Pilot Experience? What Pilot Experience?
I don't know what the normal NTSB response is to a fatality-free runway overrun in a foreign country but I' wouldn't be surprised if Canada's Transportation Safety Board will have to call in reserves just to make sure they have the numerical advantage at the soggy end of a runway at Ottawa's MacDonald-Cartier International Airport.
The NTSB sent at least five people to, uh, help out with the investigation of the overrun by a United Express Embraer 145 in Ottawa on Wednesday. I'm sure their Canadian counterparts are thrilled with the extra investigative horsepower to explore the nuances of a mishap where a pilot reportedly called the tower as he was heading down the wet runway for the opposite threshold and said he was standing on the brakes but had "no traction."
I have my own theories but I'm not a "flight operations specialist" or a "survival factors specialist" or even a "technical advisor" of the ilk dispatched to Canada's capital city.
Undoubtedly there will be some new knowledge gained but it would be dishonest to attribute the NTSB's spirited response to this relatively minor event to anything but the focus on regional airlines and the folks who fly their airplanes. At this writing, we don't know about crew rest (although the flight was an early-afternoon shuttle from Washington) but the pilots' ages (48 on the left, 31 on the right) might offer some insight. It might not, too, but I mention it because of a regional experience I had, that, thanks to AVweb's broad reach, allowed me to understand the circumstances that led to it.
I was on a typically-packed CRJ200 for a mid-day flight. Weather was good; calm winds, 20 percent cloud cover, density altitude about 6,000 if I was guessing. Taxi and lineup were normal and takeoff roll was right down the center. I fly a lot but I still take a window seat and love to watch everything.
One of my things is trying to predict the rotation and I'm usually a little early. It just feels ready to fly for me before someone up front makes that call. This time, my call and that of the pilot flying coincided and I remember a little flash of self congratulation.
It was short lived, though, because the packed little airliner rose briefly and then smacked back down, rolled for a half second and then fulfilled the flying pilot's original command, apparently without undue effort. It shocked me and I believe I said: "What the hell?"
Other than the occasional firm landing, which may or may not have been intentional, it's the first time I've ever noticed anything truly abnormal on an airline flight.
So, we have some contacts in the regional community and I sent out an email describing the incident and asking for impressions.
Within a day, one of our contacts had spoken with the captain of that flight, a check pilot for the airline who was watching the guy on the right do his very first takeoff in the RJ. The newbie was transitioning from turboprops and had done all the RJ sim time and had presumably gained the confidence of his instructors and examiners to the point where he was taking off a real plane with 51 innocent souls on board and it was his first time in the cockpit of an actual airplane of that type.
According to our contact, the check pilot told him the guy simply tried to yard the aircraft off the runway, which you can apparently do in straight-wing turboprops. Swept-wing jets need a smoother hand and others have told me that the result could have been a lot worse than a skip and jump back into the air.
So, as the NTSB measures and interviews and draws fuel samples and all those other things that crash investigators do in case the obvious didn't actually happen, maybe the folks back in Washington could consider a recommendation from here that seems so rudimentary that I'm surprised it didn't take five experts to come up with it.
How about we have a rule that requires pilots new to an aircraft type (particularly those transitioning from one class to another) to have some actual stick time in the airplane, a few trips around the patch, some takeoffs and landings, before they fly passengers? Yes, there was a check pilot on board my flight but he was as surprised as I was and had no chance to intervene. He did offer some rather enthusiastic direction after the fact, I've been told.
Now, I have "landed" a 767 thanks to the generosity of an airline instructor who gave me and a colleague four hours of amazing experience in a full motion simulator but I'm only ever so slightly more qualified to put a few hundred thousand pounds of actual airplane down now than I was before we had that incredible ride.
Modern training demands lots of sim time and I believe it makes better pilots. But there is nothing like the real thing to ensure that the skills learned safely on the ground actually translate to an airplane going 140 knots down the runway.