FAA, Airlines Monitoring Pilot Experience Issues


The FAA is monitoring the correlation between pilot inexperience and aviation incidents and so far it isn’t finding much. In the recent hiring sprees at most airlines, pilots have been moving up the ranks at unprecedented rates. Rather than taking years, sometimes decades, to move up to larger and more complex equipment, the hiring blitz of the past few years is upsetting that methodical and predictable career path. According to a Wall Street Journal story, the FAA and the airlines are both on the lookout for experience-related issues but so far no clear patterns have emerged despite anecdotal evidence that occasionally comes to light.

For example, the FAA’s data-heavy approach shows that, statistically speaking, the broad number of errors and missteps by pilots is within normal limits. Mitigating actions by airlines may have something to do that. For instance, the WSJ reports some airlines keep an eye out for “green on green pairings” in which inexperienced FOs are paired with recently striped captains. Highly experienced captains told the WSJ they have stepped up their games when a newbie is on the other side of the throttle quadrant to pass some of that hard-won knowledge along. Garth Thompson, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association’s United Airlines unit, said he’s mindful of the potential for problems but hopeful it’s being dealt with. “I’m concerned that if it’s not handled properly, it could be unsafe. But I do think it is on the radar and some pretty smart people are working the problem.”

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. I’ve been flying with new hire pilots on the Bus, several of which who came through a CFI program or perhaps a brief right seat stint in a corporate gig.

    My first observation is the enthusiasm regarding the study and memorization of cockpit procedures, particularly during preflight duties and cockpit set up. A breath of fresh air, although I know this too shall pass. Most that are just off IOE (extended in our operation) will volunteer this during our TEM briefing, I then share I’m counting down to the inevitable extended fishing trip in months rather than years, so we are Green on Gray. The perfect storm. I tell them – not today FAA. That’s my version of a Rap Beat.

    Some present with bluster and braggadocio to impress, after all they don’t want to take command from the captain if they don’t have to. That’s a sign as well.

    Energy management is a new concept, so I ask what their plan is beyond just reading the SID, STAR or Approach plate to me. What are they going to do with all the buttons if this or that specifically, what’s the automation plan and when, if “this” should happen. They will stray from their own plan, and I suggest how to rectify a sub optimal situation, then if needed tell. I have had to take control.

    During cruise I like to say something like “I didn’t like that N2 vibration at 500ft did you? (regardless of the N2), pull out the procedure and lets take a look at it”. I find out if they can navigate an abnormal in the “books”. We are in a crew not an instructor student relationship regardless of experience, so I try to foster that by sharing my experience not dictating instruction. That’s also new to them.

    They tend to hit the dreaded autopilot off button at CAT 1 mins, even while visual. I did too when low time. My thumb is resting on the takeover button as I’ve seen things that are just weird be commanded then. We learn more from our mistakes than pulling off a lucky guess, so that’s the rub. Differentiating a hardish landing with a potential bounce and over pitched tailstrike is what I’m being paid for at this stage. During those five seconds. I don’t particularly relish those five seconds. I know, I know, “a stabilized approach is …blah blah blah”. Yes true, but we’ve all seen beautifully managed and stable approaches go to heaven in a wheelbarrow.

    While I was considered low time with 6,500 hours and a fresh DC-9 type with dirty oil on it, that is not the fresh faces we see on the line today. Shockingly, HR doesn’t call me to vet applicants, and the CEO has never once consulted me for network planning. Both of which I have considerable opinions about.

    Obviously, too much coffee this am. Out.

    • Dexter, your is one of the best comments I have ever read on AvWeb. I particularly like your reference to “energy management” which I used to refer to as “trajectory management”. Both are mostly one and the same. Planning for energy management is a sign that someone has truly “gotten it”, and as you imply distinguishes that person from mere SID and STAR readers.

    • If the senior pilots all are as professional as you are being, they will be earning the seniority pay they are getting.

      I think though, the airlines and unions need to be paying attention to those seniority rules and ensuring this current crop doesn’t manage to secure advantages due to good timing that discourage new hires over the next decades. That’s one reason we got here.

  2. The airlines are experiencing what we in the USAF, in particular MAC (back in my day), went through continuously. Turn over was continuous and there was always a fresh batch of folks out of UPT and RTU to train, “season”, then upgrade. In the -141, the missions were always similar but far more varied than the average airline pilot will experience. One couldn’t rely on going to the same double handful or so of airports routinely. The various special missions like airdrop, etc. aside, our folks might or might not see a particular destination for months or longer. If you were a “west coast” pilot, you wouldn’t go to Europe but maybe once a year or less. Back in the day, Frankfurt (Rhine Main) was one of the challenging places especially during the morning rush.
    All that aside, we had training folders to document progress or lack there-of for those folks until they finished upgrade to AC. The pilot could see what his or her progress was in the eyes of the various AC’s they flew with. Those AC’s were expected to review the folder and add to it. Not only did those folders contain places for remarks they included a list of topics to discuss and get signed off. These included systems and all the other areas of knowledge the young pilot was expected to learn and become proficient in.
    Initially, the C-5 was considered too much for the youngsters. Eventually, it became simply another aircraft to get assigned to and grow up in.
    The airlines won’t ever likely use such a system because everyone is way too worried about “privacy” and too many “Captains” would whine about not being paid to “teach”. That aside, pilots have been bringing up their replacements since Orville first flew and that isn’t going to change anytime soon. I think that given the right corporate atmosphere, the current trend of reasonable safety numbers will continue even as the experience level of the force declines somewhat over time.

  3. After 34 years on the line it is my observation,”A F/O knows everything you never need too know until something goes wrong and then they know nothing”. Also, I believe that it is the Captains job to teach the new hires. There is much info. not covered in the manuals that need to be passed down.

    • I loved ‘cockpit pilot’s’ take on F/O’s. Airline training has improved over the years but still focuses too much on system knowledge. Perhaps only ‘time in the seat’ is the only true way to gain experience…until we get the chairs in the movie The Matrix.

    • It’s one thing to show a new FO the way around a new airplane, but what I hate doing is having to do any training for a new FO, private pilot stuff that should have been learned at that level. If you are an ATP with a type rating I expect ATP level knowledge, not student pilot level!

  4. We need Quality Training Not Quantity Hours
    The 1500 Hours Rule is The Problem
    We need To Get Rid Of The 1500 Hour Pilot Union Cause This Mess Wake up People
    No Other Country In the world Require Commercial Pilot To Log 1500 Hours And ATP Is Ridiculous is shameful

  5. The airlines are not interested in Captains passing along anecdotal information. That’s just the contagion of bad habits. Instead they want Captains to model strict adherence to SOPs, Triggers and Flows and fostering a safe space for fragile egos.

    They know who they are hiring and they won’t choose to cut back revenue flying rather than compromise their hiring standards. They are planting tomatoes and expecting corn to grow. They will adapt their training programs as needed to keep the safety level within industry accepted standards.

    I agree wholeheartedly about the detrimental effect of the 1500 hour rule. The rule limits available opportunities for young pilots to operate in a crew environment and puts an undue burden on the entry level carriers. Offer an exemption or a subsidy if you can’t face the politics of ending the 1500 hour rule.

  6. Like a well known organisation states: the best safety device is a well trained pilot. Correct training and attitude must prevail over a specified amount of “bulk” hours. And in my opinion a captain’s job includes mentoring his crew besides just serving as an example and strutting the stripes. This includes expecting the unexpected from a new hire – as he/she would have to expect from pretty much the whole surrounding environment. The instructors are there do deliver properly trained and qualified crew to the line. Then it is up to the line crews to nurture further growth and development. A captain that is not interested in this part of the job might not be in the right place…
    Essential beyond all of this is a safety system that encourages open and fair reporting – a just culture.