Did you know that the co-pilot on your commercial flight could be hired with only 250 hours total flight time. For some pilots that is three months of flight time. Do you want a pilot who has three months experience piloting your aircraft in to JFK in a snow storm? Many of the regional/ feeder airlines have implemented programs that involve the new hire pilots who are very inexperienced to pay from fifteen to twenty thousand dollars for their training. This concept is very effective for the bottom line of the airline but it is counterproductive to airline safety. This concept along with the pilot fatigue in the cockpit dilemma, are two areas where the FAA should be held in contempt. A copilot has to be able to safely continue a flight and get the aircraft on the ground in event of an incapacitated captain. Many of these very low-time, inexperienced pilots would be incapable of doing so in many of the challenging flight regimes that the regional carrier might encounter. The uninformed passenger books his flight with the belief that he will have experienced well-trained pilots in the big jet. He then gets into the cramped quarters of the “feeder airlines” small turboprop aircraft and the copilot could have less than 500 hours total flight time.
An interesting statistic regarding domestic flights is as follows: Five of the last six commercial airline accidents in the United States were operated by one of these FAA certified regional air carriers. The last accident, the highly publicized Buffalo, NY crash of Continental Flight #3407, operated by Colgan Air, was piloted by a very tired and inexperienced flight crew. The copilot informed the captain as they entered icing conditions that she had never before flown in icing conditions. PBS Frontline produced a revealing expose’ of this accident and the dysfunctionality of the regional air carriers. It is hosted by the veteran aviation journalist, Miles O’Brien and is titled “Flying Cheap.” It can be accessed by going to PBS.ORG. Also, a book titled Squawk 7700 will throw additional light on the “commuter airlines.”
But rejoice for the FAA has stepped forward and will be implementing new minimum flight time standards for new pilots. The new minimum hire time for any FAR 121 airline will be 1,500 hours total time, with a few reasonable caveats. Ex-military pilots are only required 750 hours. In most cases this is a very reasonable compromise. The other exception is for graduates of University or College flight schools. These pilots will only require 1,000 hours total time. Perhaps most importantly, all pilots will have to receive “type-rating” training specific to the aircraft that they are flying. This requires a much more advanced aircraft knowledge and aviator skills specific to that aircraft. Hopefully, this certification will be done with FAA inspectors rather than company check airman who might be pressured to “sign off” the new hire before he/or she might be up to speed. These new regulations will move the safety quotient of commuter airlines up a few notches but I still want to be on the big jet with the 10,000 plus hour pilots.
This blog is prepared by Ace Abbott, author of The Rogue Aviator