Every once in a while, we hear of triumph over an impossible scenario. Well-known accidents such as United Airlines 232 (DC-10 that lost all hydraulics), Air Canada Flight 143 (Gimli Glider), and US Airways 1549 (Miracle on the Hudson) bring light to the fact that a well-trained crew relied on experience outside of their formal training to turn disaster into triumph. Recent discussion regarding the 1500-hour rule has led to opinions and studies that have contradicted themselves while speculating on how to best prepare new airline pilots for their operation.
The simple truth is that we can’t possibly prepare a pilot for every scenario. In fact, even our most advanced simulators cannot exactly replicate the disasters that occurred throughout the course of history that had impossible outcomes. Dual engine failures and loss of all hydraulics are two scenarios that have impossible odds and yet there are instances throughout history where the crew came together and left survivors from un-survivable accidents. There are also many instances throughout history where inexperience was a contributing factor to an accident. So what constitutes experience that will allow a new pilot to become the next Sully or Al Haynes (United 232)?
Regional airline recruiters often say that they look for people with crew experience, while many other pilots say that new pilots should have hand flying experience. The tailwheel community screams tailwheel endorsement, and other parts of the industry scream glass cockpit experience. Some say that the new pilots need to instruct, and other say that they are best served by towing banners. The captain of Air Canada Flight 143, Rob Pearson, relied on his knowledge of flying gliders to safely land the fuel-less Boeing 767 at a closed military airstrip. Although the intention is to create airmanship and judgement, I’m a firm believer that these concepts are trained and then reinforced by experience.
Airline flying is very little about stick and rudder skills, although we can all agree that having stick and rudder skills is an important part of the job. Every once in a while, I hear bragging from airline pilots about disconnecting the automation and doing some amazing stick and rudder maneuvering for a perfect landing. I often joke that I use the automation at work, and then I yank and bank on my days off. I’ve taken ag planes internationally and flown long distances over water with no autopilot in VFR and IFR conditions, and the skillset for that flying is very different than that of airline flying. I’ve greased landings in planes I’ve never flown before in strong crosswinds (especially if nobody is watching) and had some interesting emergencies throughout my travels that truly tested my systems, performance, and weather knowledge. These scenarios have allowed me to solidify my judgement based on experience. It’s unrealistic to think that every new pilot will get that kind of experience prior to going to the airlines.
One thing that many of these landmark triumphs have in common is that the crew worked together efficiently to resolve an impossible issue. I believe that what new pilots need is exceptional training that includes judgement and crew resource management. The simulator can’t re-create a scenario that’s “outside the book” and give crews the surge of adrenaline that’s associated with a real-life emergency. But we can train procedures and judgement that will solidify over time with experience.
The answer to the original question of “will 1500 hours prepare a pilot for a real-life emergency situation?” is still “it depends on the experience.” If pilots receive quality training from the start, then they will learn judgement over time. Seeking a variety of experience is also key to developing skills that will be useful in the cockpit of a jet. I believe that a diverse experience is helpful, but not necessary. Judgement and training are the most important parts of any type of emergency management; and that is something that is learned from exceptional leaders, instructors, and mentors instead of something discovered while in the traffic pattern in a Cessna 152.
by Sarah Rovner – Master CFI, CFII, MEI, ATP, Owner of FullThrottle Aviation, LLC
Sarah is currently a FAA Safety Team Lead Representative, Master Instructor, Captain and FTD/CTP instructor/evaluator with a Part 121 airline. Since changing careers after years as a senior network engineer for the oil & gas industry, Sarah has obtained her ATP, CFI, CFII, MEI and has flown about 4000 hours. As the owner of an international ferry pilot company, FullThrottle Aviation LLC, Sarah has flown over 115 different types of general aviation airplanes in 15 different countries including oceanic crossings in small aircraft. She continues to stay involved in general aviation through mentoring and education; volunteering at many different events and presenting original seminars on aviation safety and human factors. Although much of her flying is now professional in nature, she still enjoys flying her Super Cub on her days off. As a regular attendee of Oshkosh and local fly-ins, she enjoys the company and camaraderie that general aviation brings.