A reader has asked me an interesting and somewhat complicated question concerning flying currency for both military and civilian professional pilots especially when coupled with the life expectancy of various airframes and allowable budgets. Wow. I don’t know, but I would guess that even a small part of that topic has been the subject of a number of papers at various Air or Naval War College sessions.
First a bit about the life expectancy of aircraft airframes. Manufacturers build aircraft with a life-expectancy in mind, usually expressed in cycles and/or flight hours. Cycles are usually taken to be one takeoff and one landing. It correlates to both landing gear operations and, for pressurized aircraft, the pressurization and de-pressurizing cycle associated with a single flight. Aircraft similar to the Boeing 737 that an airline like Southwest uses could see as many as seven cycles in a day while something like a Boeing 747, 777 or 787 flying internationally and making a takeoff with a corresponding landing 8 – 14 hours later may only log a cycle every day and a half. For long-haul aircraft it may be more appropriate to use flight hours as a gauge of aircraft age.
Most transport category aircraft are maintained using a periodic inspection process while smaller planes, especially general aviation planes, use an annual inspection. All of them receive the same types of inspections over the 12 months, but the transport category planes get to do it in a piece-meal fashion, possibly checking a specific list of systems each quarter. That allows the operator to complete the inspections during a long overnight at a one of its maintenance bases rather than taking the aircraft out of service for several days.
Transport planes also have something called a ‘Heavy Check’ or a ‘C Check’ that takes the airframe out of service for an extended period while the maintenance facility essentially takes the plane apart, inspects everything, makes necessary repairs and then puts it back together. It’s pretty impressive to see a 747 up on jacks in a hangar with almost nothing inside it between the upper skin and the lower skin. And I can tell you from experience that the stuff that ends up in the bottom of an airliner is just plain gross.
If you take an airplane completely apart, inspect it carefully and professionally and put it back together again you , in effect, have a new airframe. That is why you see personal airplanes originally manufactured in the 1920s and 1930s still in operation. The ones that have been totally ‘restored’ are like-new or better than new because often outdated hardware and coverings will be replaced with modern materials (with FAA Approval, of course).
Military aircraft go through the same process and the inspections are probably more critical. The environment in which military aircraft operate requires many more hours of maintenance per flight hour than a civilian transport aircraft. Fortunately, for the military, there are many more maintenance technicians assigned to each aircraft, often assigned to a specific airframe, to make sure that the aircraft remains airworthy and operationally ready. Every airframe is different, just like every car does not drive/feel/operate exactly the same. Assigning one technician or one team of technicians to a specific airframe allows them to learn the aircraft’s quirks and to develop a pride in their work. At least that is what I found in my service experience. If you never knew who was working on the plane then when something didn’t work right the finger was always pointing at someone else.
It’s pretty obvious when looking at the Air Force fleet of B-52’s that the ‘expected’ airframe life can be extended with diligent maintenance, refurbishment and upgrades. I’m sure there are some B-52 pilots out there who listened to their grandfathers talk about flying the first models of the bomber. I remember seeing my first Lockheed C-5 on the ramp at Cam Rahn Bay in Vietnam. Then ten years later I was flying it and continued to do so until I retired eight years later. The C-5 is still flying with our Air Force Reserve units around the country.
Do accidents happen because an airframe has gotten too old? Sure they do. In 1988, Aloha Airlines a Boeing 737-100 operating as Flight 243 had part of the top of the fuselage fail structurally. The plane had been built in 1969 and had 89,680 cycles (35,496 hours) logged. One of the findings was that the airline’s inspection and maintenance programs were deficient.
Could this happen again? I doubt it. For one, the FAA has gotten more strict on the allowable cycles before an airframe must be retired. And the public just doesn’t like to fly on the older airplanes – shiny and new is always better, even if the plane is made of composites. Airlines are continually cycling new airframes into their fleet, usually because the life-cycle cost of maintenance and operation pencils out to be cheaper than the older airframes.
Flight Training, Currency and Budgets
So, we have figured out that we can make commercial airframes last as long as is financially feasible and in the case of the military we can continue to rebuilt/refurbish/upgrade the airframes until Congress can be convinced that the military really needs something new.
Airline training budgets are penciled out to be as lean as possible. Even the classroom portions of the training are compressed into the minimum possible time so that the pilots get into revenue-generating mode as quickly as possible. I just read a good article on the subject of initial airline training in the December issue of Flight Training Magazine (p. 40). The training was described, in basic terms:
- Airline Indoctrination – 2 weeks
- Aircraft Systems – 1-2 weeks
- Flight Training Device/Procedures Trainer – 1-2 weeks
- Simulator Training – 2-3 weeks
- IOE (Initial Operating Experience in the actual aircraft) – 25 hours flight time
Each phase has at lease one written/oral/practical evaluation. The longer phase times would apply for the larger, more complex aircraft types. Now that the FAA has mandated that airline pilots (Part 121 scheduled airlines) must have at least 1500 hours of flight experience and an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate one could assume that the flight capability of a new airline pilot would be well established and the training would amount to something like upgrade training to a more complex aircraft and operation. Only the airlines know for sure.
Airline pilots have the same currency requirements as general aviation pilots with an instrument rating. In most cases there is no need to do anything other than fly the monthly bid schedule to met the minimum currency requirements for landings and instrument approaches. That changes if the pilot is sitting on call ( has bid or has been awarded a ‘Reserve’ position ). Reserve pilots are on call to fill in when a scheduled pilot says they are too sick to fly, has misread their schedule and failed to show up for a flight or when weather interrupts the best-laid plans of the airline. Occasionally a Reserve pilot will not be used for a period long enough that they must make a quick trip to the airline’s training facility to regain their landing currency in the simulator. There are also recurrent formal training requirements dictated by the airline’s operating certificate. Some have an annual 4 or 5-day simulator session and a short refresher 6 months later. Others have a short simulator session every 9 months. It depends upon what they have presented to the FAA and has been approved.
Airline training budgets are factored into the cost of increasing or renewing the airline’s pilot population. Airline expansion plans, aircraft replacements and simulator purchases are all analyzed over and over to come up with the right mix to accomplish the airline’s goals. If the numbers don’t add up they either shelve their plans or find an additional source of funds to make the changes. Baggage fees, box lunches and seat selection fees seem to be working for them right now.
Military training is a totally different animal. The only way to become a military pilot is to go through the respective pilot training program. When I went through Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) it was one year long. They started in the Cessna 172, progressed to the Cessna T-37 and finished up with the Northrup T-38. Now I believe they split after the T-37 and send part of each class to the Beechjet ( Raytheon T-1 Jayhawk ) for multi-engine training and a follow-on assignment to transport-category aircraft. It seems like a really long time compared to the airline training but you have to realize that the airlines are not going to spend time teaching you low-level navigation, aerobatic or formation (2-ship & 4-ship) flying. After graduating from UPT the newly-minted military pilot will be assigned to an operational weapon system and will then move on to specialized training in that aircraft. The military follow-on training could be related to upgrade training for a new airline aircraft except that it would also include all of the mission-specific training associated with the weapon system. That would be things like low-level navigation, air refueling, air-drop, air-to-air or air-to-ground weapons delivery, etc. I would imagine that there is someone in some small room in the bottom of the Pentagon who knows just how much it costs to graduate a pilot for each weapon system in the inventory. I doubt that my calculator has enough digits.
Currency for a military pilot is as complicated as the initial training. I remember taking multiple checkrides each year – there were VFR checkrides, IFR checkrides, Formation checkrides, Air Refueling checkrides, etc, etc. There were evaluations in every phase of flight that your aircraft was expected to fly. There were also associated currency requirements – landings of different types, day and night, air refueling sorties – light weight, heavy-weight, day and night, instrument approaches of various types and VFR landings of different types.
With all those different types of currency requirements how can you maintain a mission-ready status? I imagine that unit commanders lose a lot of sleep trying to figure that out. When the budget gets cut again and again and you can’t maintain a mission-ready status (which is required) I would imagine that your only option is to reduce the number of planes and pilots that you have to maintain. I heard someone say recently that our military budget is approaching the level it was before WWII. With budgets at those levels and prices at our current levels how will the military pilots stay current in all the missions they are expected to fly? I have no idea. Maybe they are spending more time in simulators – and the simulators have been upgraded to permit landing currency events. I didn’t see that quality of simulation until I joined an airline. While flying the C-5 as an instructor/evaluator we were spending 4 hours in the traffic pattern with multiple pilots on board making sure that each one logged their minimum landing/instrument approach requirements. We did the same thing with air refueling training missions only those flights lasted 5-6 hours.
I have no reservations about airline pilots maintaining their currency and, more importantly, proficiency. Military budget cuts and sequestration have me wondering how the military can continue at it’s required readiness level.
Maybe one of you out there can shed some more current light on the subject.
6 responses to “Currency and the Professional Pilot”
Interesting post. I am always impressed by airline pilots’ ability to constantly learn and be evaluated. I guess you can’t have test anxiety in that job. I have a very good friend who in the course of about a 3 year period flew the A-330 overseas, then the Beach 1900 for a regional, then the 747 for a cargo outfit, and then got recalled to his airline from furlough and put on the 737. He has had a very roller coaster airline career and is type-rated on about a half dozen airplanes and professionally flow another half dozen or so (and he’s 46). I ask him if he ever gets confused and his answer is “they’re just airplanes”. I get confused if I drive my wife’s car and the cup holder isn’t where I’m used to!!
I’m glad you are keeping up the blog. I always enjoy seeing a new post.
Thanks for your comments.
I believe your friend may be bluffing a bit. Being qualified, current and proficient on several aircraft at once is not an easy task. I had one summer where I received a bid to co-pilot on the Boeing 747-400 and then two weeks after completing the final (IOE) phase of training received a bid and started training as a captain on the Airbus A-320. True, it was easy to tell which airplane you were in by just looking around (yolk vs. side-stick, etc.), but both are glass airplanes with FMS-driven displays. The Flight Management Systems of the two airplane manufacturers, while similar, were developed using different engineering/programming outlooks. Accomplishing routine tasks often involved subtle differences in the required keystrokes that could find you sitting there wondering why what you were inputting wasn’t being accepted… followed by a headslap and a conversion to the right manufacturer’s programming language.
The more technologically advanced the airplane is, the harder it is to maintain proficiency (vs currency). And the closer two different airplanes are technologically, the harder it is to keep them separated in your mind, especially under stress. On the other side, the shorter the legs flown, the quicker the tasks become burned into your memory. Flying an RJ a half dozen legs a day will get you up to speed a lot faster than flying one nine-leg international trip a month. As in all flight training, correct repetition is a key to learning.
That, sir, is an A++ post. I understand why you wrote it and thank you. The only disconnect, the single item that I still do not understand, is how the Air Force (and other services) manage to maintain pilot skills at a satisfactory level with 1) severely limited fly hours and 2) in many cases, airframes that are rated for 10% or 15% of a typical commercial airliner. As you properly note, the demands on most military pilots are far greater than those on a typical airline pilot (basic flying plus tactical requirements and defense systems etc., they must know and execute all of it, extremely well in order to accomplish the mission and yes, survive. Some military airframes can be rebuilt and extended almost forever (think a few B-52s and KC-135s etc.,) but some apparently have firmly fixed lives of 10k – 15k hours and unknown cycles. Simulators can absorb some of the slack, but IMO, their remains no substitute for flying the **real airplane** and under demanding circumstances. Using a novices terms and thinking, try this: Many military-operated cargo flights are not much different from commercial operations. Add to that the flying skills necessary more mid-air refueling, low and high level pallet drops, tactical approaches and flying escapes, defensive measures and a communications load that is at least 2x that of a commercial flight. I understand that the military cargo flight may have additional staff for communications and (until recently) navigation chores, but it remains a substantial load. Military cargo frames may be built to a longer life standard, but some still do not come close to most commercial aircraft. The much lighter fighter aircraft seem to demand even more of their pilots, yet seem to be designed with much shorter life spans and remain extremely expensive. Again, how can the drivers possibly keep their skills sharp if the airframe is built to lesser standards of hours and cycles? Some portion of those hours and cycles must be reserved for genuine operational use, yet if there are no hours remaining – or the pilots have not flown the hours and cycles to maintain peak performance, what is the purpose in having fleets of state-of-the-art fighters? They still need sharp pilots to drive them and that Special Edge is not found in even the best simulators. I think we have a disconnect.
Sadly, in a real conflict, some losses are expected. Reducing those losses is seems to be related to more and better training, but on airframes that are time/cycle limited. Where is the right balance? I sure do not want to see another shooting war, including dog fights and A-A engagements. That said, the men (and women!) who drive these airplanes will dominate only when their skills are at the highest and most frequently practiced. (Ditto the tactical cargo flyers…) IMO, the many training demands can be satisfied only by regular flying and under demanding conditions. When lifespan airframe time is limited and some portion must be reserved for genuine operational flights, how the heck can these boys and girls achieve and maintain that Special Edge that suggests a win or fully successful mission? I’m missing something and it is more than simple dollars. What am I missing?
Thanks for the exceptional post, Tracy. All are good and special thanks for writing this one.
So nice to hear that you’ve been flying, if only a bit. Heck yes, just warming up the oil for a pending change is easily worth a couple of 45-minute flights and that proverbial $100 burger. With a little pre-flight activity (the heater?), it seems that you get a bit more airtime during the winter months than otherwise. I wish you clear skies, modest winds and I know that you can deal with the temperatures… Best wishes,
P.S. Glad that you got the website hiccup fixed. You are not the first website creator who has forgotten to test the site’s performance from the Front End. (My old site, now long gone, taught me that… ) Anyone with the moxy to create an original website should also have the ability to use a non-affiliated web presence to test the site’s front end performance. I did not and and it was embarrassing. -C.
I didn’t mean to imply my friend was flying those all at once…it was just a snapshot of one his furloughs. In that short period he finished up a year or two of flying the A330 for an Asian operator, went back to his former regional (from his first furlough) for about 6 months at the bottom of the list, then got hired at an ACMI on the 747 which he flew for a little over a year before being recalled back to his legacy airline (ironically the ACMI carrier was furloughing just as he got recalled). Too much school work for me in such a short period of time! He could write a book on the trials and tribulations of having a 1999 hire date at one of the big 3 legacies.
I understood that, but just because you are not actively flying multiple planes it doesn’t mean that you can’t be (technically) qualified and current in more than one for a little while. And your brain doesn’t get wiped clean when training on a now piece of equipment is started.
I agree – I was going stir-cray after two upgrades in 6 months. I got to know the training facility much too well and I think the hotel restaurant was putting in my orders before I got to my table.
I was lucky in my timing – I was hired at NWA in mid-1989. My only work interruption was a short pilot strike – and it started when I was on a layover a 90-minute flight from home. I was on reserve a lot but I was lucky enough to never be furloughed.
It looks like things are starting to turn around. All the majors appear to be hiring at a good clip = which doesn’t bode well for the commuter airlines. It’s a combination of the age 65 retirement rule taking full effect and the 1500-hr/ATP hiring requirement for the Part 121 carriers.
Bottom line: I have no idea how the military aviators are keeping current. Simulators are excellent training platforms but, even at the airlines, I never ‘flew’ one that performed exactly as the actual airplane. Perhaps the new high-tech (and smaller) aircraft have better simulator capabilities. After all, the airplanes are flown by computers and the programming used to respond to pilot commands in the aircraft can be used for the same purpose in the simulator. The response then depends upon the hydraulics/electrics that are controlling the actuators moving the simulator cab and the graphics being displayed on the simulator visual display. Computer computational power and speed is getting better all the time.
Still, as you say, there is no substitute for the real thing. The military will always have funding to participate in ‘war games’ with other countries and other units at places like Red Flag or for live fire training on the Nellis or other ranges. The units may send fewer planes and crews to the exercises, but they’ll still find a way to participate. If they’re smart, they’ll spread around the experience rather than sending the same crews every time.
And as you also bring up, military equipment isn’t designed to last forever – though in some cases we seem to use it as though it was. The manufacturers build the airframes according to a set of requirements that the military provides. The challenge comes when the mission of the airframe is changed after the manufacture is complete. Lockheed said, in effect, that the AF voided the warranty on the C-5 when the new (at that time) MAC commander decided that the strategic airlift fleet should start doing the same maneuvers as the Tactical fleet. That resulted in the C-5 flying 500′ AGL modified-contour low-level routes at 240 kts and using 45 deg of bank at the turn points. That was not a mission that was designed into the airframe from the start. Maybe that’s part of the reason there are so many upgrades in progress on the C-5. Who knows.