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Pilots are leading the charge for more training

Complaining the most about a lack of experience by some airline pilots, particularly those flying for regional carriers, are a group who might know best: the pilots themselves.

“It’s ridiculous,’’ said a pilot at a large regional carrier about his training that never mandated him to get a plane to recover from a spin.

Since the crash earlier this year of Continental Connection Flight 3407, which cost 50 people their lives, a growing chorus of safety experts has been complaining that the level of training the plane’s two pilots went through to fly for the airline was simply inadequate to deal with sudden emergencies.

Inside the industry, there is a “quantity versus quality’’ debate under way, as some push for a dramatic increase in the number of flying hours’ experience needed for a pilot to get the right to fly passengers through the skies. Others, though, say adding more hours will not help unless a whole new group of standards – say, being able to demonstrate an ability to recover from a spin or how to land on water – are incorporated in pilot training programs.

Jeffrey Skiles, the co-pilot on the US Airways plane that successfully landed on the Hudson River earlier this year, believes the airlines have relaxed their standards in who they hire as pilots.

Skiles aims much of his criticism at the regional carriers, those smaller, passenger feeder airlines that have become crucial partners for the major carriers. Many pilots believe the major airlines should be responsible for the pilots hired by the regionals, especially since those lucrative "code sharing'' contracts permit the regionals to fly under the name of the larger, well-known “legacy’’ carrier.

Skiles talks of the position facing many regional airline captains sitting in the left seat of the small jets and turboprop planes flying across the country today. He characterizes many such regional airline captains as “fairly inexperienced’’ who fly sitting next to someone in the right seat with what he believes is just a blip of experience. “It’s just not a good experience at all,’’ he says.

But, pilots say, there is a two-tier system operating in the skies. Skiles recently attended a National Business Aviation Association convention, a gathering of executives involved in an industry that flies corporate leaders on private aircraft.

The convention came as debate heated up over whether a law should be enacted requiring 1,500 hours’ experience before a pilot can get a license to work for an airline. “It was a non-issue,’’ Skiles said of talk at the convention over the pending federal legislation. “They said we’d not think of hiring someone without thousands of hours’ experience to fly our CEOs around.’’

“Airlines used to be the top of the heap. Now, it’s corporate aviation,’’ he said.

The problems with pilot training standards are many, and deep, according to dozens of pilots, crash investigators, safety experts, air traffic controllers, mechanics and flight instructors interviewed the past several months by the Buffalo News.

They run from the types of problems pilots do not get trained to handle -- such as icing, which many regional carriers taught their pilots to deal with by showing them a half-hour video – to an over-reliance on automation devices in today’s cockpits that are making some pilot skills rusty.

Will things improve?

Industry insiders say the time is finally here where pilot training is now a front-burner issue. They point to the crash of Flight 3407 as the impetus to get the Federal Aviation Administration and Congress to – maybe – raise the floor for pilot training standards to increase the odds that a pilot, as in the Clarence crash, does not have the exact opposite reaction to get out of an aerodynamic stall.

But one former crash investigator at the National Transportation Safety Board was not holding his breath. There have been other crashes, he said, that were supposed to serve as an impetus for change, but then were forgotten over time. The former investigator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted how the NTSB years ago called on the FAA to make recovery from unusual upsets – such as turbulence tossing a plane upside down in the sky like a toy – mandatory.

“It’s been a major disappointment to the NTSB,’’ he said of the lack of action on that issue. Instead, like many safety issues, the extent to which a procedure is given hands-on training can vary by the airline.

Safety experts criticize a culture that, unlike the military, encourages marginal pilots with so-so skills to get the various licenses along the way, including the Airline Transport Pilot certificate that allows them to be a pilot-in-charge – a captain – for a commercial airliner. They talk of tests that are so structured and so well-known in advance that they end up being like open-book exams.

“They should be looking at the whole training system, so pilots are not getting through by a wink and a nod,’’ the former crash investigator said.

Paul Onorato calls many regional airline pilots “neophytes building experience with peoples’ lives at stake.’’

“I don’t want somebody to say 'I haven’t seen icing' flying into Buffalo in the wintertime,’’ said Onorato, a pilot for a major airline and president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Association.

Gone are the days when the military served as initial proving grounds for future airline pilots, as was the case with Onorato, who was a Navy combat pilot during the first Gulf War. Gone are many other such on-the-job training avenues that give fledgling pilots a chance to build up skills -- without passengers in the back of their planes. Onorato noted, for instance, how many pilots got their skills working for banks ferrying canceled checks around the country. The drive to electronic banking may be a help for banks and consumers, but it has helped close yet another avenue for pilot training.

That leaves more and more young pilots going straight from flight school or a college program to the right seat of a regional airline. “It’s a big jump going from a Cessna to a regional jet,’’ Onorato said.

“It’s an apprenticeship program,’’ Onorato said of how the airline industry looks at the role of regional airlines and their pilots.

Walt Rouse recalls getting his instrument rating license having never flown in a cloud. Rouse, a retired aviation professor at a North Carolina college attended by Marvin Renslow, the Flight 3407 captain, was in the Air Force when he learned to fly in cloud-less Arizona. “I used to ask the instructors to let me fly through a cloud,’’ he recalled.

After a career in aviation, Rouse believes it’s about time pilots are given better training to deal with things like weather conditions and get far more time sitting in the right seat as first officers before being allowed to captain an airliner.

After all his hours flying, Rouse has only been on a regional airline plane once. Do they make him nervous? "I don’t know that I would be real hesitant to fly on a commuter plane, but I’d be watching the pilots,'' Rouse said.

--- Tom Precious
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