We’ve all heard of the changes to go into effect soon requiring a minimum of 1500 hours of experience before a pilot can fly as an airline pilot (captain or first officer). This is Congress’ knee-jerk reaction to the Colgan crash in 2009 – after all, they had to do something, right? (H.R. 5900: Airline safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010)
Experience is never a bad thing (unless it’s a bad experience). In order to be an airline captain you have always had to hold an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. The minimum experience required to qualify for the ATP certificate is 1500 hours of flight time, so these Congressionally mandated rules are directed at the first officer position.
Is this going to make airline flying safer? I doubt it – at least not for several years. There are all sorts of arguments about ‘good’ hours versus time-filling hours and whether or not an extra 1000 hours in the local pattern flying a C-172 is going to make a difference. I personally would rather see the requirement be for a 500-hour crew-environment simulator course in a multi-engine turbine – but that’s just me. (I can hear the cheers from SimCom and Flight Safety.) Yeah, I know…who’s going to pay for it? My feeling is that at some point the airlines are going to have their own ab initio training programs.
When the flight experience portion of H.R. 5900 goes into effect in 2013 all airline pilots, whether they are captains or first officers, will have to possess an ATP certificate. That means that all of the current under-hour pilots already on airline seniority lists will have to obtain the extra hours and then pass the appropriate written and flight evaluations or their jobs will be in jeopardy. Looking at the way regional airlines work their crews it will probably take 2-3 years for a newly hired 300-hour commercial, instrument-rated pilot to meet the new requirements. If the projected increase in mainline flying materializes and when the new crew rest rules go into effect (the same congressional mandate) there could be a lot of pressure on the regionals to find pilots as the majors siphon off the more experienced regional plots to meet their requirements.
Will this new flying hour rule effect the major airlines? Not unless the ‘perfect storm’ I just mentioned materializes. When you look at the requirements that the majors have for submitting an employment application you will see the need for a particular rating or hour requirement or possibly a college degree of some sort. The reality is that those minimums may qualify you for an interview but until there is a bona fide pilot shortage my guess is that it will probably take close to double the minimums to actually get an interview and then be offered a job. This is why you rarely hear the outcry of lack of flying experience when a major airline has an accident/incident. But what about the new airline captain or first officer at the major airlines – they don’t have experience in the plane they’re flying. Very true. Their training programs take care of that problem.
Northwest Airlines was a very regimented, standardized airline. Their training programs taught you to perform pre-flights, instrument approaches and maneuvers is a set manner that would be duplicated every time. Both pilots knew what to expect from the other in virtually any circumstance. Standardization was drilled into you during the procedural and simulator phases of training. The flight training phase required a minimum of six flight legs be completed with an instructor in the other seat. A line check completed that phase of training. (If this was training for a first-time captain with the airline, the line check was accomplished by an FAA examiner.) Then all of this training was set into your memory with a requirement to obtain 100 hours of operating experience in the next 90 days. If that requirement was not met you were sent back to the simulator for another evaluation and the 100-hour requirement was started over from zero. There was an additional requirement that while you were in this 100-hour phase you could not fly with a pilot in the other seat who did not have at least 100 hours of experience. If you were a new captain you were required to make all of the take-offs and landings during that 100 hours.
Are similar training programs in place at other airlines? I don’t know. I’ve never flown for a regional and have never trained at another major airline (even after the merger of Northwest and Delta my training in the Airbus A-330 was conducted under the Northwest program using Northwest instructors).
Could that 2009 accident have been prevented – absolutely. Any number of links in the accident chain could have been removed. Would requiring the copilot to have 1500 hours of experience have made a difference? Maybe. Would more experience in the aircraft type have made a difference? Maybe. Would a better training program have made a difference? Maybe. We can’t go back in time, make a change and see if the outcome is affected. Wouldn’t that be nice.