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Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Regional Truth - Part 1

Alan Levin wrote a story for USA Today earlier this week underlining the fact that Marvin Renslow, the captain of Colgan 3407 that crashed in February outside Buffalo, NY, had failed several checkrides in his time at the airline.
The article, copied below, was published weeks after the NTSB released copious amounts of documents during their hearings on the ill-fated Colgan flight, including training records, technical data recovered from the aicraft's data recorder and transcripts of the pilots' conversation during the flight.

Pilots in crashes had failed multiple tests
By Alan Levin, USA TODAY
In nearly every serious regional airline accident during the past 10 years, at least one of the pilots had failed tests of his or her skills multiple times, according to an analysis of federal accident records.
In eight of the nine accidents during that time, which killed 137 people, pilots had a history of failing two or more "check rides," tests by federal or airline inspectors of pilots' ability to fly and respond to emergencies. In the lone case in which pilots didn't have multiple failures since becoming licensed, the co-pilot was fired after the non-fatal crash for falsifying his job application.
Pilots on major airlines and large cargo haulers had failed the tests more than once in only one of the 10 serious accidents in this country over the past 10 years, according to a USA TODAY review of National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident reports.
At a time when fatal aviation accidents have become increasingly rare, regional carriers have had four since 2004, compared with one by a major airline. Regional airlines fly roughly half of all airline flights, carrying about 20% of passengers.
Pilot qualifications on regional carriers was at the center of an NTSB hearing last month into the February crash of a turboprop near Buffalo that killed 50 people. The pilot at the controls when the plane plunged had failed five checks, according to records revealed at the hearing.
Three of the accidents in which pilots had repeatedly failed tests involved a single airline conglomerate, Pinnacle Airlines. The crash near Buffalo was on Colgan Air, which is owned by Pinnacle. The captain on a Pinnacle jet that crashed in 2004 after accidentally killing both engines had failed seven checks.
Pinnacle spokesman Joe Williams said the airline was not aware of all the test failures.
"I'd say this is a symptom of a larger problem in selection and certification" of pilots, said Bill Voss, president of the independent Flight Safety Foundation. A shortage of pilots this decade, prompted in part by the lower numbers of former military pilots seeking airline jobs, prompted lower minimum qualifications, Voss said.
Failing a single check during a career means little, but failing multiple times "really sends up the red flags," said Patrick Veillette, a corporate jet pilot who has written extensively on safety issues.
Regional Airline Association President Roger Cohen defended the industry's safety practices. "All of our members are flying under the exact same standards as the mainline carriers," Cohen said.
The NTSB has voiced concern about a loophole in a law requiring airlines to check pilots' records when hiring. The 1996 Pilot Records Improvement Act orders airlines to check pilot records from previous employers, but that does not cover failures that occurred while a pilot was in flight school.
Airline pilots receive dozens of written and flying tests during a career.


The following day, a cartoon depicted a pilot in the right seat of an airliner holding a newspaper with the headline "Some pilots fail multiple tests yet still fly." He is talking to a cat sitting in the captain's seat and says "OK, as long as you're cleared to fly."
As a former journalist, I didn't find the article to be particularly fair, not even really warranted, but since I am now a regional airline pilot I realize that I am biased.
The cartoon, however, was completely out of place and insulted an entire profession.
A little context about the regional airlines is in order.

FLIGHT TESTS
Failing checkrides is not unusual and can happen because of many factors other than incompetence or inexperience. Consider the fact that many pilots travel long distances to reach their training departments and checkrides are administered around the clock, day and night. My last one, for instance, took place from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. and while I passed, the late hour did make it more challenging than previous proficiency checks.
Besides that, personal conflict with check airmen (some are very frustrated to be stuck in the sim), problems at home or a simple "bad day" can affect the outcome of a checkride even for the best of pilots.
In some cases, airlines simply do not prepare their pilots well enough.
Levin notes that of the last 10 major carrier crashes only one crewmember had several pink slips on his records. Clearly, this means that a perfect record does not ensure immunity from a crash. Measuring a pilot's ability by his performance on checkrides is therefore a flawed metric. I know of guys who have pink slipped rides but are top-notch captains. Others, who have a clean record, have no place being at the helm of an airliner.
So how can we evaluate airline pilots?

EXPERIENCE
The media seems to be hinting to the fact that regional pilots are inexperienced and probably unsafe. You'd therefore be much better off with a mainline crew.
That is absurd.
The captains I fly with have decades of experience in the cockpit. Many spent thousands of hours flight instructing and/or hauling cargo in rickety equipment and treacherous weather before coming to the airline. While I am low-time compared to them, I had about 1,000 hours as a flight instructor before joining the company. In that invaluable phase of my career I experienced icing, thunderstorms, engine failure and other mechanical issues that all prepared me for my current job.
A year after I was hired, regionals began lowering minimums dramatically. Before hiring halted in the spring of last year, a pilot with nothing but a multi-engine commercial license could find himself in the right seat at a regional.
These 200-hour wonders, as some call them, were right out of flight training. They had minimal Pilot In Command time in their logbooks, just enough to satisfy the FAA's requirement for a Commercial certificate, no instructor certificates, no professional experience flying airplanes. They most likely had to make very few decisions in their flying careers prior to the airlines, instead leaving those up to the instructor in the right seat.
Some see these green pilots as dangerous. But they forget that several times in the course of this business's history, pilots have gone through so-called ab initio programs: zero time to airline pilot. Some of them are now very experienced captains flying the heavy metal at some of the country's most respected airlines. This also happens to have been the way things worked in Europe and Asia, where 200-hour wonders were thrown not in the right seat of a turboprop or regional jet but an Airbus or a 747.
Many of the senior captains I've flown with have said the same thing: the 200-hour wonders were great at pushing buttons, some even flew very well. The common thread, however, was a lack of judgement.
And that, sadly, can't be taught at the training academy. It is something one develops over time, something garnered over many hours of flying and different types of flying.
Because they bypassed the generally accepted route to the airlines, they just need a little more help than those who came from instructing or freight. In the right circumstances, they aren't dangerous. They are just captains in training.
This is where the experience issue comes in. Levin paints the regional airline industry with a very wide brush, branding all of us inexperienced. That is plainly false.
Experience levels vary widely from company to company and because of stagnant seniority lists, some regionals, like Piedmont, American Eagle and Comair, have very experienced captains who, in many cases, are very good at priming their first officers for the left seat. These also happen to be the airlines with the "best" (or least worst) contracts. There are also plenty of unscrupulous companies out there, Mesa and Gulfstream to name but two, that attracted only the most inexperiencedy because they offered abysmal pay and horrible quality of life.
So the issue now becomes what airlines are offering. Journalists and passengers can clamor all they want about how inexperienced regional pilots are, but as long as those airlines pay rock-bottom wages, treat their employees like dirt and offer little to no advancement at all, only the very young and green will line up for work.

More about this in Part 2.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Scott said...

I'm so happy that my google keywords brought up your blog as the first most relevant. I am working my way towards the airlines and although I'm not a commercial pilot yet I was still furious about the article you've cited. Furious that people who have no idea what kind of training goes into flying can sit back and make absurd claims that all regional pilots aren't competent. Thank you for trying to pump some sense into people.

6:27 PM  
Blogger Capt. Wilko said...

I don't know that I'm pumping sense into people. This was more of a venting exercise than anything else but you're right, people don't really know much about the airline industry and as a former journalist I unfortunately have to blame it on the media. Aviation is poorly covered and that has to change if any significant reform is to be brought about. Sadly, journalism is a fledgeling industry as well and I doubt much money will be devoted to assigning proper aviation correspondents (i.e. hiring people with experience in the business).

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Great information for my students to read. In their final year of getting their aviation diplomas and preparing to become an airline pilot, they're going to like reading this advice from an experienced pilot.

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