Flying as a computer game

The RAeS called its conference this week “Simulation-based training for the digital generation”.

One of the premises is that a full flight simulator is just a particularly immersive computer game.

Well, isn’t it?

If so, the new generation of kids training to be pilots should be brilliant at playing it. And they’ll surely get high scores not just in the simulators, but also in today’s digital flightdecks.

According to Ryanair’s recruiting experience, however, the standards of new pilots today is no better than those in the past, and maybe they’re actually worse.

So perhaps there is something here to analyse and understand, as the RAeS has surmised.

Ah, but today’s 20 to 30-year-old new pilots are the transitionals, not “digital natives”. They did plenty of gaming as children and adolescents, and all their schooling involved digital interfacing at various levels, but they were not given their own iPad when they were two or three years old, as kids are now. Are the latter – the digital natives who have never known a non-digital world – going to be any different?

The industry already knows it has to develop pilot training to be more appropriate for today’s highly automated, ultra-complex smart flightdecks, but maybe at the same time training also has to change to cope with the differences in the learning styles and cerebral knowledge-banks of the digital natives.

Now, with smartphones, no digital native needs a cerebral knowledge bank: answers are available instantly at all times.

But they undoubtedly have a cerebral knowledge bank. What does it contain? They are multi-taskers. Is this good? They may have weaknesses, but what are their strengths, and can these be harnessed for the good of aviation?

These were the questions under examination at the RAeS this week.

Since iPads and other competing tablets were launched beginning in 2010, the first true digital natives will reach pilot training age in about 2027. Will they genuinely be any different from those presenting themselves for training today, whose entire formal educational experience has taken place with digital computers and Google-search an integral part of it?

Although the RAeS pressed its Young Person’s Workshop into service on this issue to good effect at the conference, the decision-makers overseeing the whole process are experienced aviators, engineers and academics with an average age of – probably – about 50. And mostly – although by no means all – male. How would they understand the needs of the next generation when their formative years and learning experiences have been so different?

This is just one of the elusive issues debated at the RAeS this week. The conference sub-heading was: “Attracting, selecting, recruiting and training digital natives for careers in simulation and training.”

But in keeping with the arrogant belief among my self-satisfied generation that the young don’t have an attention span that could cope with it all at once, stay tuned for more about the conclusions and revelations from the RAeS conference on this site shortly.

Meanwhile give us your thoughts – especially the younger brigade, please.

9 thoughts on “Flying as a computer game

  1. Sorry, but as a graduate of the ‘old fart’ school of flying where you started on light twin propeller aircraft and worked your way up bigger, faster and better equipment, I honestly believe that the current and future generation of youngsters entering the business are ill-equipped to cope with much that falls outside the ‘norms’ of what is reproduced in the simulator. How many of them will ever have been in a real situation where their decisions will honestly have a life risk involved?

    For example, any pilot who has not experienced the dilemma of an encounter with real icing where the system fails to cope with ice accretion and a decreasing airspeed in real IFR conditions with limited diversion options or being in IFR and having to deal with some critical instrumentation failure compounded by additional problems, is not going to know how well they’d cope. It’s all very well doing multiple scenarios in a simulator but at the back of their minds will be the knowledge that they are going to walk away from this no matter what the outcome.

    We are producing a generation of pilots who will never have scared themselves into experience. I’m sure the vast majority of them will be fine and manage to cope with any real issues as and when they occur, however less frequent thanks to the newer technologies, but it only takes something as disastrous as the AF447 crash to realise that sometimes, even the most basic of errors can be critical, especially if you’ve never had to make a life saving decision on your own, based on previous experience.

    The new technology is great. Currently flying the B787-9, I can experience the advantages, especially after 10 years on the B747-400 and another 10 years on smaller Boeings, HS748 and EMB110 Bandeirante. What did make a difference though, was that gradual step up in aircraft size, speed and technology. Maybe as a late starter in the job, I needed that more gradual introduction.

    I do wonder though, whether todays generation of new airline pilots who have done so little ‘real’ flying on their MPL courses, will cope in a similar scenario to the Air France 447 situation. I hope I’m proved wrong.


  2. Clearly Danny, from the B-744 to B-789,with an English demeanor of the not “have a nice day”, you must be not only an old fart, but a Virginian old fart. I’m in that old fart category myself from 12 years in both seats on the B-744 of the P&W quartet. And now with 2 years in the B-772 (dry belly, non-ER)B-773ER and B-772LRF. Definitely, the less is more aeroplane. The B-777X of 2020 will illustrate a lot of X-fertilized Boeing 787/777 incest, like the B-744-777 did. So, you will be proved right in future, as past is precedent. And what generation “APP” don’t realise is that Boeings and Airbuses may be FBW, not fly by Wi-Fi, but wings always fly by air. AF447 QED!


    • Aye, a Virginian ‘old fart’ I am. My conversion from the B744 to the B789 involved a short Star course with BA on the B777 and 5 trips as one of their pilots before going back on the B744 for a month and then my OCC to the B787. Interestingly, I and most of my colleagues who did the B777 course (some with BA and some with KLM) have found there to be little comparison between the two types.

      Yes, they both rely on airspeed for lift and operating engines for thrust. However, whilst both are fairly typical ‘Boeing’ in their layout, there are significant differences with the B787 being overwhelmingly ‘electric’ and of course, the HUD which is very good but with it’s own problems such as reducing some situational awareness.

      The CAA believe that they are one and the same for type rating purposes but apart from the electronic check-list and the fact that both are fly-by-wire, not much else is the same, especially when it comes to displays. There is one concession to both types in the FCM which states that we should turn on the HYD switches in reverse order, a la B777, although it would not affect anything if we did them in any other particular order.

      As for the ‘youth’ who are destined to fly these beautiful aircraft with little experience of anything but a simulator, good luck to them. I think they’ll have missed out on much needed ‘experience’ of airmanship during confidence crushing weather and mechanical disruption. Hopefull, the poor old line trainers who will have to nurse and teach them the ‘job’ will have enough time and patience to make sure they are well rounded in their decision making abilities, especially in light of their much lower experience levels of basic airmanship.


  3. Aye, aye Danny. Indeed on the B-787 vs B-777, It appears that pilots who qualify for a B-787 initial (non-FAA) Type Rating automatically appropriate a B-777 Type Rating also. But pilots who qualify for an initial B-777 Type Rating from ,let’s say, a B-744, have no-such grandfather-like, Type Rating appropriation rights. I guess it’s a hangover of “tradition being the spoiled child of bad habit”, illustrated from the B-757/767, A-310/A-300-600 and A-330/A-340 history ?. Still, in principal, it’s not a bad habitual idea per se, from those aforementioned types. Alluding to what you say, the B-744 has more in common with the B-777 than the B-777 has in common with the B-787. Keep the B-787 HUD-side up.
    As for illustration of lack of basic airmanship, there is none better for all Boeing-and indeed Airbus- pilots than Boeing’s submission to the NTSB investigation of Asiana 214 argument with the KSFO RWY 28L seawall on July 6 2013. It was published on St. Paddy’s Day 2014 and is the best “customer scathing” Boeing document I have ever read. These Korean muppets make AF447’s crew look like Battle of Britain aces. Pyongyang and Seoul seem like planets in different orbits, but a rote-learned hierarchical culture of deference is one of their common DNA traits and very relevant from Air Koryo-Korean Air-Asiana. Same movie, different cinema, predictable ending with monotonous regularity.

    Click to access Boeing-Submission-Asiana-214-NTSB.pdf

    On page 14 of 24.
    CVR: [sound similar to electronic seat adjustment] (CVR 11:27:38.2)
    CVR: [sound of quadruple chime] (CVR 11:27:39.3)
    CVR: one hundred. [electronic voice] (CVR 11:27:41.6)
    FDR: thrust to full power PM: speed. (CVR 11:27:42.8)
    CVR: speed * *. (unclear which crew member said this) (CVR 11:27:44.0)
    DISCUSSION: At this point, airplane pitch attitude was over 7 degrees and increasing. An electric seat motor is recorded on the CVR. Only the two pilot seats are electrically controlled, both fore/aft and up/down, the observer seat is not electric. Therefore, either the PF or PM had to adjust his seat at 130 feet on short final, likely because he was finding it difficult to see the PAPI due to the pitch attitude of the airplane.
    18 years of B-777 inclusive, Man-Machine interface interactive latent success in 83 secs to FLCH-up to HOLD.
    Asiana is a Korean carrier, as all readers of Learmount know, but the KTVU Fox Noise comedy of 12:00 PST on Friday July 12 was comedy gold, bar-pardon the pun- none. Capt. Park Tu-soon would have been more ethnically apt, but comedy is paramount capital to illustrate a Pan-Asian stereotype for good old comedic prejudice. It has it’s uses.
    So Capt. Sum Ting Wong in the left trainee seat, FLCH’d Up to leave the throttles in HOLD, without disconnecting, assuming an A/T wakeup 10 knots into the amber band. The full-time A/T is Good, not God, it thinks, “you put me into physical HOLD, so HOLD me until you make up your FLCHing mind”, breaking the cardinal rule of FLCHing inside of the FAF. Capt. Wi Tu Lo in the right seat, as instructor PIC previously remarked on being too high and too low. His idea of AIRMANSHIP was not to grab the yoke from the PF and push the nose down to aid the wing’s respiration deficit, but to adjust his seat, if you don’t mind, to get a better view of the impending crash. F/O Ho Lee Fuk sitting in between his fellow rote-learned Koreans, made some observations of the sink rate, to no avail. In the meantime, CRZ Capt. Bang Ding Ow, was sitting on his arse in business class. The reason being from their pilot union is that for him to sit in the cockpit for his non-duty period would have him being a designated safety pilot requiring a pay increment. Basic airmanship should not require a remuneration increment to keep one out of excrement.
    Of course, parody to irony came full circle from Seattle on July 27 2013. That was the delivery of HL8284, the last B-772ER built, to Asiana, of course. Who needs fiction ?
    As for a further recent example of Korean CRM Airmanship, look no further than KAL86, an A-380 de-facto hijacked by a ranting, raving passenger from KJFK-RKSI on Dec 5 2014. The “so-called”, Captain off-loaded at her Chaebol daughter demand a legally rostered crew member. In my view, that Captain should have been jailed for gross dereliction of duty to crew and pax. Only Korean nationals operate the A-380 for KAL.
    Parody beyond fiction again…QED!


  4. Hello David,

    A fantastic article. I started following your blog after attending the pilot training conference at the Royal Aeronautical society headquarters a couple of months ago. I was a student from CAE Oxford who was first to stand up and give his opinion on current pilot training, its costs and what could possibly be done to help future cadets gain access to this amazing industry.

    This article is particularly interesting and now that my first set of EASA exams are over I have a bit more time to think about it. Personally for me, I hope that training does not become more digital, I hope training providers resist the urge to utilise digital means of instruction for certain aspects of training. Computers, ipads etc are fantastic at supporting and enhancing learning but I would take a textbook, written notes and person to person instruction any day of the week (I am seeing more and more courses in any profession becoming available through computer and computer only). In certain aspects of training, mainly simulated as you mentioned, computers and Ipads would make a fantastic addition to the training syllabus. I personally have used a flight simulator to assist me in certain aspects of my learning. I have used it for example when learning about VOR fixing, flying to and from VOR’s as I found that it helped me grasp a area which I struggled with at first. It must however be used very carefully as the lack of monitoring from a instructor could potentially cause problems.

    It’s a very interesting topic and one I will be thinking about a bit more over the coming few weeks. I look forward to reading your future posts and I am always happy to offer a opinion of a cadet currently going through training! Thanks,

    Joshua Drabble


    • I was also curious if you had any thoughts or heard any news or discussions about what the industry is trying to do to combat the use of lasers? Horrible story regarding a British Airways pilot who suffered a serious injury as a result of a attack from a laser!!


  5. Below is a nearly Dutch Rolling PH-PVB, a B-773ER of KLM Asia flying a gusty approach and landing to EHAM’s RWY 36R on July 25 2015. As is apparent from the reduced inboard camber of the trailing edge flaps. This is Flaps 25 rather than Flaps 30, yielding a VREF of +5 minimum threshold target of 5 knots less, giving the air less rolling leverage in such X-wind conditions.

    The Flaps 5 -20 takeoff range yields a 10 knots VR spread by contrast. These are slightly rough “rule of thumb” figures, but in a “Non App”, shaven salt and pepper head, as mine, provide a muppet margin of “Gross Error Mitigation”, for simple minds as mine.
    Also, one will notice that PH-PVB has a tailskid on its arse. Therefore this is pre-2014 Seattle progeny. This shaved 323LBS/147KGS from the OEW. Not to mention incremental aggregate CRZ fuel burn improvement. Of course, the B-787 has no tailskid. The TSP software improvement translates as pilot muscle hardware and a “de-facto” near stick pusher, yoke resistance effort-with the elevator moving in opposition to the yoke’s VR aft movement- to tailstrike from previous neural bio-software miscalculation of taking off with Flaps 20 VR with Flaps 5 and a Flaps 5 VR set, for example. But if one really makes a beefy effort, a tailstrike is still possible of course, like a sudden runway incursion, for example. One never knows.
    This is Boeings homage to Toyota’s “Kaizen” or continuous improvement. In VW this was taken to another level of “Vorsprung durch Technik” or “Advancement through Technology”. In the US it is “Truth in Engineering”. In God and Thanksgiving we trust, indeed. In the Germany of Joseph Goebbels, Adolph’s PR Guru, his truth is timeless. Adolf probably could not have imagined his VW project of 1932 to VW of 2015’s emissions scandal. As Joe said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
    Luckily for me, I am a 20 year devout disciple of Fr. Ted Crilly of Craggy Island and his PIC, Bishop Len Brennan of course. Never truer truth spoken by them and none ever will, I suspect.
    In practical English this translates as, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying. If you get caught, you’re not trying hard enough”. German humour is clearly no laughing matter. Wilhelm Böing of Hagen -father of William Boeing of Detroit- was, thankfully for aviation, no Joseph Goebbels of Dusseldorf.
    KLM Asia is an overt example of political hot and cold wind to appease the political cross winds of the Taiwan Strait. This is the residue of tradition being the spoilt child of bad habit. The Republic of China on Taiwan of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek or Cash My-check, from the Communist Mao side of the strait. Every western consumer product in the 1970’s and 1980’s was “Made in Taiwan/HK”, but eventually after PRC-China rather than ROC-China won the upper political-economic hand European and Asian flag carriers wanted their bread buttered on both political and economic sides. So was born Japan Asia Airways, British Asia Airways, Air France Asie etc. KLM seems to be the last man standing on that political polder.
    But the wind is the truth that innocently billows the swastika or windsock and cares not a jot of what is printed on one’s licence or painted upon one’s fuselage. Human hands and feet, eyes and ears required. Any 2, in any combination, of the “ Airspeed, Altitude and Intelligence are required for sustained-non computer game- flight. Also worth noting is the B-777 A/T action in this landing. The PFD’s FMA would read from left to right, SPD/LOC/G/S. The A/T is fulltime interactive for just this potential windshear condition. The speed trend vector will show a trend deficit or surplus, the pilot may feel it, but the A/T will not react so quickly. By having the A/T fulltime armed and on, the B-744 A/T gap was closed. This “mind the gap” closure opens the pilot’s judgement and hand movement, without disconnecting. That’s the optimal non-drone interaction between man and beast, at least of the Boeing bestial stable. The SPD can be pushed forward or pulled back and thereafter, the A/T will assume its previous position and “IDLE” at 25FT RAD ALT. If the throttles were hand overridden at this stage, the A/T would disconnect, the FMA window would blank and the A/T revert to armed status. Not a computer game, but the next better thing.


  6. Hi David,

    I’ve been reading your blog(s) for a long time now, and your articles in Flightglobal.

    After wanting to fly for many years, inspired by my father in the Fleet Air Arm, I’ve now undertaken to get my PPL, and it’s as fulfilling as I thought it would be.

    What interests me about this particular post is the discussion of digital training methods. I don’t want to turn it into an argument about the rights and wrongs of software simulation, but thought I’d throw in my thoughts.

    I started my career writing avionics software at what’s now BAESystems. Growing up with my dad in the 1980s, we flew a lot of model aircraft together and played an awful lot with flight simulators on the early computers of the day.

    My biggest concern about digital training is the detachment from the physical environment; my experience of flying is that constant vigilance is required on the task in hand – flying the aircraft. From my work with consumer electronics, it seems that the user is required to be constantly switching between many, often unrelated tasks. And it’s this switching that I believe is the problem – it’s all too easy to become fixated on one particular task – especially with the MFDs fitted today.

    On a recent flight to San Diego, I spoke with a BA Captain who (rightly) took some offence to my suggestion that the job of a Captain was a computer systems manager these days, and said he would much rather fly – and hinted that he was firmly in the Boeing camp (which was nice, as it was on a 777, which I worked on!)

    A big problem is that most of us software engineers who design these systems, don’t understand what is required in the cockpit. I find the introduction of consumer electronics, such as iPads, etc into the cockpit to be particularly scary. Not only do these devices present the possibility of distractions, but the software that is running on them will not be developed to safety-critical standards – and even if it were, the devices they are running on are not.

    And as we know from recent incidents, an “always-on” data connection is not possible at great distance from a communications link, so a reliance on “answers always being available at any time” isn’t a realistic option.

    Having re-read what I’ve written, this does seem a long and waffling first post on your blog, David, but I’ll try and sum up the points I want to make:

    1) The shift-change in attention span with the introduction of the glass-cockpit and the modal presentation of critical data
    2) The introduction of consumer electronics into safety-critical environments
    3) Incomplete and/or inaccurate simulations of real-life situations

    Oh – and I’m very much with Joshua about lasers being shone at aircraft. We could also add drones being flown around airfields into the discussion, too.

    Best regards,

    Paul Gomme


  7. Here is a great example of digital detachment from the physical environment of “Flying as a Computer Game”. It was AF471 from Caracas/SVMI on a CATIII “LAND3” Final Approach to Autolanding on Paris/LFPG’s RWY 08R on Nov 16 2011. At 320FT RAD ALT, the PFD’s Autoland status changed from LAND3 -Fail Operational to >LAND2LAND2LAND2LAND2< CATIIIA, 50FT DH-Alert Height, Radio Mins/ 200MTRS RVR (FLARE)
    Wx on the day:
    LFPG 160830Z 11008kt 022 R27L/0400V550N R09R/0500D R26R/1100U R08L/0450N R26L/0550 R08R/0400N R27R/0500N R09L/0400N FG VV// 02/02 Q1019 NOSIG

    Click to access f-pp111116.en.pdf


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