After the crash of Colgan flight 3407, much was made of the relative lack of experience of the crew, both in sum and in the aircraft that they were flying. Both had minimal experience in icing conditions, and even though ice did not play a role in the accident, it easily could have. Both were clearly uncomfortable in an environment that, by airline standards, was routine.
Subsequently, Congress passed legislation that dictates the requirements for future airline new-hire pilots. The law mandates 1,500 hours and an ATP certificate. There has been much discussion about the merits of the law, with most arguments against it centering on the statement that a minimum number of hours does not guarantee a competent pilot. I agree, except that we now have minimum number of hours required—250—and we also have no guarantee of a competent pilot. another argument against a 1500-hour requirement is that the training industry will suffer tremendously. I disagree.
In the last decade, when the regionals were doing their most recent round of hiring, pilots were routinely getting hired with as few as 300 hours. Many of those pilots did not pursue a CFI certificate because they knew that they would not need it. Raising the time requirement will essentially force more pilots to become instructors, and the fact is, being an instructor does wonders for your abilities. Not only do your stick-and-rudder skills become better, but you are forced to engage in difficult aeronautical decision making processes, and you are forced—often for the first time—to test your mettle as a pilot in command. With the rigid structure at large flight schools, students do not often make a decision entirely on their own, especially when it comes to mechanical irregularities and weather cancellations. And there is nothing quite like have to decide whether or not a student is ready to solo or take a checkride.
Having flown with and trained a number of low-time pilots, I can speak to this: A pilot with 300 hours is almost never ready for airline flying. The academic knowledge that has been established is strong, but there are huge gaps between part 91 flying and part 121 flying. Further, there is very little “aviation life experience” to draw from (and often very little actual life experience), and the decision-making skills are nascent at best for such an environment. The situation does not much improve with 500 hours, or even 800 hours. The actual flying skills are also not as developed as they could be, though they usually come along in time. In recent years, the amount of training that regional airlines have had to perform with new hires to get them line-qualified has reached record levels.
So, what is the answer? The hour numbers are not as arbitrary as they might sound. For the most to be made of that time, it should consist of a combination of long cross-country flights (the kind that force fuel stops, and go beyond the comfort zone of the pilots’ local geographic area, to include overnight trips); flights into Class C and B airports in order to develop radio communications proficiency; night flights, including long cross-country flights; flights in a variety of airplanes, including something fairly fast; high-altitude flying (at least 10,000 feet), and as much IMC time as possible, including night IMC. Everything in that list is what a professional pilot will face on a daily basis. When IMC time is hard to get, then simulated IMC time in an airplane should be substituted. Further, at least 300 hours should be of the multi-engine variety, (if not 500) and finally, several hundred hours of flight instruction should be mandated, unless a pilot can prove that he was in a job that required true PIC decision-making skills (such as flying cargo, air taxi, aerial mapping, etc.).
While PCATD’s and simulators are great for learning skills, they are simply no substitute for real-world experience. Knowing that you can crash a sim and walk away is not the same thing as knowing that a crash in a plane will kill you. Your performance in the sim can not be viewed as a truly accurate barometer of how you will do in the plane. A certain number of the cross-country hours should also be solo, so you don’t learn to depend on someone else to hold your hand. While certain academic studies will probably be included in the requirements, the fact is that you simply can’t teach experience. You have to go and get it.
Would this make the pursuit of an airline career more difficult? Only if you let it. Would it make it more expensive? Yes, but in the end, that is a small price to pay. Bear in mind as well that the more experience you are required to get before you get the job, the more likely the airlines will be forced to pay you more to entice you to not only pursue the career, but to also come to their particular carrier.
In the end, I might be the one that has to train you—or recommend that you be let go because you simply aren’t ready. And it might be my family on board when you take the runway. I want you to have as many hours as possible when you get hired, both for your confidence and mine.