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Aviation: The pilot hours debate

While it is looking more and more likely that a systemic deficiency in the 737MAX MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) is implicated in the loss of Lion Air flight 610, inappropriate pilot actions were also a significant factor in the tragedy that cost 189 lives in Indonesia last October.

The causes of the follow up in Ethiopia which killed 157 a week ago are at present far less clear cut, as the data from the flight recorders isn't even in the public domain yet, let alone an interim report. However, this hasn't stopped opinions being expressed about the experience (or suggested lack of it) of one of the flight deck crew that was rostered to fly ET302 on Sunday March 10. The airline stated that the commander was 29 years old and had 8,000 hours in his logbook - a not unreasonable tally given that pilots can fly as many as 900 hours a year. However, Ethiopian Airlines also said that the first officer (co-pilot) had flown a mere 200 hours and it is this meagre total that has stimulated debate. Note that since this feature was first published, Ethiopian has clarified that the first officer had actually flown 350 hours. This does not fundamentally change what follows or most observers opinions though.

Established minimums

In 2013 the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) put in place a rule that required first officers with commercial airlines to have at least 1,500 hours flight time, instead of 250 hours which were previously necessary. The change came about, in part, due to the loss of Colgan Air flight 3407 on February 12, 2009 and followed investigators finding significant failings in the procedures used by the crew. However, most other regions of the world have continued to accept around 250 hours flight time as the threshold which must be passed before would be pilots are considered to sit in the right hand seat of a commercial jet carrying fare-paying passengers.

Meanwhile, over the last decade it has become harder to recruit pilots and the cost of training has escalated dramatically.

Filling the front seats of jet airlines has become more expensive over the last decade. (Cory W Watts)

In recent years fewer candidates have been able to afford to work their way through the system. Traditional means of getting into airlines typically start by training to obtain a private pilots licence (PPL) and building hours by flying family and friends around in fairly benign conditions before adding multi-engine and instrument ratings that allows operation of light twins and in clouds. Those who get this far usually go on to gain a commercial pilots licence that permits them to earn money from flying, but doesn't qualify them to operate large airliners. Many who still have the determination to get into the big jets continue by becoming instructors, and teach other student pilots the basics of daytime flying in single engined aircraft. Eventually they build up enough hours to grab the attention of a regional airline that is willing to invest enough to put them into the right hand seat of a small turboprop airliner. Or they get a job flying a private jet or a small air taxi. By the time they finally achieve their airline-based dreams, most pilots have accumulated flying experience extending into four figures - but almost none of it is in large jets. Meanwhile, those who have not fallen by the wayside are often close to being broke or have large debts.