By Rod Machado
When Meriwether Lewis (of the Lewis and Clark expedition) encountered the Hidatsas indian tribe for the first time, he attempted to explain the idea of peace between nations to an assembly of young braves. While discussing the tragic cost of war, one young Hidatsas indian brave asked Meriwether Lewis the following question: If we don’t have war, how will we know how to pick our chiefs? In the warrior’s world, chiefs were chosen based on their battlefield experience.
Traditionally, commercial aviation selects its pilots in a similar way. The more experience that pilots have, the more likely they are to be hired (all else being equal, of course). On the other hand, is flight experience the only means by which we should select applicants for copilot duty on a commercial airliner? Is it possible that good training, at least to some degree, can compensate for what pilots lack in their logbook’s waistline? Perhaps there’s an additional way to choose our aviation chiefs that offers a comparable degree of safety.
Here's Where I Stand
Let me begin by nailing my colors to the mast so you’ll know my position on this topic. My claim is that no logical reason, historical reason, or evidence supports the claim that airline pilot new-hires need 1,500 hours of flight time and an ATP certificate as minimum entry qualifications. Instead, 500 hours of flight time with a commercial certificate, an instrument rating, and a multi-engine rating are sufficient entry-level qualifications for the second-in-command position on a Part-121 airline operation. A college degree, especially in dance theory, need not be a new-hire requirement (although this might ensure that pilots might actually use their rudder pedals). Now, let me back up my claim.
The evidence suggests that properly chosen pilot applicants who’ve received good training early in their career development are quite capable of filling the copilot’s seat on a commercial airliner. That evidence is indisputable. Over the past several decades, many European and Asian airlines have successfully integrated pilots with as little as 250 hours of flight time into copilot positions. Furthermore, many European countries have copilots licensed under the MPL, or multi-crew pilot license program. This program provides upwards of 240 hours of training, primarily in advanced flight simulators, and requires as little as 35 hours of actual flight time in a small airplane. Of course, the MPL program is competency-based and heavily emphasizes the human performance aspect of aviation training (i.e., judgment training over flight experience). Has the MPL been successful? In short, the answer is yes. So much so that the program continues to this day in countries other than the United States. While extensive flight experience is undoubtedly valuable, it shouldn’t be a limiting factor to airline flight crew employment. History certainly supports this position, too.
Hiring Low-Time Pilots as Copilots
In the mid-1960s, an “authentic” pilot shortage encouraged several major airlines to hire private pilots for flight crew positions. Once hired, these airlines paid for the additional training that elevated the applicant’s skill level sufficient to obtain a commercial certificate, instrument rating, and multi-engine rating, culminating in approximately 300 hours of total flight time. The applicants were then sent off to the flight deck in snappy uniforms where they gained additional experience as flight engineers or copilots before moving onward and upward to more senior flight crew positions.
What happened as a result of 300-hour pilots employed in flight crew positions? Nothing. That’s the point. There was no public outcry for increasing new-hire pilot experience due to low-time flight crewmembers turning airliners into debris fields. Something similar happened just before 9-11 when regional airline companies were scooping up 400-hour pilots for copilot positions. As long as these pilots had good training, they easily integrated into advanced flight crew positions. The key words here are “good training.”
What Happened in Nam Didn’t Stay in Nam
During the early part of the Vietnam war, the United States lost fighter pilots at a staggering rate. Then someone noticed that pilots who returned from at least five combat missions were likely to return from 90% of all future combat missions. Here is where experience counts, assuming you can stay alive long enough to acquire it. In response to our initial losses, the military started the Top Gun school, where fighter pilots received their first five simulated but highly realistic combat missions early in their careers (this is scenario-based training at its best). The results? Good training dramatically increased the survival rate of inexperienced fighter pilots. This wasn’t, however, primarily stick and rudder training. After all, these pilots already knew how to fly. Instead, it was mainly judgment training that increased the survival rate of combat sorties.
Good Training Implies Less In-flight Experience Needed
If you need proof that good training can be a partial substitute for flight experience, look at the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate requirements. Instead of requiring 1,500 hours of flight time for an ATP certificate, military pilots can apply at 750 hours. Wait a minute. Doesn’t this contradict the FAA’s and Congress’ assumption that 1,500 hours of total flight time and ATP qualification are necessary to ensure the safety of airline passengers? Well, it’s not a contradiction when you realize that the FAA and Congress are willing to eliminate half of the ATP flight time requirement as long as the pilot receives good training. Good training is precisely what the U.S. military offers.
On the other hand, the FAA recently rejected Republic Airway’s bid to reduce the total flight time required to qualify for a commercial airline flight crew position. It seems that Republic argued that its program—LIFT: Leadership in Flight Training—is just as good as the U.S. military’s and produces equally capable pilots. The FAA, however, said there was no evidence (data) that supported Republic’s claim. My guess is that Republic offered the least defendable argument in support of its request. US military training is unique on many levels, each of which is most likely superior to its civilian counterpart. Generally speaking, you don’t want to compare yourself against the best when you can compare yourself against the possible. A better argument that offers decades of supporting evidence could be made by presenting a training curriculum based on the European MPL program but with a moderately more robust experience requirement. Once again, prior to 9-11, regional carriers were successfully integrating many 400-hour commercial, instrument, multi-rated pilots into flight crew positions. Arguments of this nature decloak and lay bare the blatantly political decision by which Congress mandated the 1,500-hour/ATP requirements for airline new-hires.
One Pilot’s Failure With the Elevator Control Becomes a Big Transportation Problem
Political decision? Yes, of course it was. The FAA was either unwilling or incapable of preventing the Congressional overkill levied by its 1,500-hour/ATP new-hire requirements resulting from the 2009 Colgan crash. Did anyone in Congress or the FAA stop and think that both pilots involved in that accident already had ATP certificates and more than 1,500 hours of flight time each? In fact, the captain on that airplane had 3,379 hours of flight time while the copilot had 2,244 hours. If total flight time was the mitigating factor that determines a pilot’s competence, why didn’t Congress mandate 3,380 hours as the new flight time minimum for all airline new-hires? At least this might have given Congress’ rule-making process the veneer of logic.
The fact is that pilot flight time wasn’t responsible for this accident; the pilot’s lack of skill holds that distinction. According to the NTSB, the pilot didn’t respond appropriately to a stall. Instead, he successfully managed to hold the airplane in a stall for 37 seconds before it struck the ground. Culpability also lies with the company’s training program which failed to properly prepare its pilots to recover from approach stalls.
Sadly, the FAA and Congress learned the wrong lesson from the tragic Colgan crash. Instead of learning that pilot flight time means nothing without proper training, they learned that new-hire airline pilots need the same pilot certificates held by the ill-fated crew and 27% of their total-summed flight time. In other words, all airline new-hires need to be less qualified than the crew that crashed an airliner. Yes, I’m being facetious, but please tell me where my conclusion isn’t an accurate reflection of the FAA/Congress-mandated rule change. There’s simply no logic here that supports these new-hire experience requirements, at least in terms of how it might have prevented the Colgan crash. The fact is that the numerical value of “1,500 hours” does have historical significance. Unfortunately, it’s a significance that fails to support the FAA/Congress new-hire rule change.
History Suggests the FAA and Congress Were Wrong
In 1933, the Department of Commerce required pilots who act as pilot-in-command (think, Captain) of an aircraft engaged in scheduled airline passenger service to have an air transport rating. This rating required 1,200 hours of flight time (see this link, page #386). In 1969 the FAA increased this minimum flight time to 1,500 hours. These regulations never required the ATP certificate for any pilot operating in the capacity of a copilot. Therefore, we have over 90 years of history supporting the idea that copilots don’t need 1,200 or 1,500 hours to perform the job of second-in-command. Furthermore, a large portion of this history occurred at a time when airplanes were far more challenging to fly. In other words, these machines didn’t have autopilots, radar, TCAS, auto-throttles, the ability to climb above the weather, nor a company service to do the pilot’s flight planning, as well as offer in-flight maintenance advice, to name a few.
Most likely, there wasn’t a single person in Congress that understood this history when the Colgan rule was forged. Instead, Congress and the FAA pounced on the “1,500” number like a duck on a June bug because it was convenient and seemed like an offering that would appease an angry public. It didn’t, however, need to be logically rationalized as a good number. As it stands now, the chance of changing this regulation is about as likely as California’s “green” Governor Gavin Newsom giving up his petroleum-based hair jell. That’s not likely to happen.
For this reason, most pilots hired by airlines today have 1,500 hours of flight time and an ATP certificate. The majority of these individuals acquired their flight time by giving flight instruction. It’s true that a willing and capable instructor of good character can learn a lot—a lot!—by teaching others to fly. Unfortunately, not all do. Several years ago the chief instructor for a regional airline told me that he failed half of all the ATP-rated new-hires in a recent class of general aviation pilots. Nearly all of these pilots acquired their experience giving flight instruction. Apparently, they were unable to fly the airplane properly. No, it wasn’t a problem with using cockpit automation. Instead, the challenging part for many of these pilots was hand-flying the airplane, especially during visual approaches. Go figure. For some instructors, teaching others to fly doesn’t necessarily result in meaningful experience, much less good training. It only culminates in a thicker log book.
Ultimately, I have an agenda that might not be obvious here. I’m for promoting general aviation by offering good training to student pilots who are pursuing a private pilot certificate. Instructors who are simply building time and take little interest in their student’s welfare are a detriment to anyone learning to fly. Unfortunately, there are too many instructors who are more interested in personal career development than the progress of their students (please read this blog piece on Bad Instructors). It would be preferable for these instructors to find their way to an airline cockpit sooner rather than later. At least this would better accommodate their self-interests and minimize their negative impact on student pilot training.
So, how should we pick our cockpit chiefs in today’s world? Certainly, we should pick those having practical and authentic experience when possible. I’m all for having two, 30,000-hour pilots in the cockpit, each having gray hair (even if they keep it in their flight bags). Who doesn’t want that? However, individuals of this caliber are hard to come by. The evidence, however, suggests that a properly trained 500-hour pilot having a commercial certificate with instrument and multi-engine ratings is an acceptable minimum for those individuals pursuing an airline career. If you can find copilot candidates with more experience, then that’s something to dance about—especially if you need a little rain.
PS: As a final word--words I've stated many times--I am not anti-FAA or anti-congress. Instead, I'm anti-bad ideas.