Given the best instruction, might I become a decent golfer? My friends may disagree, but I tend to think so. I’m certainly never going to be the next Tiger Woods, but I think an occasional birdie or two on my scorecard is a realistic expectation. Excelling in one area or another typically takes natural ability, something within that just simply clicks. Regarding aviation, I believe the best pilots are those possessing an innate ability to control an airplane with unmatched precision, the utmost situational awareness, and who are always multiple steps ahead of their ship. Several recent airline accidents linked to pilot error have lessened the flying publics confidence in the existence of these qualities within every airline pilot. After much debate, regulatory change has ensued, aimed at ensuring capable hands are at the controls of airliners nationwide. In my opinion, those changes have completely missed the mark to remedy the core issue - flight training leniency. Although positive changes such as new fatigue mitigation policies were implemented, more is needed to tighten up flight-training standards.
Most pilots, whether at the general aviation or professional level, can be trained to meet the minimum standards that satisfy certification criteria. That doesn’t necessarily require a high level of natural talent. During my time as a flight instructor and airline check airman, one of the toughest aspects of such responsibility was deciding if a pilot candidate was truly ready to be released from training supervision. Many instructors would rely on the old adage that when they felt comfortable placing their own family members on an aircraft under a candidates command, they’re likely ready. Although a notable thought, deeper analysis is important.
On a perfect day, absent threats of poor weather and aircraft malfunctions, even a marginally skilled pilot can likely execute a safe outcome. But what if a pilot under optimal conditions is 100% mentally taxed in doing so? Yes, they’re getting the job done, but what if a new challenge or emergency were to present itself? The result would be a pilot with no additional mental capacity to handle the situation. A sign of low mental workload is that of a very relaxed pilot, someone who is well ahead of the aircraft as well as the system in which they are flying. If the pilot in question appears nervous and/or reactive versus proactive, that’s a sign they won’t likely be able to cope when faced with adversity. Weaker pilots tend to function best within a normal, almost scripted, day-to-day scenario. But sticking to the script is often not possible; thinking outside the box is a must.
Many airline or corporate pilots will tell you they can gauge the caliber of their fellow crewmember within the first few minutes of stepping into the flight deck with them. It’s difficult to describe without seeing it first hand, but a talented pilot leaves a distinct footprint. Handling their duties with ease and efficiency in a relaxed manner is just one such indicator. Although errors are still inevitable by even the best of pilots, an underlying foundation of natural talent is a must. Exceptional pilots are able to recognize errors and quickly mitigate them before a situation deteriorates. And even if a situation grows quickly out of control, pilots well equipped with a solid foundation of skill can dig themselves out of a hole. Doing so requires proficiency, knowledge, and talent.
For each airline pilot, maintaining those three mentioned qualities is at times challenging. Most days on the job are filled with uneventful trips from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’, and rarely is a pilot put to the test. In recognition of this fact, annual training and observation by flight training personnel is paramount. Aside from initial new-hire simulator training that exposes crewmembers to a range of highly challenging scenarios, each pilot revisits the simulators annually for proficiency checks. On top of that, captains are subject to random yearly observations while operating an actual flight. Maintaining knowledge of aircraft systems and operating procedures is further facilitated through annual ground school clinics and semi-annual exams. These checks and balances are important tools that not only maintain skill, but are designed to arrest errors and weaknesses. Any pilots showing deficiencies are promptly corrected through additional training until up-to-standard.
In the eyes of the FAA, hiring skilled airline pilots begins first with attaining minimum initial flight hour and certification requirements. As a result of regulatory change mentioned earlier, changes to this policy have upped the minimum experience for airline employment to as much as 1,500 flight hours. Although setting a reasonable baseline is important, it’s irrelevant if a pilot lacks natural ability. It’s analogous to my quest in becoming a top-notch golfer – minus talent, endless instruction likely won’t matter. Case in point, a pilot with thousands of flight hours was unable to make it through our initial airline-training course. It wasn’t a question of having a bad day; this person simply didn’t get it. On the other hand, one of the best pilots I know personally was hired with a mere 500 flight hours almost a decade ago. Training for him was effortless and today he’s a highly respected test pilot and FAA pilot examiner.
Ensuring skilled pilots in our skies doesn’t hinge on arbitrary flight hour requirements; it instead boils down to training and testing. In light of growing pilot demand and the high cost of training each individual, pressure exists to push pilots through the training pipeline. A trend where flight schools and airlines bend over backwards to see a candidate through this process is concerning. For strong pilots this is isn’t a problem, but the occasional weak ones tend to slip by as well. Although not an epidemic, subpar pilots slipping through the cracks are no surprise in such a forgiving environment. Signing off a pilot who uses every brain cell to meet the minimum criteria is no recipe for success. We are fortunate to have a highly skilled population of pilots in the industry, but the very safety net designed to arrest the occasional weak ones, in many cases might as well be a hammock.