What's True

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There’s been a lot of talk lately about “fake news” and “alternative facts,” and the aviation world can’t escape the discussion. We were reminded of this recently when Bruce Landsberg, a well-known GA safety advocate for many years, faced some tough questioning during a hearing before Congress, where he was seeking approval for his recommended appointment to the NTSB.

The nomination might have seemed a shoo-in, given Landsberg’s long resume and decades of work on behalf of aviation safety at AOPA and the Air Safety Foundation. But the tough questioning centered on one issue — does Landsberg support the 1,500-hour rule for pilots? The senators on the panel cited several times over the years when Landsberg had questioned the rule’s usefulness. 

The rule was passed in the wake of the 2009 Colgan Air crash. "It's been safer since the 1,500-hour rule was put into effect," said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a former military pilot. There have been no fatal airline crashes in the U.S. since the law was passed, Duckworth said. 

This is a classic example of confusing correlation with causation. Senator Duckworth has the facts correct. But can the one incident — the passing of the new rule — really explain the outcome — an accident-free stretch? 

Landsberg had expressed a more nuanced take on the problem — "Pilots should be hired and trained by solid criteria, not arbitrary numbers,” he wrote in 2010. He noted that the Colgan Air pilots had more than 1,500 hours in their logbooks, yet still were not up to handling the situation they faced on that fatal night. 

What matters are skills and judgment. Hours in the cockpit count too, but we all know there are pilots out there who are never going to learn, no matter how many hours they have. Others are ready to do the job on day one. 

So is the long accident-free stretch due to the Colgan rule? Or are there a million other factors and variables at work, including dumb luck (see SFO)? Does it make a difference to require 1,500 hours of flight time for a right-seat pilot? Or is the rule just an arbitrary requirement that makes people feel better and more secure while causing major headaches for airlines and new pilots? Those are complicated and useful questions to explore.

But to declare that the matter is settled — proven by the accident record — doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It ignores a bedrock truth that (hopefully) is taught in high-school science class. Correlation is not causation.

Comments (34)

I think anyone who really understands airline operations and aviation training in general recognizes this is politics at its' finest and is as you state, "just an arbitrary requirement that makes people feel better and more secure". We are now seeing another example of unintended consequences at work with pilot shortages beginning to impact the military and airlines.

Posted by: Jon James | November 27, 2017 2:25 AM    Report this comment

It's lovely saying that the heavy airlines haven't had any accidents, but how has the accident rate for the GA operators fared? Instead of having low hour pilots monitored and developed by experienced captains, they are simply left to fend for themselves in the single-pilot role.

Posted by: David Taylor | November 27, 2017 3:21 AM    Report this comment

As a military trained aviator, Sen Duckworth knows full well that she didn't have to wait to go into battle until she amassed 1,500 hours of Army helicopter flight time. In a highly regimented (read efficient) training system, it's the outcome that's important, not the flight time amassed. Flight training has become more focused and efficient than it was 50 years ago when I learned how to fly with a chart, course line and E6B. How airline flying is safer by requiring the 1st officer to amass that excess time -- often as a CFI in a single engine airplane -- defies explanation. The training they'd receive under a more mature and experienced Captain is far more valuable ... ultimately.

Beyond the obvious problem of the pilot shortage, there are other issues involved with the 'Colgan Rule.' I know someone who ran a multi-engine seaplane training operation who was so negatively impacted by the rule that he closed the doors. In order to get a multi-engine sea ATP -- even if you have 20,000 hours of flight time -- requires 50 hours in type. No one can afford to pay for that. Prior to the Colgan Rule, it was possible to get that add on rating with as little as 5 to 10 hours. And grilling Bruce Landsberg over his position on that rule is likewise ... nuts! Politicians ... SIGH !

Posted by: Larry Stencel | November 27, 2017 6:19 AM    Report this comment

I'm disappointed that Duckworth would use such a cudgel to berate Landsberg, whom I regard as a superstar in aviation safety. I hope Landsberg cruises to his appointment.

Posted by: John Schubert | November 27, 2017 6:19 AM    Report this comment

Senator Duckworth's comments speak volumes of who she really is especially considering her background. One would think she would have been a little more forth coming with the truth. I guess that cannot be expected out of any politician. So it is the world we live in. They're all liars.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | November 27, 2017 6:56 AM    Report this comment

This is why big government types are desperate to maintain their stranglehold on education and media. Most voters won't realize how foolish the statement was, and they certainly won't draw the obvious conclusion that the senator is likely either a fool or a demagogue.

Posted by: Eric Warren | November 27, 2017 9:06 AM    Report this comment

No lie. The pilot shortage causation started in 1980 and continues. The 1500 hour ATP rule affects the airlines. Let the airlines train their pilots for more in type flight hours. The 1500 hr rule has merit.

"There is a reason pilots often say FAA regulations are written in blood -- if a pilot isn't fully prepared to handle any unexpected weather or flying condition, human lives may be in jeopardy," said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).

Trust me, there is no training substitute for actual flying time and real-world experience," said Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the former US Airways pilot who famously made an emergency landing in the Hudson river in 2009. "Efforts to reduce flying hours fly in the face of evidence and logic, and put millions of lives at risk."

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 27, 2017 9:28 AM    Report this comment

"Let the airlines train their pilots for more in type flight hours. The 1500 hr rule has merit."

Isn't that somewhat of a catch-22, in that pilots can't fly in the right seat with less than 1500 hours, so how would the airlines train their pilots to reach that 1500 hour mark?

If I recall my airline history correctly, the airlines themselves once imposed high flight-time hours before hiring candidates, but sometime post-deregulation, they lowered the bar in order to have more pilots for the increased demand.

My issue with the 1500 hour rule is that it says nothing about the quality of those hours, only the quantity. Or to borrow another phrase "practice doesn't make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect". In other words, it's more difficult to unlearn a bad habit than it is to learn a good habit, and who knows what those 1500 hours consisted of.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | November 27, 2017 9:45 AM    Report this comment

Gary, good practice makes better. Further, in the 50s, some pilots started flying transport with as few as 250 flight hours. The airlines trained then the industry adapted as more complicated systems evolved. Flying a C172 is not the same as flying CRJs or something else, so let the airlines train their people in their equipment and environment until such practice makes better and safer.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 27, 2017 10:28 AM    Report this comment

Senator Duckworth's questions illustrate both her ignorance of cause and effect and also her disregard for the function of the NTSB. The NTSB neither makes policy nor enforces it. Thus Mr. Landsberg's feelings toward the 1,500 hour rule has no real bearing on his duties for the agency. She is simply pandering for some attention while the news cameras are rolling so she can use it during her reelection campaign. She should follow the old rule that says "It is better to remain silent and appear ignorant than to open you mouth and remove all doubt".

Maybe we should have a rule requiring a minimum of 1,500 hours of public service before you can serve in congress.

Posted by: John McNamee | November 27, 2017 10:55 AM    Report this comment

There are two safety aspects of pilot experience; total time flying (aeronautical maturity) and time-in-type and model. A flying maturity measure is somewhere above 500 hours. Time in model maturity is somewhere above 100 hours. and 1,,000 . Doubling eiher or both of these is an added safety factor. But right seat piloting can start in that range. Going beyond 1,000 hours total time is more a "seniority" ploy, i.e. it's political. The finishing touch shall always be an in-model proficiency check on a regular basis. This could be alternately on a simulator where emergency procedure tests can be more intense.

Posted by: Angelo Campanella | November 27, 2017 11:13 AM    Report this comment

"Flying a C172 is not the same as flying CRJs or something else, so let the airlines train their people in their equipment and environment until such practice makes better and safer."

I agree with that, and that's the point I was trying to make. But with the exception of the special training required for an ATP, the 1500 hour rule doesn't have much in it about relevant experience, just total experience.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | November 27, 2017 11:56 AM    Report this comment

John M ... you're idea is GENIUS! And, while we're at it, let's set an upper age limit for politicians as well as term limits. If politicians and the FAA can set an upper age limit for airline pilots, then there should -- likewise -- be an upper age limit for politicians at say ... age 75 or 12 total years of service.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | November 27, 2017 12:28 PM    Report this comment

The best way to measure the skill level of any one person is a well-defined practical exam conducted by a person who does not have a vested interest in the outcome. Experience means little if all it does is repeat the same wrong behaviors over and over.

Since all flight must include a minimum of three phases: one, leaving the ground; two, travel in the sky; and, (in my mind) the most important third phase, returning to the ground. It has never made since to me that pilot experience is based on flight time and not on safely completed flights.

The Colgan pilots met the accident resulting 1,500-hour "Colgan rule." Clearly when the rule was made it did not have any correlation to the accident causation. The rule is simply politic eyewash responding to an unaware public. That sort of response must be what the public wants or we would not have the politicians we have.

Posted by: Rob Cheek | November 27, 2017 12:40 PM    Report this comment

Politics IS the ultimate "fake news" and "alternative facts,"
Nothing shows that off better than watching the non-experts in Congress grill a subject matter expert..

Posted by: Mark Fraser | November 27, 2017 2:20 PM    Report this comment

On the subject of minimum hours, since software programmers are about to fly our airplanes (or already are), what should be their minimum hours on the keyboard?

Posted by: Robert Mahoney | November 27, 2017 9:12 PM    Report this comment

Robert, why not require that members of Congress (who are voting on aviation related issues) have a minimum of 1500 hours of PIC time?

Posted by: Mark Fraser | November 28, 2017 7:57 AM    Report this comment

The only people being inconvenienced by the Colgan rule are regional airline contractors such as Colgan. No, hours aren't all-telling, but no one with 300 hours is capable of doing much more than jerking the gear and talking on the radio--certainly not co-commanding a multi-ton jet with paying members of the general public in back--type rating or not. Regionals see low-time pilots as 'meat-in-the-seat.' We can play the correlation isn't causation game the other way, if you'd like: Just because low hiring standards haven't been proven to cause accidents doesn't mean it's safe.

Though there are "a million other factors" to consider during accident investigations, the Colgan crash was pilot-error, pure and simple. I'm sure fatigue had a lot to do with it, too, but lets not speak the 'F-word' lest the airlines double-down on their lobbying efforts, haha.

The Captain of that aircraft had a history of busting check-rides. But I bet you anything he totally nailed the airline interview. Let's be sure here, it's about bare-minimum hiring standards, of which includes, but is not limited to, flight time, and deliberate abuse of the 14-hour rule.

Posted by: Alan Tipps | November 28, 2017 10:47 AM    Report this comment

The only people being inconvenienced by the Colgan rule are regional airline contractors such as Colgan. No, hours aren't all-telling, but no one with 300 hours is capable of doing much more than jerking the gear and talking on the radio--certainly not co-commanding a multi-ton jet with paying members of the general public in back--type rating or not. Regionals see low-time pilots as 'meat-in-the-seat.' We can play the correlation isn't causation game the other way, if you'd like: Just because low hiring standards haven't been proven to cause accidents doesn't mean it's safe. Here's another doozy: the 1500 hour rule is causing the pilot shortage. Actually, that's conflation. Or, airline koolaid, if you prefer. Poverty-level starting pay, pay-for-training, low quality of life, "lucky to have a job" mentalities are what are causing a "pilot shortage."

Though there are "a million other factors" to consider during accident investigations, the Colgan crash was pilot-error, pure and simple. I'm sure fatigue had a lot to do with it, too, but lets not speak the 'F-word' lest the airlines double-down on their lobbying efforts, haha.

The Captain of that aircraft had a history of busting check-rides. But I bet you anything he totally nailed the airline interview. Let's be sure here, it's about bare-minimum hiring standards, of which includes, but is not limited to, flight time.

Posted by: Alan Tipps | November 28, 2017 11:05 AM    Report this comment

One wonders - how might Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a former military pilot, correlate the 1,500 hour rule to the accident free period preceding the 2009 Colgan Air crash?

Posted by: C. David Buchanan | November 28, 2017 11:10 AM    Report this comment

Senator Duckworth has lost all credibility. She has sold out to the airlines. From her military training, she knows that meeting a minimum number of flight hours does not make a competent pilot. This is all political Bravo Sierra, another opportunity for a politico to get some camera time while ensuring campaign "donations".

I find it interesting that a multi thousand hour pilot with a Helicopter rating must jump through the same hoops as a 1500 hour C172 jockey to gain the Airplane Multi Engine ATP. Even an airplane ATP single engine must also do so. If the FAA and Congress were interested in safety they could engage the services of somebody with a brain, a bit of aeronautical knowledge and an understanding of using the existing safety data to develop a meaningful requirement for the ATP rating.

Guess I am asking for a lot here considering the political morons who concocted this requirement in the first place. These same DC swamp monsters are now trying to mess with the ATC system.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | November 28, 2017 11:57 AM    Report this comment

The unfortunate fact of this incident is that Colgan was not playing by the rules and, while the inspectors overseeing the operation tried to clamp down on them, their superiors prevented them from doing so.

One cannot resolve an issue, caused by blatant violation of the rules by the FAA and the airline, by fiddling with the rules.

There is a top down culture that encourages shoddy operations, and the only thing that is keeping the accident rate low is the fact that those at the controls of the aircraft are always the first to arrive at the accident site.

Enlightened self interest.

Posted by: Wayne Justinen | November 28, 2017 1:06 PM    Report this comment

"Poverty level starting pay, pay for training, low quality-of-life, "lucky to have a job" mentalities are what's causing a "pilot shortage".

Mr Tipps hit it right n the nose! The ATP rule (not 1500hr) has been the best thing for pilot salaries that ever happened. Only the regoinals have this problem, the mainlines have all the pilot resumes they need. Until people realize that this is a money shortage issue instead of a pilot shortage the complaints won't stop.

Posted by: matthew wagner | November 28, 2017 7:13 PM    Report this comment

The situation brought up by Mr. LeBoeuf is due to the lazy and clumsy way the FAA changed the training requirements putting the responsibilty for meeting this on the pilot instead of the company/operator. Can you imagine having to get sim time in a 40000lb airplane just to get typed in a CJ or Citation Mustang or Eclipse or other light jet that does not even weigh 12500lb. If another company were to start another fractional operating a multi-engine plane weighing less than 12500lb, they would have an interesting time meeting the ATP requirements for operating PT 91K. What a mess!

Posted by: matthew wagner | November 28, 2017 7:24 PM    Report this comment

For reals? Yea, for reals!

"FO: I don't need 1500 hours to sit right seat beside someone who has 6000 hours. Aviation is unaffordable that way especially when pay is $45k

Captn: Sorry. I don't get paid to be your flight instructor. I want an experienced & participating first officer in right seat. Not an apprentice.

FO: That's a function of HR. But your tweet sounds elitist.

Captn: Not elitist. The 1 group who hasn't been asked what qualifications they want in first officers are the captains with whom they will fly."

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 28, 2017 11:28 PM    Report this comment

Captain: "Sorry. I don't get paid to be your flight instructor."
Actually, s/he does. It's a big portion of the job. And as long as airlines employ a seniority-based staffing paradigm, it always will be. Until the robots make the issue moot.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | November 29, 2017 4:52 AM    Report this comment

How many hours will robot need to have to fly as PIC? As soon as it comes off the assembly line, gets plugged into a test harness, all the lights flash and BINGO - instant airline captain. The airlines will save billions in training, accidents will drop to nothing, airline food will improve and ticket prices will be even cheaper

Posted by: Richard Montague | November 29, 2017 7:34 AM    Report this comment

I've been following Bruce Landsberg for decades. He is an expert in Aviation much like Paul Bertorelli. Imagine!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 29, 2017 8:12 AM    Report this comment

I think Yars has a point. Eventually, airline pilots will be as scarce as MacDonald's workers. Robots will replace both. A business does not invest in automation until there is a clear financial or operational advantage. Pilot shortages; just reduce crew size and let a FMS handle the chores. Eventually, the "captain" will be degraded to an on site systems operator.

I remember many years ago when the B727 came on line. One Captain opined that he was less of a pilot and more of an airborne systems operator. Then the B737 came on line with a 2 person crew. It is only a matter of time until we will see a 1 person flight crew. Then too, is this pilot shortage thing is just a ploy to justify leaving the right seat empty? Will the right seat be on the ground in an operations center where one virtual SIC will crew multiple aircraft?

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | November 29, 2017 9:28 AM    Report this comment

Uh. Who said we have not had an airline accident since the Colgan rule? Anybody been to BHM. UPS is an airline also.

Best

Vince

Posted by: SV MASSIMINI | November 29, 2017 11:56 AM    Report this comment

"It's been safer since the 1,500-hour rule was put into effect..."

Sen. Duckworth would be well-served by taking Statistics 101 before making such a sweeping deduction. She is inferring a post-Colgan accident rate based on a sample size of zero...which is impossible to do with a finite margin of error. In other words, hogwash!

Posted by: A Richie | November 29, 2017 3:02 PM    Report this comment

"Captain: Sorry, I don't get paid to be your flight instructor.
Actually s/he does".

No s/he does not! There is a big difference between, as a captain, showing or helping your new sic with operating the airplane, working automation and FMS, and so on, rather than having to teach items that should have been learned at the private or commercial level. I have had sic's that could not set up a VOR approach, who could not fly a visual approach just looking out the window, who thought a visual approach clearance to an uncontrolled field entitled them to do a straight in appoach with priority over VFR traffic in pattern! And so on. All private pilot stuff! If the training that some sic's get at the private or commercial level was good enough, captains such as myself would not have to "act" as flight instructors while flying paying passengers.

Posted by: matthew wagner | November 29, 2017 5:29 PM    Report this comment

I have flown with some low time sic's. It is rare that I find one who is competent in the right seat with that low time. People point out that getting training for 121 ops at such a low amount of flight time works. Problem is if that candidate does not have proper training at the private level, then it is that much more difficult to fly to ATP or Commercial standards. There is a reason some planes are certified for 2 pilot crews. As a captain I need that right seat person to know his/her job for me to do my job safely, not someone who is no more than a trainee. A positive side effect of the ATP rule is the rising to an livable level of pilot compensation. This does not effect mainline airlines since they already pay well and their experience minimums are higher.

Posted by: matthew wagner | November 29, 2017 5:46 PM    Report this comment

"A positive side effect of the ATP rule is the rising to an livable level of pilot compensation."

Except that to obtain the necessary experience to even qualify to take the ATP checkride, one has to expend a much larger amount of their own money to get there.


"If the training that some sic's get at the private or commercial level was good enough, captains such as myself would not have to "act" as flight instructors while flying paying passengers."

In a way, that seems to show that maybe it *should* be the airlines training these people, rather than letting them train themselves up prior to being hired. It would also suggest that perhaps the checkrides for private, commercial, and instrument aren't strict enough if these sic's are coming deficient in certain skills. I also wonder how such deficient candidates are even getting hired and through the initial training.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | November 30, 2017 7:28 AM    Report this comment

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