“One thing that has characterized the helicopter since its invention in the 1930s” according to the website https://science.howstuffworks.com/transport/flight/modern/ helicopter.htm “has been the absurdity of the machine. The contraption simply looks unable to deliver on its promise, which is to fly up and down, backward and forward, right and left.”
“The famous broadcast journalist Harry Reasoner discussed this apparent paradox in a 1971 commentary he delivered about the use of helicopters in the Vietnam War: ‘A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls working in opposition to each other, and if there is any disturbance in this delicate balance, the helicopter stops flying, immediately and disastrously. There is no such thing as a gliding helicopter.’”
Reasoner’s treatise on helicopters is quoted often, especially by helicopter pilots themselves as evidence of the difficulty of flying helicopters. Yet while Reasoner was reasonably correct about helicopters, he erred in at least one way: helicopters can actually “glide” by autorotating or using gravity and the aircraft’s rapid decent to reverse the flow of air though the rotor blades, thereby creating lift and the ability to glide and ultimately execute a soft landing even if the aircraft’s engines have failed. It’s a difficult and risky procedure, but doable.
While simulators are very good today, they’re still imperfect. They can’t perfectly replicate real flight. Consequently, given the exceedingly (and blessedly) rare need to execute a full autorotation in a real aircraft during an actual in-flight emergency and the difficulty of such maneuvers, pilots would be well-served to have practiced autorotations in real aircraft first. But high costs of and wear and tear on aircraft and risk aversion have relegated these real-life rehearsals to the dust bin of history.
Could practice—or lack thereof—be an issue with the Boeing 737 Max 8 crashes in the news recently? Let me state right up front that while I have five-some thousand flight hours under my belt, the preponderance of them flying helicopters, it has been 20 years since I flew my last real helicopter. And I’m not and never have been a professional airline pilot, nor have I flown a real airliner like the Boeing 737 Max 8. So my flight experience is dated and it’s incomplete for a fully educated discussion of professional airline pilots and their training.
Having clarified these points, “Practice makes perfect” is as true when applied to flying aircraft as it is playing the violin, or excelling at baseball, or at any other endeavor. According to Time Magazine in 2013, “Based on research suggesting that practice is the essence of genius, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that 10,000 hours of appropriately guided practice was ‘the magic number of greatness.’”
“With enough practice, he claimed in his book Outliers, anyone could achieve a level of proficiency that would rival that of a professional.” But recent studies indicate that even “logging 10,000 hours of practice to help you perfect a skill may not be sufficient.”
In my experience flying helicopters—yes it’s dated by almost a generation’s worth of years—we practiced emergency procedures in the actual aircraft every single time we went flying. And still, even with five thousand hours of flight time, I didn’t even come close to the 10,000 hours, or more, MINIMUM necessary to become a professional at emergency procedures.
Helicopters do not, as Reasoner suggested, “want to fly.” So their avionics systems, just like most modern aircraft (especially those carrying passengers including airliners like the Boeing 737 Max 8), are enhanced with artificial stability and control systems—artificial meaning “non-human”. These electronic stability systems attempt to make up for…to augment…that unattainable 10,000 hours of practice needed by the human crew to become true pros. They make flying easier but ultimately control of the aircraft and mission accomplishment are the responsibilities of the human crew—not of the aircraft’s artificial systems, regardless of how vital those systems may be.
In the Marines we practiced “ASE and SAS Off” procedures (Automatic Stabilization Equipment and Stability Augmentation System) even flying in close formation and landing aboard ship. Why? Manmade, artificial stabilization equipment is imperfect. It fails. We didn’t have simulators back then to practice such procedures. To ensure we could still accomplish our missions and land safely with failed stability systems, we practiced real, unstabilized flight. And we practiced it over and over and over again.
So what’s my point?
Could airline companies and pilots be depending too much on artificial stability systems that can—and do—fail? Do they practice the emergency procedures for these failures in real aircraft, especially if the simulations available are imperfect (as they likely are)?
If not, after an aviation mishap it’s prudent to look for procedural, or policy, and/or training upgrades before saddling the taxpayer—or in Boeing’s case the investor and paying public—with the costs of expensive new systems or system upgrades. Perhaps routine practicing of the emergency procedures for failed stabilization in real aircraft could help pilots deal with a rare but hazardous emergency, one with little time to react.
Regardless of the “absurdity of the (flying) machine” and all its artificial systems to keep it flying, it is worth saying again that most of the time humans in the cockpit are responsible. Not machines or avionics.