How new pilots measure up

posted on 11th June 2018

Flight schools’ increasingly broad-brush approach to training is at odds with proposed FAA regulations that simply ramp up the required hours. Ian Putzger reports

The airspace over America is about to become six times safer than before – if you subscribe to the reasoning that a sixfold increase in flight hours required to pilot a commercial aircraft translates into a matching improvement in flight safety. The US Federal Aviation Agency may not believe in such straightforward maths, but clearly views a drastic increase in the minimum hours required to fly a commercial jet as the right way to make the skies safer. In February, the FAA proposed a new regulation that would push the minimum flight hours needed to become a first officer for a commercial airline to 1,500 hours, up from 250 under the current regime.

The proposal is the result of a mandate from US Congress to improve pilot training and safety standards in the aftermath of an accident in February 2009, when a Bombardier DHC 8 400 crashed on approach to Buffalo, killing 50 people, including both pilots. The subsequent investigation into Colgan Air’s ill-fated flight 3407 concluded that the flight crew had not properly managed an unexpected problem that led to a stall, a verdict that prompted a chorus of calls for tougher training requirements.

Unsurprisingly, the FAA proposals have drawn heavy fire from flight schools and operators. To begin with, critics point out that flight hours, while a useful yardstick in pilot recruitment, are not an accurate reflection of proficiency.

“A certain number of hours does not equate with quality of training. You need to focus more on the type and quality of training and on the curriculum,” says Dan Greenhill, manager of FlightSafety Academy.

“The number of hours is not a measure of competency,” agrees Captain Mike Edgeworth, CEO and chairman of Pilot Training College. “If you accumulate 1,200 hours towing banners over a beach, does that reflect better competency? The notion of judging competency on the basis of hours is from the dark ages.”

Instead of increasing the requisite flight hours, he advocates that aptitude testing should be stepped up, an approach that has paid dividends in Europe and other parts of the world. “Thorough and reliable aptitude testing should be the starting point. In the next stage, you have training based on competency. The final part is the ability of the individual to fit in the organisation,” he concludes.

CAE favours a mix of simulator, computer-controlled and real flying elements to better equip pilots to deal with emergency situations.

“One of the key challenges across the aviation spectrum is understanding and being prepared for loss of control in flight (LOC-I) and upset recovery situations – the leading cause of most crash-related fatalities in commercial aviation worldwide over the past 10 years. LOC-I is defined as flight that occurs outside of the normal flight envelope in which the pilot is unable to control the aircraft. CAE and Aviation Performance Solutions (APS) offer a three-part programme including computer-based training, simulator and in-aircraft training designed to improve the ability of business jet pilots to recognise, avoid and, if necessary, recover from LOC-I flight situations,” notes Claude Lauzon, VP strategy, civil simulation products, training and services at CAE.

He adds that Bombardier recently selected APS to provide in-flight upset recovery training services as part of its Leading Edge programme to crews of newly purchased Learjet, Challenger and Global Express aircraft.

Industry concerns over the FAA proposals go far beyond the reservations about measuring qualification by flight hours alone. Operators and flight instructors see serious repercussions for pilot availability and remuneration structures in the industry.

“The minimum-hours requirement is discouraging to pilots who want to fly a jet but can’t. It is really burdensome from a financial perspective. Young pilots spend a lot of money to get a licence and then do not have a chance to earn money flying a jet,” criticises Matthew Winer, president of Executive Air Services (EAS).

“I think this will hurt the industry,” warns Greenhill. Since the US is going against the grain with the new initiative, the likely outcome is going to be an exodus of young graduates to other parts of the world where pilot requirements are less onerous, he predicts.

For operators in the US, the proposed regime would likely bring a scarcity of pilots, resulting in higher costs, warns George Hamlin, president of Hamlin Transportation Consulting. “In the short term, this would reduce the supply of pilots, which makes the available pool more expensive,” he says.

The ripple effect would spread across a number of segments, reckons Greenhill. Regional airlines, which would be hard hit by the proposed new rules, and flight schools themselves would have to improve their pay structures, he says.

Opportunities outside the US do look rather tempting, especially with the spectre of a steep rise in the minimum hours required to fly for a commercial carrier. “A graduate with 250 hours can build up his hours by working as a flight instructor, or he can fly on the right side of a plane in India, where he makes twice the amount of money,” Greenhill reflects.

“When he goes back to the US after three years, he can go straight to large airlines. He can skip regional airlines – that is, if he comes back at all. He may stay in India or another emerging market in Asia and move to the left seat,” he adds.

The financial incentive is considerable. According to Greenhill, co-pilots at American Eagle start at $25,000 per year, whereas some Asian carriers offer $9,000 a month to first officers and $17,000 a month to captains.

On the other hand, a move to a carrier in an emerging market can turn into a holding pattern in the right-hand seat, warns Nick van der Meer, operations director at VistaJet. He advises young pilots to focus on a longer-term horizon to open up a better career path. Sometimes a well-paid stint with an operator in an emerging market can turn into a cul-de-sac, he claims.

Faced with a pilot shortage in their home markets, carriers from Asia and the Middle East have been recruiting aggressively in established markets such as the US. Increasingly airlines are getting involved in pilot training as they seek to secure a supply of flight crews, notes Edgeworth. Likewise, FlightSafety Academy has been approached by airlines about training schemes. “We see airlines become more involved in ab initio training,” Greenhill says.

Over the past couple of years, Spanish flight school FTEJerez has signed a number of contracts with legacy airlines and low-cost carriers for mentored training schemes. “We are working more and more in tandem with airlines,” says sales and marketing manager Alex Padina. In March, the first cadets in British Airways’ Future Pilot Programme, launched last summer, arrived at FTEJerez, one of three designated training organisations picked by the carrier for the initiative. In January, Aer Lingus designated FTEJerez the official flight training provider for its cadet pilots.

Such schemes are not new – Lufthansa has been running pilot training programmes in its own flight school for years – but more and more airlines are now moving in this direction in anticipation of a pilot shortage. The economic downturn has led to layoffs and a glut of pilots in some markets (indeed some operators were reluctant to talk to EVA about pilot recruitment as they have furloughed flight crews), but in the long run the industry will face a shortage of both pilots and mechanics, according to Boeing Training & Flight Services.

Airlines have stepped up their involvement in training just when aspiring pilots are finding it hard to obtain financing for their initial courses. “One of the biggest drawbacks is the availability of financing for pilot training. The regulations that are now in place (in the financial industry) do not make it business-friendly to go out and provide those types of loans,” says Greenhill.

About 70% of the students currently enrolled at Pilot Training College are on airline schemes; only 30% are self-funded. Five years ago all trainees were self-funded, notes Edgeworth.

In line with international carriers’ growing involvement in training, flight schools and training equipment providers are also becoming increasingly international in focus, and targeting emerging aviation markets. In February, FlightSafety International and Gulfstream Aerospace opened a new learning centre in Hong Kong, which initially offers training programmes for G450 and G550 models. Having identified Australia, New Zealand and south-east Asia as one of the fastest growing regions, CAE intends to deploy a new 5000 series simulator in Melbourne this year for training pilots and maintenance technicians for the Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350 aircraft with Pro Line 21 avionics. Greenhill says Brazil, India and Russia are among the leading targets for expansion at FlightSafety Academy.

This internationalisation trend is bringing some uniformity to training methods and standards. Operators like VistaJet need pilots that are comfortable in any regulatory environment. “We don’t base crews in one location. We fly all over the place. We can’t have pilots that are experts in one region,” van der Meer says.

National regulations still ultimately determine the curriculum, however. “We are a distance away from a homogenous environment,” confirms Edgeworth.

When it comes to criteria for selecting applicants for the cockpit, flight hours are the first milestone. Winer at EAS lists Part 135 experience, time and type of aircraft as other key aspects that an applicant needs to bring to the table. Simulator experience is another plus, but he is not enthusiastic over the Multi Pilot Licence (MPL) scheme, even though it has been widely hailed as a huge step forward in training. “Guys who flew single aircraft were the ones who really learned how to fly,” he says, a view he shares with many operators.

Flight schools, on the other hand, give the thumbs-up to the concept. Graduates from this path have been proven “more than capable, more than competent,” says Edgeworth. MPL is an easier business model to manage and allows flight schools to be more competitive in terms of cost, he notes. “I firmly believe that MPL is the future for pilot training, specifically for airlines.”

Greenhill agrees. “Technology is a big issue for training. Doing more on simulators instead of flying is definitely a way to manage your cost,” he says. “You can run a simulator almost seven days a week. And in a simulator you can stop, you can freeze and correct steps.”

CAE recently enriched its training repertoire with RealCase, which the company describes as “business aviation’s first network-wide recurrent pilot training using case studies of recent real-life events”.

According to Lauzon, “These evidence-based training scenarios increase effectiveness by enabling pilots to apply their analytical and decision making skills in an interactive, collaborative environment.”

Over and above the essential flying skills, van der Meer stresses a number of other qualities that he looks for. He wants pilots who can think on their feet, who are highly motivated, good team players, excellent communicators and who can help VistaJet grow and develop. For Winer, one of the key criteria that a pilot for EAS has to meet is a sound understanding of customer service. “Pilots are the face of this company. It behoves us to get good ones,” he says.

So far, formal requirements have trumped such secondary qualities, but carriers are changing their approach. EAS has traditionally only hired pilots with the right time and type experience for specific aircraft, but it recently started looking at ways to allow outstanding pilots in its ranks to upgrade to larger aircraft. In the main, this has worked through asking owners to share in the training programme.

VistaJet also now offers its pilots the chance of internal upgrades, which has opened a completely new career path for them. Pilots hired as first officers can progress to the left-hand seat after three years, then move on to a larger plane after about three years in that role.

The new policy is part of a revamp of pilot working conditions that van der Meer initiated some 18 months ago, soon after joining the business. Besides a clearer career path, this brought a more stable roster and perks for pilots as part of an overall drive to make the company more appealing to flight crews. “To retain pilots, you need a good seniority system and an upgrade path,” he stresses.

Winer’s change of policy was born out of the realisation that pilots were chiefly interested in job security and a chance to grow. This tallies with observations from Lufthansa that applicants for flight training nowadays tend to express a greater interest in career opportunities and possibilities for further training when exploring employment possibilities. VistaJet has gone some way in that direction by opening opportunities for pilots to turn into fleet chief, deputy fleet chief or deputy flight operations manager.

A corresponding move on the training side has seen flight training outfits broadening their curriculums and adding business and management courses, often in tandem with academic institutions. In 2009 Pilot Training College launched a three-year science degree programme in tandem with Ireland’s Waterford University, which includes marketing, dispatching and planning modules. “We’ve tended to select course materials that allow students to migrate later,” says Edgeworth.

Both FTEJerez and Flight Training College have added aviation English language courses to their offerings. “We see ourselves as a college rather than an organisation for the issue of [pilot] licences,” Edgeworth comments.

Career trajectories for pilots have changed, he adds. “Typically, pilots joined airlines in their twenties and stayed until retirement. Now, especially with low-cost carriers, after 10 years pilots look for other opportunities,” he remarks. Probably the highest-profile example is Willie Walsh, who was a captain with Aer Lingus before taking over the controls at the airline and subsequently moving over to British Airways.

Career paths for flight instructors, however, is a “serious headache” according to Edgeworth, who says they’re in short supply. “There is no incentive these days for young people to take instructor courses,” he says.