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Jul 302010

Our federal government, in its infinite (?) wisdom, has decided to increase the number of flying hours a pilot must have before being allowed to pilot a commercial plane.  Previously, the requirement was for 250 hours, that requirement has now increased to 1500.

Why?  What is the massive systemic malfunction that requires such an extraordinary increase in pilot training before they are allowed to fly a passenger plane (and almost always, initially as a co-pilot with a more experienced pilot in command)?

And – if pilots need to have more than 250 hours of training, why choose 1500 hours?  Why stop there?  Why not make it 500 hours?  2500 hours?  Or any other number randomly chosen?

Let’s look at the facts, which clearly show the lunacy in this new legislation.

Air travel today is safer than it has ever been before.  US air accidents and fatalities are at historic low levels, both in absolute terms and when expressed in terms of rates per million miles flown.

In the five years from 1 July 2005 – 1 July 2010, there have been just four passenger plane accidents with fatalities in the US (a total of 120 deaths), the most recent of which was a year and a half ago.  Ignoring the four 9/11/2001 events, in the five years prior to that there were also four accidents but 300 deaths.  And in the five years prior to that, there were five accidents and 441 deaths.  Although a single accident can massively change these numbers, it is clear that over the last 15 years air travel has remained safe and possibly been trending slightly safer.

While of course any accident and any fatality is regrettable, air travel is far safer than any other form of travel.  In my article series ‘How to Survive a Plane Crash‘ I give statistics on safety rates in general, and for now, a quick statistic to consider is that on average there is approximately one death per 15 million  passengers flown.  Or, to express it another way, a crash with fatalities occurs about once every million flights.  One crash per million flights?  Wow – that is an astonishingly good ratio.

And this number – one in a million – is counting all types of crash, for all reasons, some of which may be preventable, but some of which will never be prevented because they are literally and ultimately ‘accidents’ – there’s a random factor that can never be completely suppressed.  Yes, for sure, pilot error is a factor in some crashes, but so too are maintenance issues and other mishaps and unlikely events.

Now let’s look at the exact experience of the pilots in charge of the fatal crashes over the last five years.  Do we see a series of dangerously unskilled pilots?  In the case of the crash which triggered this legislation – the Colgan Air crash in upstate New York in Feb 2009, this was clearly the result of pilot error, but the pilot in command had 3263 hours of flying time – more than twice the new minimum.  How would requiring a minimum of 1500 flying hours have avoided this?

The previous accident, where a plane failed to take off on a taxiway rather than the runway (Lexington KY, Aug 2006), saw the pilot with 4710 hours of flying time – this was another case where a major factor was pilot error, but the pilot in command had three times the new minimum.  This new legislation would not have made any difference here, either.

The accident before that, where a flying boat’s wing literally fell off (Miami, December 2005), had the pilot showing 2830 hours of flying time – almost twice the minimum, and in any case, there’s not a lot that any pilot can do when your plane loses a wing.

The fourth accident was in Chicago where a Southwest jet ran off the end of the runway when landing in December 2005, and the pilot had 8500 hours of flying time – nearly six times the 1500 hour minimum.

Let’s keep going back, and look at the previous four accidents going all the way back to 2000.  4234 hours (plane landed short of runway); 2790 hours (overloaded plane crashed at takeoff); 8050 hours (vertical stabilizer and rudder fell off); and 13,043 hours (one accidental death during emergency evacuation procedure after plane safely landed).

So, looking at the official record, there’s no evidence whatsoever that plane crashes are being caused by pilots with too little flying time.  On the other hand, if this is true, we need to up the training time way beyond 1500 hours – we should make it 3000 hours (that would cover only two of these eight crashes), or maybe 6000 hours (to cover five of the eight crashes), or maybe 13,050 hours to cover all eight crashes (at less than 1000 hours of flying a year, that would be about 14 years of full time training!).

Interestingly, one of the groups lobbying for this massive increase in qualifying hours to become a pilot is none other than the pilots themselves.  Are they admitting ‘For the first 1250 hours that we were flying passenger planes, we were unsafe and insufficiently skilled’?  That seems extremely unlikely!

So why did the pilots seek this increase?  Basic economics – the law of supply and demand.  If they make it six times more expensive to become a pilot, there will be a massive reduction in people able to afford and complete the pilot training now required.  This means three things – all beneficial to present pilots, but harmful to future pilots and the airlines that wish to hire them.

The first thing is that a reduction in pilot numbers will make it easier for the pilots to dictate to the airlines and demand a return back up to their ridiculously inflated salaries they used to enjoy.  Secondly, if airline management refuses their demands and the pilots go on strike, it will not be easy for an airline to urgently train up and get replacement pilots to replace their striking pilots.  And thirdly, the pilots will be able to revise and improve their current sob story (where’s my small violin?) about how becoming a pilot costs them so much money and takes so much time that they deserve to earn ridiculous salaries once they become a pilot.

This new requirement for increasing pilot flying hours from 250 to 1500 seems to be completely unsupported by any factual analysis of recent accidents and the pilot experience in those accidents, and is further unsupported by overall air safety which is already wonderfully good and showing every sign of getting better, all by itself.  Not only is this not a solution, but there’s not a problem to start with.

This is clearly a case whereby the government is over-reaching in its regulatory role and is being played for a fool variously by pressure groups with ill-concealed vested interests, and other naieve groups that don’t understand the underlying concepts of pilot training and competence, but who simply believe ‘if 250 hours is good, then 500 hours has to be better, and 1500 hours is probably even better still’.

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  12 Responses to “Unnecessary Government Meddling Raises Pilot Qualifications Sixfold”

  1. David, you are completely wrong! I have about 4,000 hours as a basic and multi engine flight instructor, both military and civil. The difference between 250 hours and 1500 is tremendous.
    For example Capt Sullenberger who ditched into the Hudson did so because he had the EXPERIENCE and knowledge that it could be done safely. A 250 hour beginner would not have thought of it.
    Before passengers are carried in a large complicated aircraft a pilot must have EXPERIENCE and only by flying those hours can it be obtained.
    For once you are “all wet”.
    Best regards

  2. Hi, John
    As my most senior reader, I respect anything and everything you say, and always appreciate the wisdom of your advice. Thank you for your thoughts here.
    I’m not even sure we completely disagree. Of course, more experience is always better than less experience. But, how much is enough to become a co-pilot (with a more experienced pilot in command of the plane)?
    The fact remains that all the pilot error (and non-pilot error) accidents I cite above show pilots with vastly more than 1500 hours. And as for Chesley Sullenberger, while I’m not sure how brilliant his flying really truly was, I’m not going to argue about the success of it; and in his case, not only was he also a glider pilot in his spare time, but he has over 27,000 flight hours amassed over 40 years of flying.
    I hope you’re not saying that no-one should be allowed to pilot a plane with less than 27,000 hours of flying time!?
    So, how many hours minimum flying time do you believe a pilot should have?
    Also, how many hours flying time did you have when you were first pilot-in-command? 🙂

  3. You might as well make comparisons to Space Shuttle pilots. Having been involved in aviation for 35 years, I can tell you about the statistics that you miss. Look up the number of prop twins that have flown into mountains in cloud with young eager 300 hour commercial pilots. Tell me about the chisel charter companies that prey on these 250 hour wonders and make them fly in all conditions or get fired. The competition for an entry level job is great, and the companies know it. 250 hours is great for flying a 182 or a 206 in Day or Night VFR delivering parcels or the bosses family, but it hardly qualifies for a King Air on a sched run with timelines that just have to be met. Experience is King and the only way to get is to fly fly fly.

  4. I in turn can quote you statistics of pilots with thousands of hours flying time who also fly much bigger planes into mountains; and with respect, the issue isn’t that the vastly greater number of pilots with 250 hours flying time have accidents, the issue is that so too do pilots with ten and twenty and fifty times as many hours flying time.
    I am not denying that 2000 hours experience is usually somewhat better than 1000, and so on. But at what point do the laws of diminishing returns start to set in?
    Is there some magic at 1500 hours that sees a sudden transition in pilot abilities? No, of course not.
    How much less of that ‘magic’ is present at 1400 hours? Or 1300, etc hours? If you prefer, is there still more magic at 1600 hours and so on up?
    Why settle on 1500 hours as a magic number? And please keep remembering that a new airline pilot typically gets a co-pilot job for some considerable time before becoming a pilot in charge.

  5. David
    The hours thing goes round and round. Qantas (who have never lost a fare paying passenger on a jet powered aircraft) take pilots from their sponsored scheme at very low hours but they are initially only the second officers on the flight and they do not get a landing or take off for a while, hence get more simularor and operational experience.
    Maybe the blanket approach is wrong. In Australia if you get your motorbike licence you are restricted to “small” (less than 250cc engine size) for 2 years before you get your unlimited (big bike) licence. I suspect this is what in really happens to pilots anyway – low time ones get smaller less complex a/c initially, then with more hours get jobs flying bigger more complex a/c.
    Maybe that should be formalised?
    As a 400 hour PPL doing his commercial subjects at 58 years old (mainly for the challenge), I have been suprised by the job offers. I look forward (maybe) to someone paying me to fly them somewhere – based in Perth, Australia I will not to worry much about ice and snow (or mountains) anyway!!

  6. David
    I and many of my former and current airline colleagues are delighted to see you highlight the ridiculous and completely unnecessary rise in pilot hr requirements to fly commercial aircraft – wrong solution to the wrong problem.
    There is no reason why pilots who have undertaken proper pre-selection and aptitude testing, in a similar manner to that employed by the armed forces, followed by a correctly structured course of instruction, should not be able to operate efficiently and safely as a co-pilot on a commercial aircraft with 250 hrs. While a properly selected and properly trained pilot with 1500 hrs will in general be a better more rounded pilot than one with 250 hrs, it depends how the pilot has obtained the extra hrs – what he has been doing. A poorly trained pilot with only medium ability may well have developed bad habits in achieving the 1500 hrs
    Some co-pilots, particularly in the US, are appalling paid, are not of a suitable standard, cannot afford/or choose not to live near their operating base, as witnessed by the Colgan accident.
    While artificially reducing the supply of pilots by raising the hours threshold may assist to remedy these shortcomings, a root and branch review of selection procedures both prior to training and prior to employment together with a tightening of the requirement to be fully rested prior to the commencement of a duty period together with the payment of a living wage, would produce a more lasting and safer solution for the travelling public.

  7. I have written you a private email in regard to your comments but for some reason I get the message “data not accepted”. Perhaps it was too long. Suffice it to say that I can pretty well tear apart your whole argument based on facts and solid research. While you do have some valid points your whole argument is a house of cards. While the legislation addresses the wrong issues there is absolutely no valid reason NOT to require co-pilots to hold at least an ATP. You can argue it until you’re blue in the face but the paying public deserves more experience in the cockpit.
    Requiring 1,500 hours and an ATP is just the starting point. I sincerely hope that the FAA will adopt EASA standards and the “Limited ATP” concept. I also hope they will eventually see the value in requiring regional airine applicants to have at least a year and 500 to 1,000 hours of “real world” flying experience, meaning IFR operations in day-in-day-out year round flying. When I became a regional airline copilot I had around 2,300 hours and a very broad base of experience behind me. In many respects I had more relevant experience than a lot of the captains I flew with, many of whom had more hours but were woefully short in the “meaningful experience” department.
    Go spend a couple years flying checks or overnight freight single pilot in a Cessna Caravan or Cessna 402 in the Rocky Mountains or Alaska or the Great Lakes area sometime. Then you will have a glimmer of understanding about what experience means. To twist a phrase, Experience talks and BS walks.
    James H. Gray

  8. Hi, James
    Many thanks for your note. By all means go ahead, please, and tear apart my whole argument based on facts and solid research. I’ve no vested interest here, and if I’m wrong, I’d love to be corrected.
    But the rest of your post contains no facts, merely opinions.
    So until you offer up these facts, I must rest my argument on the fact that I list – specifically, that all the fatal accidents in the last ten years were with pilots in command who had way more than 1500 hrs of experience.
    How about you give me a list of fatal accidents in commercial airlines over the last 10 years where the pilots had less than 1500 hrs experience? You can’t, because there are none.
    This legislation addresses a problem that doesn’t exist. That is the salient fact.

  9. […] That is not to say that all pilots are perfectly skilled and competent, however.  But, interestingly, there’s little or no correlation between pilot experience (ie hours of flying time logged) and the likelihood of the pilot crashing his plane.  Here’s a good article I wrote on the subject last year. […]

  10. […] Well, yes, but there’s more to the issue than this simplistic analysis.  Read on to the article that soon follows about the reality of current pilot experience in recent fatal accidents. […]

  11. […] The new group says they will push issues on aviation safety and security.  This is one of the problems with regulating the airlines – it makes the regulators susceptible to pressure, variously from groups with vested interests and from other well-meaning but wrong groups (see my following article on the ridiculous six-fold growth in hours needed for a pilot to be allowed to fly a commercial plane). […]

  12. […] hours would make any difference at all to air safety?  I sure couldn’t – here’s the article I wrote in 2010, with more details and […]

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