Colgan: No Experience, No Judgment
As I was reading over the cockpit voice recorder from the Colgan 3407 crash in Buffalo, I had a sudden queasy feeling, as did my colleague Mary Grady in her blog last week. I don't know enough about the state of airline training and pilot experience to have much of an opinion on whether both are in decline. Frankly, I've been hearing that about journalism schools for years, and I can't reasonably say j-school kids are worse now than they were 30 years ago. I'm also ignoring the pay versus skill versus experience argument. I think it's mostly noise.
What caught my eye is this statement made by the first officer: "I've never seen icing conditions. I've never deiced. I've never seen any—I've never experienced any of that. I don't want to have to experience that… and make those kinds of calls. You know, I'dve freaked out. I'dve have like seen this much ice and thought, 'oh my gosh we were going to crash.'"
What disturbs me is this: The F/O, as so many airline new hires are, was a CFI, trained in the sunny Southwest where there's little in the way of serious weather, much less icing. But even at flightschools located in areas where there is weather and icing, CFIs come out of the program with no weather and no icing experience because the schools prohibit them from flying in such conditions.
This reminds me of a note my friend Walter Atkinson forwarded to me a couple of weeks ago about growing up in the 1950s. We rode around in cars without seatbelts, had fat-pill hamburgers and fries for lunch and even ate dirt. Now, Mom straps Junior into a car seat like the ejection capsule in an F-111 and stuffs a gross of sterile wipes into his back pocket.
So, have we gone so far in mitigating risk that we avoid it entirely by refusing to let neophyte CFIs learn their lessons in real weather? I think this has always been true for some number of pilots coming out of the major pilot mills in the sunbelt and elsewhere. But I wonder if it's getting worse. If it is getting worse, we in the aviation press have a hand in it.
Every year, like clockwork, come cooler weather in the fall, we trot out the same boilerplate articles about the perils of icing. We wring our hands over the legalities, gin up the fear factor and basically conclude that you're a fool if you even think about flying an unprotected airplane in icing. These articles generally assume that readers are too stupid to understand that icing risk, like everything else in the known universe, exists in degree. It's never black and white and the way you discern black from white is by exercising judgment. And judgment comes from experience. No experience equals little or no judgment.
To me, this is not an indictment of Colgan 3407's F/O so much as it a broken advanced training system at the GA level. Earning a CFI is graduate-level work, the ultimate point of which is to teach flying skills to others. How can you teach what you do not know? How can you explain to the budding instrument pilot that a layer of light rime won't kill him if you haven't seen it yourself?
These aren't just rhetorical questions, but practical considerations. My view of it is that irrespective of what the airline pays a new hire or how it trains that pilot, no pilot should ever be in the pointy end of an airliner who hasn't seen enough weather to be capable of basic sound judgments.
Message to flightschools: Stop worrying about liability and get busy equipping your students with real world, useful experience. To do otherwise is a disservice to the entire industry.