be the implication.

Karlene: Yea, it sure does. And quite interesting, because the FAA doesn’t really have any control over foreign carriers, per se. But apparently, if they’re going to be operating on our soil andthey don’t know how to operate their airplanes there’s got to be some kind of safeguard and protection in there.
Dave: This kind of gets into the whole concept of automation and the balance between automating and hand flying. Take us through- you’re a professional pilot, you fly the A330-Take us through the process from throttle up to landing. At what point do you ‘flick the switches,’ so to speak, and let the airplane do the work?

Karlene: Well, this is actually based on different pilots and different locations. In Amsterdam we were mandated at one point to turn the autopilot on at 1,000 feet, just because of the departures. And quite honestly, the autopilot can fly a departure more precisely then the pilot can. With a lot of heavy aircraft in and out of a complex city it just makes good sense. But since then they’ve changed that. And I don’t know if it has anything to do with this accident, but it’s just flying precisely. So, normal circumstance, autothrust is on. It activates when we depart. So under normal operation autothrust will remain on the entire flight, until which time the pilot decides to disengage it, which they don’t do that that often. You know, just probably in the 3 years I’ve been on this airplane, maybe a handful of pilots will ever disengage their autothrust on an A330. So we take off, put the autopilot on whenever you feel the need.

Quite often, if you’re- I just was on a ten day trip, took off and hand flew it up to 20,000. But once you get into the clouds, or you get a bit of weather, or if it’s really busy and there’s a lot of traffic and a lot of stuff going on, you put the autopilot on so you have more situational awareness. I like to fly, so I do that. So you climb up to altitude, the autopilot and autothrust are on the entire flight, and then through the descent, and until whatever time you decide to disengage the autopilot.

On the Airbus I find it interesting that a lot of pilots will disengage the autopilot, leave the autothrust on. And I’m a complete Boeing girl. Maybe it’s just the way I was trained from day 1, but when everyone disengaged the autopilot on the Boeing they normally disengaged the autothrust at the same time, just clicked them both off.

The difference between the 2 airplanes; on the Boeing we destabilized the airplane, so we’re pulling back and trimming, and now we have to add more power. So every control that we do, we induce instability in the power. And so we’re actually trimming the airplane back or forward, now we’re going to have to be playing with this power. And so, it’s a lot easier to not have engine surges, because your autothrust is working.

Now, the Airbus is different, we don’t trim in the Airbus. It does itself, it trims off G loading. And so you just point the nose where it’s going and the power just runs the power where it is. So it’s a lot more stable flying, even hand flying it, so it’s a lot easier to leave the autothrust on, or one on and one off. But typically pilots leave that autothrust on until they land the airplane. Normally on short, final, runway-in-sight, we take the autopilot off, unless the weather’s down to minimums and you’re going to keep it on.

And here’s the thing, fatigue is a huge issue. I mean, you’ve got to love the automation, because you’ve been up all night, backside the clock, and you’re exhausted. And reflexes and response time is not the same when you’re tired. You know, if you’re ever doing something and you’re really tired you kind of look at it twice to make sure, ‘Did I do that right?’ It’s just more challenging and so it just makes good sense to leave it on. Even if you then say, ‘Oh, I feel great here in Seattle and I’m going to fly over to Europe and disconnect my autopilot and hand fly this.’ Well, you get over there, you didn’t get a good break, you’re exhausted, the weather’s down, and you’re going, ‘Eh, maybe I’ll do it next time.’ That’s reality. Even the pilot’s who intend to do it sometimes don’t.

Dave: So you do have the option to hand fly it.

Karlene: Absolutely. But, you know what, here’s the thing- I have to tell you a story, because 25 years ago I was getting a 757 type rating, instructing at- well, I can say this because they’re not in business anymore, one of my many airlines- but I was instructing at America West in simulator. And I went in and did my 757 type rating and I was told, ‘you have to do this with the automation. We want to see you manage the flight deck. This is the future.’ It was the easiest check ride I have ever taken in my life. And I got out, and I sat down with the FAA examiner at the time and told him, I said, ‘I don’t think this is a really good idea to do check rides and not see if pilots can fly and just dee fi they can manage the automation.’ And he laughed and he said, ‘Oh, it’s the future.’ He says, ‘We’re able to do this because the reliability is so high.’ And now, 25 years later, after Asiana- and actually, I think it came out before Asiana. yea, because it was last January that it came out. The FAA came out with a safety report and said, ‘We want our pilots to start hand flying the airplanes.’ But it took them 25 years to go full swing from one end to the other.

Dave: I think the Air France 447 kind of got the discussion rolling too, in the recent past.

Karlene: Yea, that was it, and that’s really what did it. And so, what’s kind of ironic, the thing the FAA’s recommending now is exactly what Asian did. I’m sure they didn’t do it because they were recommended, because they’re not- they probably never even read that safety report. But it’s ironic, the things that we’re supposed to do is the reason that that plane crashed.

Dave: Interesting.

Karlene: Because they couldn’t handle their plane. They did what the new safety audit says, basically. They were hand flying their airplane. They just didn’t know how to do it.

Dave: Right. Wow.

Karlene: Yea.

Dave: I know that maybe the glide slope was out of service there, but the runway, according to the chart, has PAPIs, so I was wondering, ‘Wow, how do you do that?’

Karlene: Yea, and it’s very- you know, you look at the experience level, and what happens in these big airplanes when you start flying with automation and you get checked out on it, you forget about your airspeed. And it’s really sad. And I have to tell you, I make a point to hand fly my airplane and kick off the autothrust.

It had been a beautiful day, and we’re somewhere over in Europe, and I’m hand flying my airplane. It’s extra effort because of the level of fatigue, but I’m watching my airspeed, and watching my pitch, and looking and seeing the runway, and I’m backing up this visual with the glide scope- you know, all the data’s coming in. And I’m watching, I’m watching. Then right over the runway, I’m coming in, and I’ve got the runway made, and I go into my flare, and I just brought the power back as I always did because it says- our airplanes says ‘retard.’ And ten you bring the power back, but it’s already doing it itself. So I brought the power back and made- it was not a greased on job, it was firm. And I’m thinking, ‘Man, I thought I had that.’ I’m thinking in my mind, ‘What happened there? I thought I had this one nailed.’ And the captain said, ‘Oh, you’re airspeed got a little slow at the very end.’ He said, ‘We’d have kept the power on for 30 seconds longer.’ And then, at that moment when he said that, it occurred to me before I pulled my power back- I mean, we were on the runway, we were completely landed. I could have closed my eyes and the result would have been the same- but I didn’t look at my airspeed. And I thought, ‘Holy cow, when have I ever been in an airplane and didn’t take that last peek at that airspeed before I did something with the power?’

Dave: Interesting.

Karlene: Yea, that was my eye opener. I thought, ‘Man, if I can do this, because I’m like so hyper aware and conscious of this, how easy would it be for somebody who’s not think about this.’ They’re kind of going to get put into this new airplane, and they’re just flying along going…You know, what happens is- One of my degrees is actually (I’m like this person who likes to go back to school), but I have a degree in human services and I did a lot psychology work in how the brain functions. And what happens, and we all do this, is when you get overloaded or you’re at your max we load shed. We just start dumping stuff that we don’t need to deal with because there’s too much to deal with.
So you go on this brand new airplane, he had minimal time on it, now he hears, ‘Oh, the glide slope’s out, I’ve got to do a visual.’ So now it’s taking every bit of effort trying to get- you know, his mind is thinking not on flying, it’s like, ‘How am I going to do this?’ And the check airman had to be in the same boat, because nobody looked at the airspeed. And why weren’t they looking at it? Well, 99 times out of 100 they didn’t have to look at it, because that autothrust was on and it took care of it. And they never had to look at it. Today it wasn’t. Had that incident been an Airbus…

Here’s the nice thing about the Airbus- we’re going to shout about the Airbus a little bit even though I’m a Boeing girl, I love Boeing. In this situation, had this been an A-330 and they had the autothrust off, that airplane is designed that when it gets too slow, it doesn’t matter if you have it off or not, it’s going to give you power. That accident would not have happened in an Airbus-

Dave: Interesting.

Karlene: -if the autothrust was working and they just had disconnected it. But they just weren’t paying attention to it. They weren’t look at it. Probably every flight they never had to look at it and they load-shedded that part out of their scan.

Dave: That’s interesting. Well I learned something from this discussion. Very interesting, and I can see how it would happen.

Karlene: Yea.

Dave: Now, on Twitter you suggested the FAA allow a substantial portion of basic flight training to be in gliders. What do you think the advantages of that would be?

Karlene: Yea, so actually I’m going to go back to school and get my PhD in aviation safety. And I have to thank the president of Horizon [Horizon Air] for this inspiration because we were discussing Asiana, we were discussing the pilot shortage on a flight coming back from Portland up to Seattle, and I said flippantly, ‘Oh, it’s too bad the FAA doesn’t allow glider time.’ And then all the sudden- we were discussing the pilot shortage at this time- and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, that would have stopped this Asiana…’ Asiana wouldn’t have happened and Air France would not have happened, because what is going is, in our world today, with foreign carriers- and we’ve all read all the information that’s going around about pilots over in Asia, and how they’re brought into the system, and the training. It’s different than we have. And there are culture differences.

So take that aside, but take the new generation of pilots. Kids are learning how to fly on equipment more advanced than on my 747 I used to fly. You know this 1,500 hours, this random 1,500 hours, if they think that that’s going to make a better pilot, they’re wrong. It’s not going to make a better pilot. A, it’s going increasing expense for new pilots coming on figuring out how they’re going to pay for this; B, if Daddy has the money and is able to help them, they’re going to be in an automated airplane and that 1,500 hours is going to be on an autopilot. They’re not learning how to fly. We’re losing stick and rudder skills.

Now, you put somebody into a glider. You don’t have an engine. You have to learn how to fly. You have to learn basic aerodynamic skills of an airplane, and you have to…you know, you’re watching airspeed. And you also learn a proper glide ratio. You can see- you know, you have to make that feel. If you don’t have an engine to get you there you have to be able to glide down and land there. And so I thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t that be better training for these new pilots coming up than 1,500 hours on autopilots?’ So, what I’m actually going to try and do, when I go back to go school, for my thesis I’m going to try and go back to Washington and get the FARs changed and enable up to 50 percent of that 1,500 rule to be in a glider, and encourage the new pilots to get in their and do it.

Dave: I’d like to try it. I’ve never done it, but yea, I’d like to try it just as a challenge to my piloting skills.

Karlene: Well, here’s the thing, I have never done it either. And the ironic thing, before I came up with the idea, is I thought, ‘I should go get a glider.’ And I come up with these ideas, ‘I’m going to go do something’, I went and bought all my glider books, textbooks, everything, I’ve got it all ready to go. And then, we’re talking a month later, I’m discussing with somebody about, ‘Oh, this would be good for pilots,’ and all of the sudden it just came together. And I thought it just makes complete sense because I guarantee you if those Asian pilots were glider pilots that would not have happened.

Dave: Yea.

Karlene: They would not have got low and they would not have run out of airspeed. It just wouldn’t have happened. It would have been built in their psyche on what to do. And Air France wouldn’t have happened. You know, there is no glider pilot in the world that’s going to go, ‘Oh, I’m going to pull the stick completely back and stall this airplane and not fly it.’ It just wouldn’t have happened.

Dave: Just as a side question for you; Air France, that was an A340, is there not an angle of attack indicator in there? Or was it not working?

Karlene: Well, actually it was an A330.

Dave: It was, OK.

Karlene: Yea, it was an A330. And here’s the thing, everything that happened in that- here’s the thing the public doesn’t know, when something fails in that airplane- these guys were on audio overload. They were getting a ding-ding-ding,clack-clack-clack. They were getting so much and messages going it wouldn’t have mattered what they had on that airplane because that first officer did not understand. For some reason he pulled the nose back.

Now, here’s the bad thing. You know, I had to give Airbus a good kudo. Here’s the thing that’s good, but it wouldn’t have happened- this particular accident, I don’t think would’ve happened- in a Boeing. Not that something similar, that Boeing hasn’t had incidents where pitot tubes, actually pitot tubes iced over problem, and the pilots crashed the plane, because it’s happened. But in this particular case, when he pulled that stick back the airplane, because of that auto trim, it says, ‘Oh, you want to go up? OK,’ and it trims and trims and trims. And if he would have let the stick go at that point, the airplane still would have been climbing and trimming up, trimming itself to relieve the pressure, because on that airplane you just point it where you want it to go and it goes.

On a Boeing he would of had to do 2 things; he would have had to pull back on the controls andhe would have had to trim, because if he didn’t trim it and he pulls back on the controls it would’ve got- You know, at the top of that stall, if you haven’t trimmed- it’s really a heavy airplane, you’ve got to pull it into a stall, you’ve got to work hard. He would’ve let go of those controls and the nose would’ve gone down. Wherever it was trimmed to for level flight, it would have tried to go there. Now, at high altitude it would have been a lot easier to stall it than it is down low. So now the Airbus is trimming trimming trimming, and what happens is, now it’s trimmed, you literally would have to push that nose forward and let that trim untrim itself, to come back out and get nose down.

We played with this in the simulator a little bit. And I was in their with a check airman and we went and he pulled back- we were trying to emulate this accident- and he pulls back and the airplane goes into a stall, and then he pushes up forward and the nose falls, and then he released pressure on the stick and it kind of came back up. And it was like it was kind of porpoising up and down and he couldn’t get control of it.And so I thought, ‘That was interesting.’ I said, ‘Can I give it a shot?’ And we did the exact same thing, the difference is I pulled the power off. I just cut the engines all the way off, and just pushed the nose forward, and just held it down until I felt it like I got control over this airplane again and slowly added the power and pitched up. And I got control. And we lost like 7,000 feet.
Now, the interesting thing on this is I was taking to somebody Airbus, and I was going to right a blog about it because I thought, ‘Oh, we all need to know how to do this.’ But, he said that these simulators are not tested outside the normal parameters and we put it outside the normal parameters [by what we did in the simulator].

Dave: Ah, OK.

Karlene: Yea, so we don’t know if that really would do that in an airplane. But, in my mind, it makes complete sense, because if it’s trimmed itselfto 23 degree pitch up- it trims for G loading is what it does. But if the pilot’s holding the stick all the way back and it’s trimming itself to relieve that pressure, you’re going to want to get that pressure out of it as quickly as possible. And the best way to do it is get the power off and get the nose down. And it’s going to go, ‘Oh, wait a minute, I have no power and I want to keep flying and now we’re going down,’ and it’s going to untrim itself. So, if you know that process… And they also that ability to go into other pages and look, but they were sensory overloaded on that incident, too. They were fatigued due to activities the day before, it was the middle of the night, there was inexperience, the storm was higher. It was literally the perfect storm setup. There were so many things that added into that. Unfortunately, the scary thing is everybody says, the FAA said, and our union said, ‘Nothing is going to change until there is an accident.’

Dave: Yea.

Karlene: And now we’ve had 2 accidents, and still nothing has changed, really. I mean, they’re trying to do a fix, but not the real fix. And the real fix is training, I believe.

Dave: Well, circling back to that and the glider concept, I know that there’s a lot of debate on the aviation forms about spin training, for example. Is it worth it? Is it not worth it? I took some basic aerobatic training in a Citabria. And if nothing else, if you go through that experience of being in unusual attitudes, when you get into that in a plane that you’re not supposed to be in one, at least you’ve been there before. So I think it removes the panic factor. And, in a glider, you’re driving something without a motor. So, if in my plane, which is a Warrior, if the engine ever quit and I had extensive glider time, I think the shock factor of it becoming a glider wouldn’t be as great as if it were to happen to me now.

Karlene: Absolutely. Yea, and then also, I took spins- I think this kind of dates me- because when I was getting my pilot’s license I think they had just cancelled the mandate of spins. And my instructed said that we don’t have to do this anymore; do you want to do it? And I go, ‘Heck yea.’ And so, it was…so we went out and did it. And it is good training; I think everyone should do it.

And here’s something else, I’ve been at eight airlines and in the old days- in the ‘good ole’ days- there was a time here we had to- and this is before all these new, automated airplanes- we did unusual attitudes. So it was kind of fun, and this was an FAA mandate and I don’t know where it got lost. And this is what really should come back, is we had to go out and one of the pilots would close their eyes and then we would tell them- the other instructor would say, ‘OK, now put them in an unusual attitude.’ (i.e., we would either yank the controls up, yank it left, yank it right, put the nose down, and then release it).’Pilot, open your eyes.’ And they would have to look at the data and say,’Ok, we’re fast, we…’ You know, they have to digest the data and fly out of whatever we put them into. And that in itself is really good training.

And, if you think about it, what that captain on Air France did when he walked into that cockpit- think about what he was looking at; a pitch high attitude- I don’t think they had airspeed at that point because what happens is when it get too slow it thinks it’s not flying, an airspeed indication goes away- So they had a pitch high attitude, they’re descending 10,000 feet per minute, how disorienting is that? I don’t know if anyone were to look in there, and we’re talking second before you’re going to impact, and were looking at that- how would you even analyze and figure out what’s going on? And it wasn’t until the FO said, ‘But I had the stick back the whole time.’ Immediately the captain’s like, ‘No, no.’ At that point, that’s when he knew what was going on.

Dave: At what height were they when he realized that? Obviously it wasn’t enough, but-

Karlene: Oh no, I don’t have the transcript in front of me but I want to say it’s like 2500 feet, something like that.

Dave: Oh, yea.

Karlene: Yea, it was too late. And the really chilling thing is the First Officer in the left seat, you know, says ‘I don’t want to die,’ and, ‘this can’t be happening, I don’t want to die,’ and the pilot in the right seat who was ultimately in control of this airplane said, ‘But what’s happening, I don’t understand.’

Dave: Yea.

Karlene: And that’s really scary.

Dave: And sad.

Karlene: Yea. Yea, it really is sad. And I’m going to give a little shout right now, because on of our check airman- he was my check airman on the 330 when I went through- people said. ‘Oh, you don’t want him, he’s so hard.’ And I’m like, ‘No, I want hard. That’s who I want.’ And he was an excellent instructor, and he knows the airplane really well. He actually wrote the systems manual on the A330 and had put the airplane into service, 320 and 330 into service, over at Northwest. And he is recently- you know, with the shift of companies and outsourcing training and stuff- So he found himself out of an instructing job. And I encouraged him to right a book on Air France, because people want to know really what happened from a systems perspective. And so I assisted in editing it, and we sent it back and forth a couple times, and he finally released it.

And it’s really a good book for anybody who wants to be a better pilot, who wants to understand what happened. And hopefully it’ll put everybody in Europe who lost somebody on that flight’s mind at ease that it’s not a cover up, errors have been made, and there were a lot of stuff going on [sic]. But, his book’s called Understanding Air France, it’s in an ebook format right now, but you can find it on Amazon.

Dave: And I’ll be sure to put it in the show notes, too.

This concludes part 1 of my interview with Karlene. Be sure to listen to part 2!

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4 thoughts on “Pilot Proficiency with airline pilot and author Karlene Petitt”

  1. Paul Piliphsen

    Great podcast. I’m a little confused about Karlene’s
    statement that, “it’s too bad the FAA doesn’t allow glider time.”
    for the ATP. Unless there’s something in the new rules, my reading
    of 61.159 says they would allow glider time. I think you could,
    technically, have 1250 hours of glider time and 250 hours of PIC
    airplane and meet the Aeronautical Experience requirements of the
    ATP. The CFR doesn’t start talking about Category & Class
    until you get to 61.159 a(3) & 61.159 a(5). Up until that
    point the CFR just mentions “total time as a pilot that includes at
    least: 500 hours of cross-country flight time & 100 hours
    of night flight time.” Thanks, Paul

  2. Great conversation.
    I think at the beginning of the digital age, we could take pilot skills for granted. The inspector for Karlene’s 757 checkride was probably right – that day, and her concern for being able to fly the airplane was ahead of its time. You couldn’t have gotten to the airline level without those skills. Meanwhile, the complex autoflight systems took time to learn, especially in the days when nobody carried a little computer around in their pocket! It was still important that the pilot know how to operate their own airplane, and that hasn’t change.
    But those skills can no longer be taken for granted, and thank goodness, the pendulum is starting to swing back. Even skills that once were sharp and unquestionable erode over time when we let the flight director do all the thinking and the autopilot do all the work. New pilots brought up with high functioning autoflight systems may never have had the solid foundation of instrument skills derived from 1,000 hours or more of hand flown attitude instrument flying.
    AF447 and OZ214 remind us that we still have to be a pilot and fly the plane.

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