Congress now backing away from aviation safety enhancements

Posted on 02. Oct, 2009 by in Airline Safety, Featured

Who is lobbying Congress to water down the training and experience requirements for Airline Pilots? Surprisingly, it is the Aviation Schools and Universities, even my alma mater: Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. While an advanced Instructor Pilot (IP) for the Navy, I got my Masters Degree at night from Embry Riddle. It is a great organization and I have stayed connected via the alumni association. In fact, I got an email from them today. My son attends another Aviation University, Central Missouri State, again another excellent school.

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The NTSB investigation of the Buffalo incident sparked this debate, making it clear: There was nothing wrong with the aircraft that crashed in Buffalo; the crew was fatigued, not properly trained, had a record of past check ride failures (Captain) and in the case of the first Officer, paid less than a McDonald’s employee. Look at the picture–that is the result and it is a harsh one. It is also the reality of aviation. If you make a big mistake, people die.

When I was an instructor in the A-4 Skyhawk, we got a new Wing Commander that did not believe in attriting (washing out) weak pilots. Give them extra training and bring them up to speed was the new mantra. There were many happy hour discussions among the incredulous instructors–the consensus? There will be attrition, natural or otherwise. Within a few short month, three former students flew perfectly good, multi-million dollar aircraft into the ground or water. Even after the hardest and most intense flight training in the world. And let’s be clear: once winged, a new Naval Aviator is told to “shut up and join up.” A new guy is put on an old guy’s wing to keep him out of trouble and learn. Unfortunately, there are some functions that a Naval Aviator must perform on their own: getting on board the lead’s wing, delivering their bombs, and landing on the ship. These are the operations the young men died while trying to perform. That is not to say that new guys don’t struggle; most do and are brought up to speed at a pace they can hack. If that pace is not acceptable to the Navy, they are sent home. They do not lead air strikes or get put into a test cockpit out of the Training Command.

In the past, civilian pilots gained their experience flying corporate, small freighters or teaching students. I can tell you through personal experience that nothing “tightens up” your skills like being an IP. You are expected by the student to be perfect. This was the accepted (civilian) path of a Professional Pilot to the airlines.

What has changed? Legacy airlines have outsourced almost half of their flying to regional carriers. These carriers pay so poorly that they cannot attract military or experienced civilian pilots. So they have become the new training ground for the industry, where inexperienced pilots “build time.” Pilots are being hired into jet cockpits to fly passengers, never having flown one. Never having been trained in swept wing, jet powered aircraft. The airlines are not set up to teach flying. They are set up to teach a specific aircraft. The system is set up assuming the Professional Pilot is indeed a Professional Pilot, not a student who has never flown in the clouds or in a jet in his or her life. It is not set up to take a graduating student with 200 hours from a Cessna to the top of the civilian aviation pyramid (swept wing jets). Keep in mind the military students were trained in swept winged jets, and still were not trusted as a “full up round.”

A few years ago, a Regional Jet fell out of the sky onto my home state of Missouri. It was a ferry flight, so the deaths were limited to the pilots. What was wrong with the aircraft? Nothing–that is to say, initially nothing. The crew climbed the aircraft to the top of its operating envelope but didn’t understand mach or transonic air flow–or even basic jet engine operation. They stalled the aircraft, snuffed the engines, and then burnt them up attempting to re-start them at too slow of an indicated airspeed. Their fate was sealed due to a lack of training. This was a fully qualified Captain and First Officer and neither understood the basics of operating a swept winged jet.

So why on earth would the Aviation Universities and Schools want to water down the Federal requirements? In a word: survival. Part 141 Flight Schools are shuttering their doors; the Aviation Universities are barely hanging on. As always, the root cause is money. At my son’s age, my father-in-law looked into getting a pilot license. Total cost for a Private license: 100 dollars. Back then, an airline captain’s pay was on par with a surgeon, CEO, or a lawyer at a top law firm. Flash forward to today: my son just completed Flight A (halfway) for his Private. Total cost: 4,500 dollars (flight time only, not including college courses), which will put it at almost 100 times what my father-in-law would have paid for his. AND an airline captain now makes less than a longshoreman.

The last thing keeping the doors open at flight schools is the promise of a jet at graduation. The schools fear, and rightfully so, that if that goes away, so will all their remaining students.

How bad is it? My son tells me that the instructors are now making fun of the aviation students in his University. Why? Because they are “wasting their time spending a hundred grand for a 20K job”–these are the aviation instructors, by the way.

So what is the solution? Short term, I see no other quick “patch” than the ATP (1,500 hour) requirement. Safety must trump all other concerns. Admittedly, that does not fix the training problem. However, experience will teach a pilot how to keep the aircraft in the heart of the envelope. He becomes more of an operator than Aviator, but for now it will have to do.

The FAA must address the fact that young pilots are moving into swept winged jets never having been trained in them. This is where the Universities and Part 141 Schools could show leadership. They must initiate syllabi that address swept winged jets in theory and operation. They must purchase jet simulators; I realize jet training is beyond the economic realities of any organization other than a Government. Simulators are not. As part of the syllabus they need to train students at the edge of operational envelopes so they understand clearly what happens when that envelope is exceeded. Not a couple of “gee-whiz joy rides”–an intense syllabus.

They must push these simulators to the limit and beyond; over and over again until recovering is instinctual. The entire world’s training programs need to be over hauled. They were designed in the 1930s, when all aircraft were piston powered and had straight wings. It is time to bring training up to date. No more Buffalos.

What is IATA’s (International FAA) solution? IATA’s solution to the shortage of experienced and well-trained pilots is to remove the requirements for training and experience (via MPL). More on that later.

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