Currency and the Professional Pilot

by on November 5, 2014

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.

Airframe Hours

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:

  1.  Airline Indoctrination – 2 weeks
  2. Aircraft Systems – 1-2 weeks
  3. Flight Training Device/Procedures Trainer – 1-2 weeks
  4. Simulator Training – 2-3 weeks
  5. 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.


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