Monday, February 14, 2011

1500 and the Real Problem

I don't just fly with primary students. When you work for a Part 61 flight school, you fly with people who have trained with other instructors; some of them come to you for advanced ratings, some come to you for flight reviews, and some just come to you for some proficiency flying. (Unfortunately, the people who really need proficiency flying aren't the ones engaging flight instructors for the task, but that's a topic for another blog entry).

I've noticed a few trends. People aren't taught basic airmanship anymore. They can't use the rudder pedals very effectively. They have problems communicating on the radio. They depend upon automation rather than managing it as a cockpit tool. I've even flown with an individual recently who was never taught how to plot a cross-country flight on an aviation sectional chart (map).

These people didn't seek lackluster training on purpose; they're well-meaning pilots who gracefully accept and integrate critiques. And, I'm not saying that I am perfect at teaching those competencies, but I do commit myself every day to get better and better at presenting and reinforcing behavior that builds them in my students. Finally, I'm not laying all the blame at the instructors' feet; Designated Pilot Examiners are supposed to be the FAA's critical eye and sometimes get way too cozy with flight schools. Some of them are even on flight school payrolls, and this apparently doesn't raise too many eyebrows.

These problems (and to be sure, plenty of others) are beginning to be reflected widely in the aviation industry.

A Solution Looking for a Problem

The title of today's blog is 1500, and that's how many hours that the U.S. Congress wants (at a minimum) the FAA to begin requiring all airline new-hires to have in their logbooks. It's in the name of your safety, they say, and they cite the 2009 Colgan accident in Buffalo as the tipping point. In fact, popular public opinion holds that regional airline pilots are "low-time" and "inexperienced."

Let's talk hours: Does anybody know how many the flight crew on Colgan 3407 had? Raise your hand.

Captain Renslow had 3,379. First Officer Shaw had 2,244. You read that correctly.

According to the NTSB, the Colgan accident was the result of a lot of factors: lack of professionalism in the cockpit, degraded situational awareness, fatigue, improper stall recovery, and several other factors. What the Colgan accident was not the result of was low flight hours.

What problem are we really fixing?


Experience as a pilot and time spent in the airplane are not always directly correlated. A recent study featured in Aero Safety World magazine found that a sample of 30 experienced airline pilots could not peform several basic instrument flying tasks, without automation, to the standards of the pilot certificate they hold (Airline Transport Pilot). We're talking been there, done that grey hairs.

There's your automation dependency right there. But wait, there's more.

The Flight Instructor Factor

Being a Certified Flight Instructor is a great way to build experience as well as build flight time, but you have to have the right attitude in order to benefit from it. This is a job that you have to approach as a learner...if you're not actively reflecting on what you're learning while you work with students, it's all just empty flight time.

"Okay," you say," if time as an instructor is so great for your piloting abilities, then making people instruct till they have 1500 hours will be great for aviation safety and pilot experience."

I wish it were that simple. I see the potential some good stuff and some bad stuff coming out of this. You'll see some conflicting and somewhat mutually-exclusive arguments here.

Good first:

1. When airlines were snapping up pilots who had between 250-500 hours, it was a buyer's market and lower pay was tolerated. One school of thought suspects that starting pay for brand new First Officers is going to have to begin an upward creep. Otherwise, we'll never be able to attract the kind of person who'll put up with this much to attain a career goal, and the system will continue to degrade.

2. Instructors who embrace the instructor-as-learner approach I talked about will in fact be more qualified when they reach the airlines.

3. Warm fuzzies: The general public will feel great that First Officer So-and-So isn't fresh off of his Multi-Commercial checkride.

Bad stuff:

1. The grass is always greener. Quality of flight instruction, which already sucks way too often, will go downhill even further due to bored, frustrated CFI's having to bide their time until they get the call. You have to be engaged in this job to be good at it. If quality of instruction continues its downward spiral, the industry continues to crumble.

2. The regional carriers continue to pay pilots poorly, because they're regional carriers and that's what they do, and they can still find a guy who'll take your place. So First Officer So-and-So has a moutain of debt that he can't pay and is constantly stressed about it, and ends up leaving aviation. The pilot shortage becomes more acute and the industry continues to crumble.

(Or, he leaves aviation to become a reality TV star and pick the trashiest possible woman on The Bachelor).

3. Policymakers continue to focus on hours instead of qualitative experience, and these "experienced" kid wonders continue to make stupid mistakes and kill people.

So We're Damned if We Do, Damned if We Don't?

Okay, so either way the effects of the new law are neutral at best, problematic at worst. Are we just screwed?

No. The problem can begin to be addressed, quite effectively, at my level of the industry. And organizations ranging from AOPA to the National Association of Flight Instructors and the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators are doing lots of research, focus groups, and thinking on this right now.

Those competencies I mentioned at the beginning of this blog entry must be instilled from Hour #1 of flight training by instructors who understand that their first few hours with a primary student can make or break careers and lives. Certificate mills with on-staff Pilot Examiners aren't going to cut it any more.

Examiners must hold instructors accountable for shortcomings in their teaching, and instructors must build relationships with Examiners in order to establish that respectful, effective feedback loop. We might want to also examine the ethics of the Examiner-on-Staff model as well, lucrative though it may be.

We have to find ways to attract and retain career flight instructors. Flight school owners are going to have to suck it up and take smaller cuts out of hourly instruction rates. They'll have to spend some money to improve physical conditions, and incentivize instructors who find innovative ways to teach procedures or increase quality of training. I'm fortunate to have worked for a couple of bosses who actually get this, and the results are beginning to show.

What's at Stake?

The entirety of the world's civil aviation infrastructure is built on American flight schools, and while the "experts" in Washington try to fix a problem they don't understand, we must get ahead and start pulling our weight. That's not something an act of Congress can do.

1 comment:

  1. Another spot-on post. I agree with every word.