Flight Path Management Needs A Closer Look

A a panoramic shot of Cali Columbia from the Andes--near where AA 965 crashed.
Credit: Credit Caleb DeGard and Google Earth

The FAA’s Flight Standards Service issued a draft advisory circular, AC 120-FPM, in February about the broad topic of flight path management (FPM). Pending the possible incorporation of public comments and revisions, a final version of the AC will soon be out.

The idea of flight path management seems simple, but it subsumes multiple issues that have arisen in accidents since 1996. The four issues include manual flying, managing automation, monitoring and managing energy.

The decline of pilot manual flying skills has been a topic of interest to the FAA and the industry for a long time. The FAA issued SAFO 13002, “Manual Flight Operations,” in 2013 and updated it in 2017 with SAFO 17007, “Manual Flight Operations Proficiency,” in 2017. Both addressed the fact that continuous use of automated systems failed to reinforce a pilot’s knowledge and skills for manual flight.

The newer SAFO pointed out that airline training programs had been required to include manual slow flight, loss of reliable airspeed, instrument departure and arrival, upset recovery, stall prevention and recovery and bounced landings. It encouraged airlines and charter operators to go further.

SAFO 17007 addressed many conditions that should be trained manually, including mis-trim, go-arounds, visual approaches and split panel auto flight (flight director or autopilot or authothrottle use, but singly, not together).

The new FPM AC addresses problems pilots have had understanding and operating complex automation in their aircraft. It wants pilots to be better trained on “rare normal” and abnormal operations of the auto flight system, including mode awareness, unintended states, data entry errors and common errors.

The new AC wants operators to train pilots on strategies for using different levels of automation, dealing with unexpected mode changes, and when to disengage automation.

Monitoring is another part of better managing automation. The non-flying pilot’s duties are important and too often neglected. They must stay in the loop mentally, be attentive, and be ready to challenge flight path deviations. Training these behaviors is expected to be part of every certificate holder’s program.

Energy management is a fourth topic. Is the aircraft high or low, fast or slow, and is it tracking to return to the proper vertical flight path or speed? Is the aircraft within its operational envelope and will it remain there? Training should include methods to determine flight path, proper use of lift and drag devices, high energy approaches, and the effect of late changes to clearances and vectors off and on complex arrivals.

All these ideas are the outgrowth of a process that began in 1996. That was the year the FAA set up two committees to study the effects of automation, design and inadequate training on crew mistakes. Just the year before, American Airlines 965 crashed near Cali, Columbia. In that accident, the crew entered an erroneous fix into their flight management computer while descending and flew into a nearby mountain. It was a landmark example of crew-automation interface failure.

It was not until September 2013 that the FAA committees finally produced a comprehensive report on the subject. Entitled “Operational Use of Flight Path Management Systems,” it was a creditable first effort to define FPM problems and solutions.

The 279-page report generated 29 findings and 18 recommendations. To me, recommendation nine goes to the core of the entire report. Referring to operator’s policies, it says “The policy should highlight and stress that the responsibility for flight path management remains with the pilots at all times. Focus the policy on flight path management, rather than automated systems.”

Unfortunately, that report arrived two months too late to benefit the crew and passengers of Asiana 214, which crashed at San Francisco International Airport on July 9, 2013.

The Boeing 777 descended into the seawall at SFO and pirouetted down runway 28L in a spectacular fashion. It was perhaps the most prominent case of automation mismanagement in the 21st century.

The investigation of that accident included an in-depth look at the automation policies, training and practices at that airline. In my next column I will discuss some of the eye-opening details of that case.

The Crosscheck column by Roger Cox explores the interaction between regulators/investigators and pilots/operators. Send comments to [email protected].

Roger Cox

A former military, corporate and airline pilot, Roger Cox was also a senior investigator at the NTSB. He writes about aviation safety issues.