Last Wednesday, Gary Leff at View From The Wing published an article entitled, “How The 1500 Hour Rule To Become A Commercial Pilot Compromises Safety.” The idea that requiring an airline pilot to have more hours is less safe than the alternative is a very radical one. I’ll say upfront that I don’t find Gary’s arguments to have merit. And many of them seem to have come directly from a paper that he links to from the RAA (Regional Airline Association) which is an industry lobbying group that advocates on behalf of regional airlines. Needless to say, just like any lobbying group you have to take their carefully crafted arguments with a grain of salt. Because the RAA absolutely has an agenda that’s centered around the financial interests of its members.
Less Is More? Not When It Comes To The Pilot 1500 Hour Rule
The RAA and Gary make several claims regarding how pilots with 1500 hours become less safe. Let’s examine those.
“These are unstructured hours”
Apparently, the RAA and Gary think your average future airline pilot, once they have earned the requisite licenses, just fly around boring meaningless holes in the sky. Consider that the requirements for a commercial pilot’s license generally mandate a minimum of 250 hours of flight time. Which means you need another 1250 hours of flying. A flight school near my home advertises a Cessna 172 as renting for $175/hour. If the prospective airline pilot wanted to just fly around for 1250 hours it would cost them $218,750. It should be immediately obvious that very few prospective airline pilots can afford that.
What most pilots do, and what I did, was to flight instruct building hours and experience during this time. As a flight instructor the hours you’re flying are far from unstructured. In fact, they are highly structured since you’re teaching people the variety of skills they need to learn to fly. Teaching those skills is also a highly effective way to improve your own abilities because you’re constantly confronted with new challenges and are endlessly teaching the lessons you yourself just learned.
Flight Schools Do Train Pilots On More Than Commercial Procedures
Gary’s next two bullet points appear to be pulled from a single sentence in the linked RAA document so let’s just quote the source.
“Today, pilots train on commercial procedures, then are sidelined to build flight hours for more than a year. While building these flight hours, they don’t encounter icing, thunderstorms, stalls/upset recoveries, or myriad other procedures needed for commercial flying. By the time they qualify, they’re out of practice.”
Let me be frank. The statement above is utter mulefritters.
Yes, the big aviation schools, like Embry Riddle, certainly do incorporate some degree of “commercial procedures” into their training. But this isn’t remotely universal, even amongst collegiate flight training programs. So, no it isn’t remotely true that pilots are trained to airline procedures and then sent off to wander around the skies for 1250 hours in good weather.
Furthermore, flying small piston powered aircraft weather is a MUCH bigger threat than it is in an aircraft like the Airbus 320 I fly today. As a flight instructor I very much dealt with weather, thunderstorms, icing, stalls etc. While flight instructing, we don’t have full motion high fidelity simulators so we teach stalls and recoveries in the airplane. I’ve lost track of how many times I stalled an airplane while conducting flight instruction. I lost an engine in a piston twin on takeoff once (which has never happened in my 121 career), and once accidentally spun a Piper Arrow trying to demonstrate a cross controlled stall to a CFI candidate. How many times have I been even remotely close to stalling an actual airliner? None. Zero. Nada. We train all of that in the simulators; which, while very effective, can’t fully replicate the real thing. I hope you can see that Gary’s and the RAA’s claim above are absolute nonsense.
Experience Matters. Hours Matter.
Let’s turn back to Gary:
“The 1500-hour rule leads to less well-trained, less-experienced pilots not more experienced pilots. They get hired by commercial airlines and go through remedial training to fix the bad habits they get into building up hours for hours’ sake.”
At the time I was hired by my first airline (the mid 1990’s) no-one getting hired at a regional had less than 1500 hours. The supply/demand curve for pilots was such that there were more than enough applicants with these kinds of hours to fill all the available openings. Most of us also had a few hundred hours of multi engine time. Something none of us got by just paying for it and flying in circles.
The airlines back then didn’t have to send new hires through “remedial training to fix the bad habits”. They trained us to fly the aircraft we had been assigned, using their procedures. The hours we brought to the table weren’t wasted: they were full of valuable, been-there-done-that lessons we had learned. Those hours solidified our skills and made us better pilots. My grandfather, who flew C-47’s in the Pacific in WWII and then went on to fly everything in the inventory at TWA from the DC-3 to the 747, once told me, “The day you stop learning is the day you stop flying.”
Every one of those 1250 hours from 250 to 1500 offered opportunities to learn new lessons that made me a better pilot. Even today after well over 20 years of flying airliners and many thousands of hours in the air I’m still learning. What the 1500-hour rule does is mandate a higher minimum level of experience before you start flying people around in an airliner. I will also add that today’s airline training regimes are very cost driven and even more intolerant of a pilot who needs remedial skills training than was the case when I got my first airline job.
Gary also cites the FAA and NTSB as saying there isn’t a correlation between experience and accidents. That may well be true in terms of the scope of their studies. But there are a number of reasons why they could have reached that conclusion and still be wrong.
Case Study: ET302
Let’s consider an accident where experience very much played a role, Ethiopian 302. The First Officer (FO) on that aircraft was a graduate of the airline’s academy with 361 total hours, of which 207 were on the 737. A full review of this accident would be too long however, let me focus on what I see as the essential element. When they retracted the flaps MCAS activated pushing the nose down. The crew initially responded properly by shutting off the electrical trim and trying to move the wheel manually.
The problem was with the nose low and the aircraft at takeoff power they were quickly flying so fast the manual system was rendered inoperative by aerodynamic forces. The Captain was solely focused on trying to keep the airplane in the air and didn’t notice their airspeed, though he should have. The FO didn’t either. The ultimate result was that the aircraft continued to accelerate until it exceeded the redline airspeed. Leading to the aerodynamic loads on the elevator overwhelming the hydraulic system, allowing the nose to pitch down, leading to the crash.
All the crew needed to do was pull the power back and slow down, but it never happened. The FO seems to have been utterly overwhelmed by the circumstances of the event and unable to provide the level of support that is critical to the safe operation of an airliner.
I’ve seen events like this in my own flying. When I was a regional airline captain we had a program that allowed graduates of university flying schools to get hired with very low time after a summer internship. These young pilots were very well trained, very sharp, and knew their procedures cold. What they didn’t have was any experience. So, when something happened that was off script I found myself flying not with a first officer but rather with a deer staring at the headlights. No accident has one single cause but one of the front and center major ones in Ethiopian 302 is the performance of the FO which was driven by his lack of experience.
Some months back I wrote a 3-part series (link here) about what it’s like to be a pilot, the challenges the industry faces, and what is needed to meet those challenges. I said then, and I believe now, less experience is NOT one of the answers.
Are Unions To Blame?
There is another element to Gary’s story I want to tackle and it’s a theme he’s hit on more than once. That ALPA is pushing the 1500-hour rule for the sole reason that it restricts the supply of pilots and gives the union more bargaining power to drive up wages.
In fairness there is some truth to this argument. The 1500-hour rule has exacerbated the pilot shortage at the regional level and that has helped drive major wage gains by regional pilots. The shortage has resulted in the loss of air service to some communities. This has forced some to drive, which is inherently less safe. That being said, this doesn’t tell the full story.
Let’s look at a quote from Gary’s article. “When United Airlines faced a pilot strike in 1985, they started hiring replacement pilots. That’s simply not possible today, a huge victory for unions.”
That this is true has nothing to do with the 1500-hour rule. It has a lot more to do with why the supply of pilots has dwindled in the first place. Remember, for years airlines wouldn’t hire pilots with low hours and experience levels because there was no need to do so. The career was attractive enough to create enough demand for the open jobs that airlines had no need to hire inexperienced pilots.
But, when you get that first airline job flying a jet and find out the guy driving the airport bus not only makes more money than you but has a far better quality of life it tends to diminish the attraction of the field. The ripple down effects of 9/11 with the bankruptcies and furloughs, plus all the subsequent events that have negatively impacted the field, have had an effect on people desiring to or being willing to stay in the cockpit.
I have a good friend, for example, that was a captain at Trans States who lost his job during the pandemic when the airline shut down. The major airline that had already hired him wasn’t hiring now and that became all the push he needed to leave the industry for good. The current controller shortage is hitting pilots once again with less flying during the summer months resulting in schedules that have us on the road more, working fewer total hours and getting less days off.
In summary no Gary, pilots with 1500 hours are not less safe, in fact quite the opposite is true. Yes, unions have some of their own reasons for promoting this rule but it alone is not responsible for the pilot shortage. That we are facing a world-wide shortage of pilots despite the US being the only country to adopt the 1500-hour rule is proof enough of that.
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