Pilot Handling Skills

Pilot Handling Skills


Manual Flying Skills are typically thought of as pure core flying skills, where manoeuvres are flown solely by reference to raw data obtained from the heading, airspeedattitudealtitude and vertical speed instruments, and without the use of technology such as auto-throttles, auto-pilot, flight director or any other flight management system. This might extend as far as requiring manual trim inputs and navigation using basic systems.

Pilot Handling Skills will include all the above manual flying skills, but may also relate to combinations of manual flying, speed and directional control together with combinations of automatic speed and direction control and guidance. Such combinations may occur through pilot preference, operational or procedural requirements, or when some automated systems are no longer functioning.

Whereas commercial airline pilots may once have been assessed wholly on their manual flying (aircraft handling) skills, nowadays pilot assessment is predominantly based on Systems and Crew Management, where management of the automated systems and maintenance of situational awareness replace many of the traditional flying skills.


Pilots require handling skills in a variety of situations including:


There are many arguments suggesting that commercial airline pilot handling (flying) skills have become eroded since the growth in popularity of fly-by-wire, glass-cockpit, fully automated, system-designed aircraft[1]. One could add to this the routine nature of many flight operations, the growth in controlled airspace and widespread availability of Instrument Landing Systems (ILS). Pilots flying with commercial airlines will typically only fly manually for the first and last few minutes of each flight. If a pilot logs 900 hours in a single year, fewer than 5 hours may involve manual flying. Also, more and more pilots flying today have never experienced an Industry where flying manually was, or is, the norm, unlike older pilots where these skills became “hard-wired”. This can further dilute the overall levels of pilot handling skills within an airline.

The majority of fatal, and non-fatal accidents, continue to occur during landing and go-around phases of flight[2], and loss of control (in-flight) continues to be the predominant category of fatal accidents[3]. Other areas of safety concern, for the Industry, include unstabilised approachesrunway excursions, heavy landings, tail-scrapes[4][5]level-busts, and engine and airframe exceedance of parameters. Each of these phases of flight and accident categories (above) would appear to involve pilot handling skills. Whilst it would be wrong to identify lack of manual flying skills as the cause to all of these, especially where loss of situational awareness, system malfunction, environmental factors and poor Crew Resource Management (CRM) were involved, it nonetheless does indicate that effectively applied pilot handling skills may help prevent accidents and reduce the consequences of errors.

Therefore, any arguments suggesting that commercial airline pilot handling (flying) skills have become eroded should be examined seriously.


The increased sophistication and use of automation has improved safety by reducing the workload on pilots, allowing them greater capacity and time to make forward judgements and decisions as well as “manage” better the aircraft systems and crew. Pilots learn to fly (i.e. their core manual flying skills) by correcting aircraft flight parameters based on their predictions to a projected forward goal – i.e. straight and level flight, or touchdown. However, with multiple levels of automation and flight modes it is very difficult for pilots to predict what the consequences of various failures will be in every given situation. Part of the necessary response to automation failures is to apply manual flying (handling) skills[6]. Increased reliance on automation by flight crews has created a risk that crewmembers may no longer have the skills required to react appropriately to either failures in automation[1]. Therefore, operators should ensure that training programmes include means and standards to be met regarding the interaction of human performance and limitations with changes to the normal operation of the automation[7].

Training and Practice

Basic flying training is predominantly focused on manual handling and becoming proficient in core flying skills. By the time a pilot completes professional training the emphasis is on system and crew management. During a pilot’s professional career as a commercial airline pilot he/she will be required to demonstrate regularly proficiency in certain handling skills, and under certain conditions, i.e. conducting a safe take-off with the loss of one engine, or, flying an ILS approach to go-around at decision height, also with one engine inoperative.

It is important for airlines to monitor the skill levels of pilot handling, perhaps through flight data monitoring programmes and line flying and simulator observations; then to use this feedback to adjust training syllabi. It is also important for airlines to integrate automation use and degradation into training to reflect operational conditions involving manual handling skills – automation not just a theoretical subject.

It may be necessary to provide pilots with additional flight simulator training specifically aimed at addressing pilot handling skills deficiencies.

Accidents & Incidents

Events in the SKYbrary database which include Manual Handling as a contributory factor:

On 31 January 2022, a Bombardier Challenger 604 pilot lost control during the final stages of a London Stansted night crosswind landing. A bounced nose-gear-first touchdown was followed by a brief runway excursion onto grass before a return to the runway and a climb away. A diversion to London Gatwick followed without further event but subsequent inspection revealed structural and other damage sufficient to result in the aircraft being declared an economic hull loss. The Stansted touchdown was found to have occurred after a premature flare at idle thrust continued towards the stall and a momentary stick pusher activation occurred.

On 8 January 2020, an ATR 42-500 veered off the side of the runway at Amami after touchdown whilst attempting to complete a crosswind landing following a crosswind approach in potentially limiting conditions. It was concluded that directional control had been lost during touchdown because of sub optimal use of the combination of flight control inputs and power at and immediately after touchdown following an essentially stabilised visual approach. The aircraft manufacturer was prompted to make some changes of emphasis in normal operations guidance during the landing roll.

On 6 November 2018, an Airbus A340-600 in the cruise northbound over the Swiss Alps received an overspeed warning after encountering an unexpected wind velocity change but the crew failed to follow the prescribed response procedure. This led initially to a climb above their cleared level and further inappropriate actions were then followed by PAN and MAYDAY declarations as control of the aircraft was briefly lost in a high speed descent to below their cleared level. The operator subsequently enhanced pilot training realism by providing it in a simulator configured for the aircraft variant operated and introduced ‘upset recovery training’.

On 11 October 2019, an Embraer ERJ195LR abandoned an initial landing attempt at Warsaw after a hard bounce but the correct go-around procedure was not followed. The rate of climb rapidly increased to over 4000 feet per minute. Concurrently, the required engine thrust was not set and airspeed rapidly diminished to a point where the stick shaker was activated. Stall and Upset Recovery procedures were not correctly followed and the aircraft commander was slow to take control of the situation. Full control was regained at 1,200 feet above ground level and a subsequent approach and landing were without further event.

On 21 October 2020, an Embraer ERJ170 on short final at Paris CDG responded to a Windshear Warning by breaking off the approach and climbing. The Warning soon stopped but when the aircraft drifted sideways in the strong crosswind towards the adjacent parallel runway from which an Airbus A320 had just taken off, an STCA was quickly followed by a TCAS RA event. The Investigation was concerned at the implications of failure to climb straight ahead from parallel runways during unexpected go-arounds. Safety Recommendations were made on risk management of parallel runway operations by both pilots and safety regulators.

Related Articles

Further Reading


  1. a b Flight Safety Foundation Increased Reliance on Automation May Weaken Pilots’ Skills for Managing System Failures.
  2. ^ Boeing Statistical Summary of Commercial Jet Airplane Accidents 1959 – 2012
  3. ^ EASA Annual Safety Review 2012
  4. ^ Airbus Flight Operations Briefing Note: Preventing Tailstrike at Landing.
  5. ^ Airbus Flight Operations briefing Note: Preventing Tailstrike at Takeoff.
  6. ^ A332, en-route, Atlantic Ocean, 2009
  7. ^ EASA Automation Policy: Bridging Design and Training Principles. Version of 14 January 2013.

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