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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.

Enter the MPL

In 2006 the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) introduced the Multi-Crew Pilot Licence (MPL) as an alternative to the traditional long-winded approach. The UK Civil Aviation Authority built such a scheme, saying that the aim of the new integrated training course was for those enrolled on a course "to obtain a multi-pilot licence (MPL) and be trained to the level necessary to operate as co-pilot in a multi-engine, multi-pilot, turbine-powered commercial air transport aeroplane under visual flight rules (VFR) and instrument flight rules (IFR)."

The syllabus teaches core flying skills in visual and instrument conditions, instrument flight, multi-crew cooperation, operations in multi-engine turbine aircraft certified as a high performance aeroplanes - along with an aircraft type specific rating training within an airline environment. It also includes the theoretical knowledge required to obtain an Air Transport Pilots Licence (ATPL) which is the gateway to further progression within the profession. The flight training component incorporates at least 240 hours, including Pilot Flying and Pilot Not Flying hours, both an aeroplane and in a flight simulator.

The net result of the introduction of the NPL is that many airlines have put pilots with significantly fewer than 300 hours into the cockpits of jet airliners such as the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320. Big names including (but not limited to) Air France, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, easyJet, Emirates, Japan Air Lines, KLM, Lufthansa, Ryanair, Swiss and Virgin Atlantic have all used NPLs to swell their pilot workforces. In some parts of the world - including Europe - it would be difficult to travel with a major carrier and be absolutely sure that there was not a low-houred NPL sitting up front alongside a much more experienced captain.

Indeed, Ethiopian Airlines - the airline under the spotlight after the second Boeing 737-MAX loss - runs a MPL program. The carrier set up the training with FlightPath International of Canada and in its initial phase trained 24 first officers for the Boeing 737NG and another 24 for the Bombardier Q400 turboprop. Later itterations included students from Yemen and South Sudan. On its website, the airline says: "MPL training at Ethiopian Aviation Academy aims to replace the traditional application of box-ticking, hours based prescriptive syllabi with competency-based training. Our training program guides students seamlessly from ab-initio training to airliner type rating, using simulation designed for multi-crew training. We also address the increased rates of loss of control in airline operations through Upset Prevention and Recovery Training (UPRT). In addition, we train our trainees to combat the continuing dominance of multi-crew human factors in accidents through Threat and Error Management (TEM) and Crew Resource Management (CRM)"

In October 2017 the International Air Transport Association said there were 39 MPL programs in operation worldwide, mostly run for European and Middle Eastern airlines. At the time there had been MPL 4,669 students and 2,643 graduates. So the number of MPLs - and by definition the number of low-hour pilots flying commercially - isn't huge when set against an estimated 290,000 pilots worldwide, but it's growing.

Cost versus experience

So does the MPL produce airlines pilots who are less safe than those who have made their way through the system? Is safety being compromised in the name of money?

It could be argued that the massive cost of admission to the airline pilots club has limited access to those who have money, rather than those who have natural aptitude to fly. Two hundred and forty hours is obviously much cheaper than 1,500 hours so the appeal of the MPL is significant, not only to would be pilots but also to airlines that sometimes find it necessary to sponsor pilot training. Reducing costs should not be - must not be - a substitute for safety but there is always a risk that a few operators might misguidedly reassign priorities, especially when money is tight.

Many commentators contend that around 240 hours (or whatever the specific figure is, as it depends on the regulatory authority involved) are far too few and that those who enter the airline world with such low totals are ill-equipped to cope with the vagaries and challenges of commercial airline flying. More vociferous challengers suggest that such pilots have no place on the flight deck of an airliner as they do not have the experience or resilience necessary to deal with potentially life-threatening problems they could face at some point during the early stages of their career. Some observers have gone as far as to suggest that a low-houred co-pilot would be next to useless in an emergency, leaving the captain to do all of the work and increasing the risk of an accident.

Lets not immediately denigrate the anti low-hour naysayers out of hand as they are plentiful force within the industry. Captain Chesley B Sullenberger III, commander of the US Airways flight that ditched in the Hudson River following a double engine failure, said on Facebook: "It has been reported that the first officer on that [Ethiopian] flight had only 200 hours of flight experience, a small fraction of the minimum in the U.S., and an absurdly low amount for someone in the cockpit of a jet airliner."

After explaining why he held those views (see right), he closed with: "Airlines have a corporate obligation not to put pilots in that position of great responsibility before they are able to be fully ready. While we don’t know what role, if any, pilot experience played in this most recent tragedy, it should always remain a top priority at every airline."

Measured and informative thoughts - it is hard to refute the words of such an experienced pilot.

So how many hours should pilots have?

So how many hours should a pilot have before they are allowed to fly a jet aircraft full of paying customers? Lets cut to the chase here: there is no easy, one-size-fits-all, answer. As is typical throughout life, everyone is different and needs a different amount of training and practice before they become truly proficient at any activity.

Whatever their total experience there are will be some - maybe not many, but a few - jet jockeys with four- and five-figure log books and decades in the left hand seat who have ‘lost it’ and shouldn’t be flying passengers anymore. It is also likely that there are some 240 hour MPLs sitting on the right side who shouldn’t be there either. There’s likely to more of the latter that the former. The tricky bit is weeding out those who should not be where they are from both groups before an accident occurs. Thankfully most will be found out during recurrent simulator rides before they become a real hazard.

The United States does not have a NPL, and as a result there is now a significant disparity between the hours demanded by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and many other regulators across the globe. Money - the cost of training - has certainly become much more of a driver in commercial pilot training over the last decade or so. And one of the easiest ways to cut training costs is to reduce the number of flying hours involved. Whether money has taken precedence to the point where safety is severely compromised is unproven. Ethiopian flight 302 notwithstanding (as no conclusion has been reached), accident statistics demonstrate that none of the airlines sponsoring NPL programs and using 240-hour pilots have suffered a tragedy as a result of pilot inexperience and some of these programs have been running for a decade now. Nevertheless, vociferous opposition to the approach from some commentators suggests those who oppose it believe these airlines might be harbouring ticking time bombs.

It really isn't as clear cut as "they shouldn’t be flying airliners with so few hours." Much of the traditional approach to initial pilot training and hour building does little to properly set candidates up for operation of large multi-crew jets.

Does time flying small aircraft in nice weather really equip pilots to fly airliners? (James)

Flying daytime in nice weather or instructing new student pilots has little relevance to the commercial world where aircraft are flown in inclement weather and systems are much more complex. Acting as a co-pilot in a small private turbine aircraft that is certified for single crew operation is not overly valuable when it the authorities accept everything can be done by one pilot. Some argue it develops judgement but is it relevant judgement?

The 240 hour NPLs have been through a course that takes them from never having flown an aeroplane to the right hand seat of a commercial jet. The training is focused on that objective, and that objective alone. The syllabi are designed and optimised to focus on the commercial multi-crew jet operations while removing the distractions and unnecessary intermediary steps that a more traditional approach entails. Most of the authorities that have approved such programs are well respected. While don't always get things totally right they are rarely found negligent of their duty to protect the travelling public.

The reality that its not just about hard numbers. Some people are more capable than others. There is an element in all of this that relates to the quality, relevance and focus in the training provided, and how the skills of any new pilot develops. What happens on the line is about who is put in the front seats, and ensuring that before they are put there they are equipped and capable of handling whatever is thrown at them. That could come after 240 hours - but it might not even be achieved in 1,500 hours. The final decision of the examiners who sign off pilots to fly passengers is as much to do with the skills that must be demanded and demonstrated by the future pilots, the robustness of the evaluation process, and the circumstances under which assessments are undertaken, as it is about the candidates' immediate past.

We don't yet know whether pilot experience played a part in the loss of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 - it isn't even clear yet exactly how many hours the captain and first officer had flown. We also don't know what training either crew member had received, either during their careers or while transitioning onto the MAX. Plenty of observers have already blamed the 737MAX MCAS system for the tragedy, while others have urged a more cautious and reasoned approach based on investigation and discovery. Let's do the same for pilots at this stage. We need to keep an open mind about how a specific number of flight hours might or might not have played into this, as well as any other accident.

Text © The Aviation Oracle

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