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A new report released this week by the Government Accountability Office offers a mixed view of whether the much-discussed airline pilot shortage actually exists, but it does confirm that regional airlines are having trouble finding qualified pilots. The GAO report (PDF), which was done at the behest of Congress, found that the projected need for pilots over the next decade will be between 1900 and 4500 a year. And while the GAO says data indicates there may be enough trained pilots to fill these jobs, many of them may either be working abroad or in other industries where the pay is much higher.

In its research, the GAO cited another study that found that the pilot shortage will become acute, partially because flight schools report fewer applicants entering training due to escalating costs and higher hours requirements for starting airlines pilots. “Such costs,” says the GAO, “deter pilots from pursuing a pilot career.”

Hiring shortages appear to be most acute for regional airlines, which pay substantially less than mainline airlines who can draw from a pool of more experienced ranks, including the military. According to the GAO report, 11 of 12 regional airlines surveyed failed to reach their recruitment goals last year.

According to ALPA, the average starting salary for first officers in regional airlines is $22,400, but the GAO report found pay levels below that. For example, the first officer killed in the 2009 Colgan Air crash at Buffalo in 2009 had earned only $16,000 in the previous year of her employment at the airline. For its part, ALPA has questioned claims of pilot shortages, claiming there are enough pilots to fill the ranks, but that fewer are willing to work for the low entry salaries the industry is offering.

Regionals are beginning to respond to their hiring shortfalls by offering hiring bonuses. Two regionals, according to GAO, have offered $5000 hiring bonuses and one offers up to $10,000 in tuition reimbursement. But rather than bringing new hires into the industry, these efforts have tended to attract applicants away from other, poorer paying regionals, according to the GAO’s findings.

In addition to hiring bonuses, the GAO report recommends that airlines might consider training their own pilots and improve wages, benefits and working conditions to attract qualified applicants. It also suggests relaxing hiring requirements, but the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010, requiring a 1500-hour minimum and ATP for first officers, doesn’t give airlines much leeway in minimum requirements.

In a strongly-worded posting on its website, the FAA directly addressed what it called “misconceptions and misinformation about unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) regulations.” It listed seven common myths and set out the underlying facts on each. The myths include that the FAA doesn’t control airspace below 400 feet—it is responsible for all U.S. airspace from the ground up, and said it believes the myth comes from the idea that manned aircraft must generally stay at least 500 feet above the ground; that commercial UAS flights are legal if over private property and under 400 feet—not so, trying to operate a UAS commercially by claiming compliance with Model Aircraft guidelines doesn’t cut it, commercial operations must be approved by the FAA on a case-by-case basis; and that commercial UAS operations fall under a “gray area” of the FARs—again, not so, operating any aircraft in U.S. airspace requires some level of FAA approval.

Other myths busted by the FAA included: There are too many commercial UAS operations for the FAA to stop—the FAA said that it is monitoring them closely, often hears about them via complaint or self-posting on Internet sites and has a number of enforcement tools it is willing to use; commercial UAS operations will be OK after Sept. 30, 2015—again not so, that’s the date the FAA is required to come up with a “safe integration” plan and phase in will be incremental; and that the FAA predicted there will be as many as 30,000 drones by the year 2030—the FAA says that figure is outdated, it currently predicts as many as 7,500 small commercial UAS may be in use by 2018, assuming the necessary regulations are in place.

During March, the NTSB will offer two courses related to accident investigation and one on accident response and victim family support at its training center in Auburn, Va. The Aircraft Accident Investigation course will run from March 31 through April 11 and is designed to provide participants with a comprehensive overview of the procedures and methods used and the skills required to investigate an aircraft accident. Examples from recent NTSB investigations will be used to demonstrate particular aspects of the investigative process. Learn more.

A related course on cognitive interviewing, which is geared to providing the foundational knowledge and skills needed to conduct interviews of participants in, and witnesses to, transportation incidents or accidents, will be held on March 19 and 20. Learn more. Finally, the NTSB’s Transportation Disaster Response: Family Assistance course, scheduled for March 25 through 27, was developed for commercial transportation officials, representatives of federal agencies, staff of non-governmental relief organizations and emergency managers and is instrumental in understanding how any organization involved in an accident response situation can most effectively support family assistance efforts. More information.

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Photo: Joerg Mitter

Defending champion Paul Bonhomme of the U.K. edged arch rival Hannes Arch of Austria to win the first event in the revived Red Bull Air Race series in Abu Dhabi on Saturday. Bonhomme, who won the 2009 and 2010 Red Bull titles over Arch, before the race series took a recession-induced three-year hiatus, won the final race with a time through the circuit of inflated pylons of 56.439 seconds, barely a third of a second faster than Arch's 56.776. “There was huge pressure out there and it was so much work to get back here,” said Bonhomme. Much of that pressure came from relative newcomer Pete McLeod, of Canada, who, at 30, is the youngest pilot in the field and came third.

McLeod beat Bonhomme and Arch in qualifying and started in the pole position in Saturday's race. He's among the pilots who have benefited from rule changes that put more emphasis on pilot skills than team budgets to do well in the races. For instance, all aircraft use the same engine this year. Kirby Chambliss and Mike Goulian, the two U.S. pilots in the field of 12, finished in the bottom two places. The next race in the series is in Rovinj, Croatia, April 12-13. There are two races in the U.S., including Fort Worth Sept. 6-7 and Las Vegas Oct. 11-12.

The FAA says an airworthiness directive banning most early Cessna twins (except 337s) from flight into known icing is necessary because too many pilots were ignoring a mandatory service bulletin issued by the company in 1997 that says the same thing. Cessna sent out the bulletin after it became clear that even a little ice on almost 7,000 of the twins (PDF) could seriously affect the slow-speed handling, resulting in a lot of hard landings. The problem persisted after the service bulletin and the FAA issued the AD to actually make it illegal to fly the aircraft into known ice. The AD affects 4,200 aircraft in the U.S., more than a third of which have anti-icing gear. It becomes effective April 7, 2014.

The AD mandates installation of a panel placard that also requires pilots to carry an extra 15 knots on approach if they encounter inadvertent icing. Several operators protested the rule, saying that with the proper training pilots could safely operate the aircraft in known icing. They also said the limitations could cost them millions of dollars in lost business, but the FAA rejected those arguments. It based its decision to issue the AD on analysis of 51 accidents over 30 years. Based on the assessment, the FAA says it believes the AD will prevent 1.5 accidents a year and save 1.2 lives a year.

A British company has parlayed a $300 million project abandoned by the U.S. Army into a media spectacle that might launch a commercial airship business. Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) had originally partnered with Northrop Grumman to develop the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, a lighter-than-air vehicle with aerodynamic properties that nominally put it into a new class of aircraft called hybrid air vehicles. The project suffered numerous technical and performance setbacks and last year, faced with budget cuts, the army cut the airship project loose. It ended up selling the aircraft back to HAV for $301,000, about a tenth of a cent on the dollar. On Friday, with some rock star fanfare, the British company revealed how it was going to put all that U.S. taxpayer investment to use.

Iron Maiden front man Bruce Dickinson, a former airline pilot who is also involved with Eclipse Aircraft, put money into HAV's plans to sell the former Army version of the aircraft for surveillance, security, humanitarian projects or as a communications or broadcast platform. The prototype of a larger aircraft designed to carry passengers or up to 100,000 pounds of cargo was also shown to the British media on hand at the company hangar in Cranfield. "This is a beautiful thing – the sheer imagination and scale of it – British-designed and built," Dickinson told reporters. "Rarely do you get the chance to be involved in something really at the cutting edge of aviation."

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... and beyond ... such as Iowa. Yeah, all the stops are pulled out to bring the adventure back into flying while dodging lightning bolts and navigating Class B airspace. But you might lose an engine while acing this quiz.

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AVweb landed on the World Wide Web in 1995. Since then, we've amassed a huge archive of advice, analysis and inspiration. Travel back with us for a look at a classic article from AVweb's past.

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Things have been kind of busy, so my visits to the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport have been carried out at low cruise. I was present long enough recently to hear a student describing to his instructor what he had learned after having some difficulty with crosswind landings. She listened patiently as his recital made it clear that he had drawn the wrong conclusion from the experience. She was starting to walk him through the approach to landing in hopes of getting his thought processes pointed in the appropriate direction for future success in airplane control as I went out the door.

It was later that evening that the concept of looking at data and coming to precisely the wrong conclusion came to mind. I was reviewing accidents which were pigeonholed in the "maneuvering" phase of flight by the NTSB. That always gives me pause as "maneuvering" is usually the euphemism for low flying or buzzing and a crash due to loss of control or running into something. "Maneuvering" accidents make up pretty close to 10% of the total number of accidents, which doesn't sound like a big deal until you look at the next data point – they account for 40% of fatalities in general aviation airplanes. That's huge.

The problem is that the powers that be in aviation have, in my opinion, reached the wrong conclusion as to how to go about reducing the number of accidents that result when someone decides to toss an airplane around down low. For years the FAA, safety organizations and flight instructors have looked at the data on crashes from low flying and buzz jobs gone wrong and reached the conclusion that the way to stop them is to solemnly tell pilots "don't do it". The fact that the percentage of accidents attributed to "maneuvering" hasn't changed much over the last decade or so is a pretty convincing demonstration of just how effective the abstinence, or "keep 'em ignorant" approach has worked. Let's look at the situation.

First, pilots consist of a tiny fraction of one percent of our population. We are a self-selecting portion as years and years of studies have pointed out - pilots are far more willing to take risks than a person who desires to spend his or her life beetling across the surface of the planet. Pilots also attracted to speed, it is at the heart of aviation – "faster, higher, further" wasn't coined nearly 100 years ago without reason. "I feel the need for speed" in the movie Topgun hasn't trickled down to be heard throughout aviation because of an elegant internal rhyme scheme.

Flying at altitude is a wonderful thing to do for reasons that could take days to fully list. It does, however, lack one very significant something important to pilots: unless a cloud is very near for reference, there is virtually no sensation of speed. On a smooth day, it often feels as if the airplane has been hung from a string and the world is slowly rotating underneath.

Flying low, within about 200 feet of the ground, means being able to experience the speed of the airplane, to feel that gut-level excitement that sucks so many in to flying airplanes. Flying five feet above the ground is a sensory rush without any true comparison. The average person who can afford to rent a Cessna 172 can experience what the world looks like at 140 mph by flying very low; s/he probably cannot conveniently jump through the hoops necessary to get in a car that will go that fast and drive it on a track where it can go that fast. And even if s/he could, the experience in the car is not nearly as powerful or all-encompassing as in the airplane booming along in all the glories of the third dimension, barely above the dirt.

We have to face it: going fast near the ground is hugely exciting on a level that is hard to imagine without experiencing it. It is tremendous fun. It is hugely risky. However, simply telling a pilot not to do it is about as effective as telling waterfall to shut itself off for a few hours.

Human desires are forces of nature and powers that must be approached with an appropriate level of respect otherwise they will steamroller the best of intentions. For our aviation educators and regulators to fail to talk with students in detail about what is involved in flying low or conducting the infamous buzz job; to ignore something that is incredibly attractive to a tremendous number of pilots and then think that if they don't talk about it, pilots won't think about it, is foolish.

To believe that limiting a pilot's exposure to low flying to a "just say no" lecture will prevent maneuvering crashes is to live in a fantasy world. That the maneuvering accident rate stays pretty much the same year after year is testimony to how effective refusing to educate has been. We have been successful in cutting down drug use among kids through detailed education programs that teach intelligently about the effects of drugs, why can't we do the same with low flying?

Let's start out by being honest: it is exciting and a certain percentage of pilots are going to seriously consider trying it at least once. Speed provides a lot of stimulus to certain pleasure centers of the brain, in fact, according to folks who know about that sort of thing, drugs that we outlaw as dangerous act on some of the very same areas. We know how addictive drugs can be and how powerful human desire for the effect they provide can be. Let's admit that the need for speed is a hugely powerful desire and spend some time talking to pilots with that understanding.

So let's look at a typical scenario, one that is so popular and has resulted in so many deaths that it is almost a cliché: a very low altitude fly past of a friend/relative's house to show off the airplane and how cool we are to be flying it. As an added attraction, we'll get a speed fix because we are down low and we've got a decent tailwind. Yep, that's it, we get a huge rush and we show the world we are too cool for words. I'm in.

Let's also say that we have enough responsibility and maturity that before we go whistling off to accomplish the plan, we'll dissect it and see if it is something we can pull off without killing ourselves. First, we want to fly low; probably below 200 above the ground. All right, we'll be brutally honest, more like 10 feet. Have we ever flown that low before? Sure, scores of times, in fact, every time we've landed an airplane. Yet, we also admit there is one of those trifling differences, whenever we've been at that altitude we've been approaching or over a runway, in airspace that has been cleared of obstructions. All we've had to worry about was lining up with the runway and figuring out at what altitude to flare and then sorting out the touchdown. And, we'll admit, that low altitude bit of flying is a very high workload event; we don't have a lot of attention to spare for dealing with other things, such as looking out for and avoiding obstructions. We also are flying pretty slowly, at approach speed, and with a headwind we were usually not going a heck of a lot faster than we have sometimes driven a car.

That brings up the next question. Have we ever flown at 10 feet above the ground, in level flight, at cruise speed? Chances are that wasn't part of the training process when we got our certificate. Let's see what's involved with doing so. Let's first consider it over a runway. In the ubiquitous Cessna 172 we'll be traveling about 140 mph across the ground in a no wind situation. Chances are good we've never gone that fast on the ground. Having the world pass by at that clip is a new experience that we'll have to spend some time adjusting to because we are human.

Now, let's add a tailwind, 20 mph or so, and now we're clipping along, over the ground at 160 mph. That's getting to NASCAR speeds, which some folks consider pretty fast. Oh, yeah, how good are we at holding altitude plus or minus 100 feet? Do we really want to go try to maintain 10 feet agl? Especially as we have never experienced seeing runway lights and taxiways whip by this fast. OK, the speed is bothering us, so we'll pull the power back a little to slow down. But we don't dare look inside at the tachometer, do we? A little flinch and we're on the ground, eh?Can we make a power reduction of the right amount, and then retrim the airplane to compensate for the lower speed, all without diverting our attention from the outside world?

Let's keep adding variables to make this like the real world. At the end of the runway, we're going to pitch up and climb away from terra firma. With the ground zooming by us, we feel as if we're going a million miles per hour, so we really pull the nose up to take advantage of that speed in the climb. Only, once we think about it, we're only at cruise airspeed or a little below (if we did slow down because of the discomfort with the groundspeed).

What happens when we make a big pullup while cruising at altitude? We get a nice zoom climb for a short time and then the airspeed rapidly goes away, doesn't it? We've got to get full power in there and put the nose back down to normal climb attitude in order to keep from stalling the airplane. It's the same down low, except that we're all exhilarated by the groundspeed and have trouble accepting that this airplane is truly only a modest performer so if we don't get the nose back down to normal climb attitude and apply full power, we're going to stall. While still pretty low. And probably with the ball out to one side. Without being prepared for the stall.

Which is precisely how a lot of buzz jobs terminate – an aggressive pull up into a stall, incipient spin and a steeply nose down ground impact. Oh, yes, and closed casket funerals.

Thus far we've learned that we don't want to slow down when we are flying low, because we've got to climb eventually, and that the laws of aerodynamics don't change when the pilot gets excited with a first whiff of perceived groundspeed, so the pull up has to be appropriate. And, oh yeah, when we pull up after the low pass, we've got to look back at the house to see everyone come running out and get excited because we want the feedback to confirm that we're way, way cool. But, when is the last time we did a pull up while looking back and down? Can we judge the attitude of the airplane? Can we keep track of the airspeed and whether the ball is centered? Can we recover from a stall if we enter it while looking over our shoulder to the left at something on the ground? Can we do it right, the very first time, without ever having practiced it? Bet your life on it?

Now, let's add obstructions. And because real life is always a final exam, any and all obstructions are fair game; whether we can see them or not. Houses have antennas on or beside them, trees may or may not have leaves, making them difficult to spot quickly and, as every aerial applicator pilot knows, power lines are often absolutely invisible and they get strung in strange places. Have we thought about what happens if we take a power line with the windshield? How about with the landing gear? Or the prop? (Those are not rhetorical questions so I'll answer them: windshield – it's going to break and the line may decapitate those in at least the front seats, even if the line breaks before head removal, we are going to have to find out if we can fly an airplane without a windshield, which provides so much drag that the airplane may not hold altitude; landing gear – probably going to trip us and pitch us into the ground in a matter of seconds, we may or may not have time to utter a last explicative; prop – if we take it dead center, we may cut the line and have a fighting chance to survive. If it's one of the big cross country power lines, we're screwed.)

So, there we are, 10 feet above the ground, over an area we have not surveyed for obstructions, where no one has taken any action to clear the airspace for airplanes flying through, doing our best to hold altitude, which is taking almost all of our concentration, hoping that the power setting is okay, but not daring to look, trying to sort out the pitch trim which is out of whack because we just dived down to this height from about 1,000 feet agl and we're really doing more like 180 mph across the ground because of the dive and the tailwind, which is getting into open wheel racer speed territory, and we think we've got a chance to try and spot and avoid running into things that are hiding out there waiting to bring down the airplane? Don't make me laugh.

Just for grins, let's recount some of the things pilots have hit while flying low: power lines are the big killer, because unless the lines are silhouetted in front of a bright blue sky, they are effectively impossible to see from any distance at all. The only hope is to spot the poles, which may be difficult because they are in trees or on hill tops and the lines are strung completely across the valley we are in as we follow the twists and turns of the river. A married acquaintance of mine removed a wing off of a Civil Air Patrol T-34 by hitting a power line while flying low down a river, making steep turns to follow it, showing off for the young woman in the back seat. They both died.

Then there are antennas and towers and tower guy wires - a Cessna 404 hit a 150 foot tall HAM radio antenna at the 100 foot level. It smashed the left side of the nose back to the wing spar, killing the pilot in command. The pilot in the right seat managed to fly the very drafty, highly modified airplane some miles, all the way to the final accident site. A good friend of mine pulled up over a house but hit the TV antenna on top of it. Apparently, part of the antenna stuck between the horizontal stabilizer and the elevator so he had very little control and almost no time to see if he could learn to fly the new control system. He didn't have enough time or control, and went into high tension lines, which arrested the airplane's travel. It hung up in them and then caught fire and my friend burned to death.

Even assuming we can spot an obstruction ahead of us, how much experience have we had judging pull ups over obstacles or turns away from them while approaching at 140 miles per hour or so, especially downwind? Can we do it right, the very first time? I was lucky to get a good education in flying low starting at age 16 when I was working as what was called a "flag boy" for a crop duster. I stood along the edges of corn or soybean fields with a large day-glo orange flag to show the pilot where to line up for the next pass. I watched professional ag pilots fly with their wheels six inches over crops and then judge their pull ups at the ends of the fields so as to avoid hitting power lines and trees. And every so often I watched those professionals hit power lines and trees, as they misjudged a pull up. It sunk in to me that if the men and women who make their living flying at low altitude sometimes hit things, what are the chances for the amateurs?

I was trained in low flying by some of those same pilots; starting in a Piper J-3. The first time I rode, as one flew us across a field at 80 mph, a foot above the crop I was certain we were going a million miles an hour. I was in serious sensory overload. The corn was going by so fast I couldn't focus on it, the airplane was bucking in the turbulence of the hot day and I could not have sorted out when to start our pull up at the end of the field if someone had put a gun to my head.

Over time, I learned how to fly low and judge the pull up and set power by feel and I got my commercial certificate and started flying those same crop dusters. Until my dad found out and stopped me (hey, I was 18). I wasn't happy about being stopped; I liked flying low. However, I kept track of the ag pilots I crewed for in high school. Every single one of them crashed. Every one. Each was a low flying event. Fortunately, because they were in airplanes built to crash and were wearing helmets, they all survived.

Ag pilots are a cautious, cynical, alert lot. They know that flying at low altitude is risky, so they do all they can to protect themselves and reduce the risk before they step into the airplane. They fly airplanes built for crashing, they wear helmets, they find out all they can about the stuff that they might hit where they are going to be flying and they don't fly low over a field on a whim unless they know it well. Seems pretty logical to me.

The military requires low flying as part of their missions. They teach it. They teach it very carefully and in controlled circumstances. And every year a lot of military pilots die when flying low in training or practice. So what are the odds for the general aviation pilot who decides that it's time to go buzz the house of the girl or boyfriend?

I've purposely left any discussion of the regulations until last. Given the number of low flying accidents, I am not sure how much of a deterrent they are, especially because the FAA has categorically refused to say specifically where it is legal to fly low and where it is not. It continues to refuse, despite pressure, to define "congested area" in FAR 91.119 and pulls the term out of the hat without any rhyme or reason to go after pilots for low-flying violations. Because the FAA has refused to define where pilots may not legally fly low, I've long felt that the FAA set up a lot of law-abiding pilots to die because they thought what they were about to do was legal. Had they realized it wasn't, I think many of them might have decided not to make that particular buzz job. I am of the opinion that it is unconscionable for the FAA to not define "congested area" and "sparsely populated" as doing so might save lives.

When it comes to low flying and I am asked to put on my aviation lawyer hat to tell someone where it is legal to fly low under Part 91.119, my response is generally along the lines of pointing out that, first of all, you have to be high enough to make a forced landing if the engine quits; beyond that, when over sparsely populated areas, you have to stay at least 500 feet in any direction from people, vessels, vehicles and structures. The FAA has not defined sparsely populated areas; however, my rule of thumb is very cautious. If there are four houses or more in a quarter mile (or in any sort of housing development), or if there are several cars on a highway, or a small group of people standing around together, it is not sparsely populated, it is a congested area.

That's not what a normal reading of the term "congested" generates, but it's what the FAA has used when going after pilots. It means that if there are a half dozen people standing on the ramp at the airport, don't do a buzz job down the runway that is within 500 feet of them because the FAA can and has come after folks for doing just that. The reality is that flying below 1,000 feet agl when there are even a few houses or any people around to see you, especially in the world of post 9-11 hysteria, there is a chance that someone is going to complain to the FAA. Below about 500 feet, you can be almost assured of a complaint. (Oh yeah, a lot of people do not think airplanes are cool at all, they are scared to death of them and they complain loudly.)

Should you be the subject of a complaint to the FAA, you can count on the FAA refusing to believe your testimony as to your altitude unless you have radar data to confirm it. What's worse is that you can count on people having cell phone cameras and taking pictures of you, which has made going after low flying violators much, much easier for the FAA. As a result, if you have the burning desire to fly low down a beach on a summer day, or over the county fair or bluegrass concert in the cell phone camera age, you are about to take an IQ test. If you act on the desire, you may just be demonstrating that your IQ is approximately room temperature and the evidence is going to be enroute from a bunch of cell phones directly to the FAA.

All of this adds up to a need to talk about flying low in honest, detailed terms. If nothing else, we have to get beyond the futility of prevention by preaching abstinence. We must educate pilots about what they face when they take an airplane down low away from an airport so that they can make a reasoned decision as to whether to get that speed fix, and if they decide to do so, they do it somewhere and in a fashion that they won't kill themselves or get the chance to defend a certificate action by the FAA.

See you next month.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out AVweb's "Pilot's Lounge" index.
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We love a pilot who accidentally says over the mic something everyone has thought at one time or another.

When arriving at the first stop on our pilots association's annual poker run, one of our pilots said on the frequency, for all to hear:

"Geez.  There's more than one runway here.  That makes it kinda confusing."

Gene Clifford
via e-mail

Heard anything funny, unusual, or downright shocking on the radio lately? If you've been flying any length of time, you're sure to have eavesdropped on a few memorable exchanges. The ones that gave you a chuckle may do the same for your fellow AVweb readers. Share your radio funny with us, and, if we use it in a future "Short Final," we'll send you a sharp-looking AVweb hat to sport around your local airport. No joke.

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AVweb Insider

I can rightly—but not necessarily proudly—claim dual citizenship in two Villages of the Damned: journalism and aviation. Journalism, that noble guardian of the public trust and traveler of the moral high road, has been utterly disrupted by the rise of countless internet news services and a young generation that doesn’t read. In aviation, an asymptotic cost curve that shows no sign of abating is driving all but the very rich out of personal flying.

So when I’m asked by the fathers and mothers of friends if their sons and daughters should consider either journalism or aviation as a career, you’ll pardon me for pausing and suggesting other fields, like medicine, technology or business. I might secretly wish it weren’t so, but I openly shudder when serious research or a government report confirms what I know. That happened this week when the GAO released a study on the supposed airline pilot shortage.

“Supposed” is the operative word because the GAO’s data revealed a mixed view of why regional airlines aren’t meeting their recruitment goals and how this is already impacting the daily grind of flight schedules.

There are probably multiple reasons for this, but one is the low starting salaries measured against the time and investment necessary to just get into the right seat of a regional jet. ALPA says the average starting salary of a regional first officer is about $22,000 and the GAO report found that the FO on that Colgan crash in Buffalo in 2009 had earned but $16,000 during the previous year. (It’s not clear if that was a full or partial year of employment.) I wouldn’t argue that you can directly equate competence and safety to pilot pay, but I would ask what kind of an industry would knowingly pay its people so poorly? And if it truly has no choice, than how viable is that industry in the first place?

Now it is true that first officers do rise in the ranks and earn more money, but that advancement isn’t as fast as it once was. And in any case, why should a person who invested, what, at least $100,000 in training and experience have to suffer starvation wages for a week, much less a couple of years? When I started as a lowly cub reporter, I made $9,000 a year. A pittance by today’s standards, but that was nearly 40 years ago. Adjusted for inflation, it’s about $38,000—a livable short-term wage for a single person on a reasonable advancement track.

My instinctual reaction to things like this is to just suggest if you don’t like the wages, work somewhere else and that’s evidently what many qualified pilots may be doing. This may be less predilection than it is having no choice at all. Your passion for slipping the surly bonds may run hot and deep, but you can’t eat it. In a world economy that’s hyper-competitive, not many young people can afford the self-indulgence of entering careers that don’t at least pay a living wage.

So to be blunt about it, if I’m asked about the advisability of spending the hundred grand to get one of these jobs, I’m certainly not going to sugar coat it. Anyone doing that needs to have his or her eyes open going in. The industry predicts pilot demand between 2000 and 4000 a year for the next decade. Those aren’t very big numbers, meaning the job market could stagnate into a situation where the jobs aren’t easy to come by, but require a big training investment to so much as qualify. And there’s the government’s sticky thumbprint on this, requiring FOs to have ATPs and then making getting one of those vastly more expensive than it once was. What rational person would do this?

The GAO report said regionals are starting to wise up to what mess they’ve made of managing human capital. They’re beginning to offer signing bonuses and tuition payback, but I wonder if that’s going to be enough. The imbalance between the highest pilot salaries and the lowest has always been with us, but now it appears egregious to the point of dysfunction. I suppose when enough flights are cancelled for lack of crews, the regionals will adjust salaries accordingly. My vote would be to start the bidding at about twice the current average starting salary. And yes, as I’ve said before, I’d pay the higher ticket price.

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