The Pilot Experience Conundrum
As the passing parade scrolls by, I sometimes find myself asking what's worse; new proposed regulations or our sometimes silly knee-jerk reaction to them. This week, we've got both. Specifically, I'm referring to proposed legislation that would require pilots flying in FAR 121 operations to have a minimum of 1500 hours.
This gem comes from the fertile mind of Senator Charles Schumer, an old warhorse liberal who never saw something he couldn't improve with a new law. If this guy had his way, he would regulate everything from peaches to pajamas and the Second Amendment would be a fading memory. Before breaking down this idea, let me perform the obligatory keying of the pilot chorus: Hours have nothing to do with pilot skill…yadda, yadda, yadda.
On its face, there's nothing logically wrong with the 1500-hour proposal. It's basically saying that anyone flying in air transport should have an airline transport rating. That's hardly a radical idea. Fifteen hundred hours ain't squat anyway in terms of real world experience. And not all experience is the same. All things being equal—which they never are—I'd rather have a 1000-hour pilot who'd beat around flying checks in crappy Northeastern weather than an ambitious CFI with 2000 hours in Tucson. But that's not to say that the Tucson pilot wouldn't be a better pick for an airline job. Senator Schumer is too dense and ill-informed to appreciate this nuance.
And now we get to the knee-jerk portion of our program. The National Association of Flight Instructors argues that the 1500-hour requirement wouldn't improve safety measurably. I'm on board with that. Then it steps over the edge of the precipice and says it has the potential of degrading safety. Really? Show me the data on that. I'm gonna ask you to tell me how you are going to definitively prove that my Tucson pilot isn't the better choice than my Northeast check hauler.
Could be that Mr. I'll-Fly-In-Anything-Check Hauler is good, but with a wild streak that's benefited from good luck while my Tucson candidate is disciplined, professional and engaged, but only has 20 hours of cloud time. If both get the same training, who do you want in the right seat? I submit the choice isn't so easy, because it's driven by the greatest of unknown variables: the quality of the individual. And I'm not talking about stick-and-rudder ability, but the attitude that person brings to the enterprise.
I first noticed this some years ago, when I was editing IFR magazine. We had a traveling seminar series which would draw 50 to 100 people in various cities. Surprisingly, many of our attendees were airline pilots. In one of our seminars in Roanoke, an obviously experienced USAirways Captain soaked up the course like a dry sponge. Despite his years of flying—including Air Force combat time—he knew that we knew things about the finer points of IFR flying that his sterile and procedures-driven airline flying insulated him from. The questions he asked indicated to me that he was curious and engaged and wanted to integrate this knowledge into his own flying because that was his definition of professionalism. It's the difference between employment and avocation. After the course, he thanked us and said "they don't teach us this stuff in our training."
That's the guy I want in the left or right seat.
So my view of this is that the best you can do is cull the deadbeats and train the rest. The 1500-hour requirement is the cudgel version of culling—like doing surgery with a chainsaw. It might work, but it sure is messy.
The better way is to invent a process that both trains and evaluates. I think, to a degree, airlines already do this, but I'm not sure they all do it well, especially at the regional level. With scenario-based training all the rage, the training/evaluation could tilt toward judgment situations that require analytical skills drawn from experience. For example, put the guy in the simulator and run him through the Colgan accident scenario or something similar to see how he (or she) reacts. And do more of this and less of ordinary procedures.
Now I imagine a Chief Pilot reading this might say it's a pipe dream and point out that this outgassing is easy for me to do because I don't have to hire and train pilots. Mea culpa. On the other, the status quo always sabotages progress.
If I were the Chief Pilot and in charge of hiring new F/Os, I'd sort the resumes into two piles and I'd use an hours cutoff of…let's see…1500 hours. I'd pick the promising ones out of that group first, then see if the under 1500-hour group had anything better to offer.
I'll concede that market conditions could make a hash of this process. There might not be any resumes in the 1500-hour pile. But you gotta start somewhere and a knee-jerk response isn't the place.