The Ab Initio Flaw

August 6th, 2014 by Ron Rapp

Ecclesiastes tells us there’s nothing new under the sun. Where the pilot shortage debate is concerned, that’s definitely true. More than one industry veteran has wryly noted the “impending pilot shortages” of every decade since the Second World War. And considering the number of pilots trained during that conflict, you could say the shortage history goes back a lot further. How about to the very dawn of powered flight? I mean, Wilbur and Orville could have saved themselves tremendous time and money if only they’d had an experienced instructor to guide them!

Every “pilot shortage” article, blog post, and discussion I’ve seen centers around short-term hiring trends and possible improvements in salary and benefits for aviators. Nobody asked my opinion, but for what it’s worth, it seems both clear and logical that the regional airlines are hurting for pilots. The pay and working conditions at those companies are horrific. Major airlines, on the other hand, will probably never have trouble attracting people. I don’t know if that qualifies as a pilot shortage. I tend to think it does not. It’s more of a shortage of people who are willing to participate like lab rats in a Part 121 industry cost-cutting experiment.

What the pilot shortage mishegas really has me thinking about is the long-term possibility of ab initio schemes migrating to the United States and what a profoundly bad thing that would be for aviation at every level.

Who knew that JAL operates a huge fleet of Bonanzas?  For decades they operated an ab initio program out of Napa, California

Who knew that JAL operates a huge fleet of Bonanzas? For decades they operated an ab initio program out of Napa, California

According to Wikipedia, “ab initio is a Latin term meaning ‘from the beginning’ and is derived from the Latin ab (‘from’) + initio, ablative singular of initium (‘beginning’)”. In aviation, it refers to a method of training pilots. In fact, it’s the de facto technique in use for the majority of airlines around the world. Essentially, foreign airlines will hire people off the street who have no flight time or experience. They are shepherded through the various ratings and certificates necessary to fly an Boeing or Airbus while on the airline’s payroll.

This might sound like a brilliant idea — and to an airline, it probably is. Imagine, no bad habits or “we did it this way at my last job” issues, just well-trained worker bees who have been indoctrinated from day one as multi-pilot airline crew members.

I don’t know if the airlines love ab initio or not. What I do know is that non-U.S. airlines use it because there’s no other choice. The fertile, Mesopotamian breeding ground of flying experience we call general aviation simply does not exist in those countries. Without GA’s infrastructure, there are no light aircraft, flight schools, mechanics, or small airports where aspiring pilots can learn to fly. Those who do manage to get such experience more often than not get it here in the United States.

To put it another way, the “pilot shortage” has been going on in foreign countries since the dawn of aviation, and ab initio is the way they’ve solved the problem in most places.

So what’s my beef with this method of training? To put it simply, in an era of atrophying pilot skills, ab initio is going to make a bad problem worse. While it’s a proven way of ensuring a steady supply of labor, ab initio also produces a relatively narrow pilot who is trained from day one to do a single thing: fly an airliner. These airline programs don’t expose trainees to high Gs, aerobatics, gliders, sea planes, banner towing, tailwheels, instructing, or any of the other stuff that helps create a well-rounded aviator.

If airlines in the U.S. adopt the ab initio system, the pilots they hire will only experience things that are a) legally required, and b) directly applicable to flying a modern, automated airliner. Nothing else. After all, an airline will only invest what’s necessary to do the job. It’s a business decision. And in an era of cutthroat competition and razor thin profit margins, who could blame them?

The problem is, all those crap jobs young fliers complain about (and veterans seem to look back on with a degree of fondness) are vital seasoning for a pilot. He or she is learning to make command decisions, interact with employers and customers, and generally figure out the art of flying. It’s developing that spidey sense, taking a few hard knocks in the industry, and learning to distinguish between safe and legal.

These years don’t pay well where one’s bank account is concerned, but they are create a different type of wealth, one that’s often invisible and can prove vital when equipment stops working, weather is worse than forecast, or the holes in your Swiss cheese model start to line up.

Thus far, airline ab initio programs haven’t been a major part of the landscape here in the U.S. because our aviation sector is fairly robust. We are blessed with flying jobs which build the experience, skill, and time necessary for larger, more complex aircraft. But it’s easy to see why it might become an attractive option for airlines. For one thing, that darn pilot shortage. The cost of flying has risen dramatically over the past decade while the benefits (read: money) remain too low for too long. Airlines can cure the shortage by training pilots from zero hours… but at what cost?

Coming up through the ranks used to mean you were almost certain to be exposed to some of those elements. That’s why I believe ab initio would be just one more nail in the coffin of U.S. aviation, one more brick in the road of turning us into Europe. While I like visiting The Continent, I do not envy the size or scope of their aviation sector and sincerely hope we don’t go down that path.

Addendum

Apparently I’m not the only one with ab initio on my mind. The day before the deadline for this post, AVweb reported on a major announcement from Boeing:

Now, with its subsidiary company Jeppesen, [Boeing] will undertake ab initio airline pilot training to provide a supply of pilots with an “Airline Transport Pilot License” (certificate in the U.S.) and a Boeing type rating who “will be ready to move into the first officer’s seat,” according to Sherry Carbary, vice president of flight services.

Boeing’s ab initio training program is divided into two parts. The first, run by Jeppesen, will take an applicant—referred to as a cadet—who must hold a first-class medical at the time of application, and put her or him through a screening process. Those who pass will go through 12-18 months of flight training, resulting in, according to David Wright, director of general aviation training, an Airline Transport Pilot License. The second phase involves the cadet going to a Boeing facility for another two months of training where she or he gets a first exposure to a full-motion jet simulator, and that will result in a type rating in a Boeing jet. Wright said that cadets will come out of the $100,000-$150,000 program with 200-250 hours of flying time and will be ready to go into the right seat of an airliner.

Boeing jets are operated by major airlines, not regionals. An American pilot would typically sport several thousand of hours of flight experience before being hired there. Now Boeing is proposing to put 200 hour pilots into their airplanes on a worldwide basis. That won’t fly (yet) in the U.S., where 1,500 hours is currently required for an Airline Transport Pilot certificate. But I believe the ab inito trend bodes ill for airlines and general aviation alike.

Ron Rapp

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 7,000-plus hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

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  • Sherman Kensinga

    Very well said. There are few young Americans who want to enter flight school, they look at the profession as a dying career, likely to become obsolete during their working lives due to automation and other technologies. They may be right. When they look into it, they read blogs and posts of pilots unhappy with their choices. I’m not sure how many would enter an ab-initio program even if it is free.

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    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      The airline-run ab initio programs actually are free. Better than that, trainees are paid while they’re earning their stripes. It’s not clear who will foot the bill for Boeing’s program, at least here in the United States.

      It’s a shame the flying profession is seen that way. I understand why the airline set is unhappy, but there are plenty of professional pilots who love their jobs. I’m one of them!

      • disqus_6EUuVNkGgK

        Ron, there is no ab-initio program by Boeing in the US for American pilots. Boeing’s program is for all countries except the US. We do not have an MPL here like other countries.

        • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

          Are you sure about that? Shary Carbary, Boeing’s vice president of Flight Services, said several things that seem to indicate American pilots will be included. Specifically, Carbary mentioned that U.S. pilots will have to work as flight instructors after the program to reach the 1500 hour mark required by the FAA, as well as noting that “the Pilot Development Program is a self-funded one- at least in the United States.”

  • C. Biggs

    After 50+ years in jets to J3s I concur with what was said. I tell thosw who will listen (that’s an entire other story with many young pilots today) that one is not safe until one has been tempered and one is not tempered until one does something in flight that scares one to the very bone and you know you were the one that caused it! With ab initio that will never happen.
    Flying is a process of making mistakes and correcting them before you go over the edge. Everyone makes mistakes but knowing where the edge is is sometimes very scary.

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      Exactly. There are countless small — yet important — things we learn about flying which do not come from classroom or formal training. That’s why general aviation is so important to both military and airline worlds.

    • disqus_6EUuVNkGgK

      Agree. In my view the 1500 hour rule is simply a survival rule. If you made it to 1500 hours without dying, you are probably the type of pilot the airline is looking for.

  • Chris_F

    I have no experience in airline training to provide many facts but based on his description, the U.S already has such a program in place already, the U.S. military. I would like to hear what pilots of the military have to say about whether they participate in GA during and after their military commitment before coming to any conclusion on the merits or detriments to GA.

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      I can see how the military might appear similar to these ab initio programs, but it’s quite different. They spend years and millions of dollars on each pilot, many of whom come with at least some previous experience. And most importantly, their training programs are rich with formation flying, aerobatics, ACM, and many other elements that create a well-rounded and experienced aircraft commander.

  • Patpilot

    I could not agree more – these programs make wonderful career co-pilots (1st Officers) who have no real decision making skills because the Captain will never allow his aircraft safety to be compromised by an inexperienced 1st Officer nor stray from the airline’s rigid SOP’s. When the 1st Officer is upgraded to Captain he already knows the drill – shut-up and get on with the flight – the airline knows best. In the airline you do as they say – no questions asked – result: you fly through a known war zone and get shot out of the sky (ala MH017). Flying single-engine, single-pilot IFR for example makes a pilot think and be accountable for his decisions and responsible for his actions in the real world.

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      I’m not sure it’s fair to pin MH017′s fate on the flight crew. But that’s a topic for another post.

      General aviation is a perfect training ground for professional pilots because of the vast freedoms we enjoy under Part 91. Learning to use an aircraft productively while also respecting their (and our) limitations involves some vital decision making skill, as you noted.

  • http://batman-news.com T. Brehm

    Ron, as an FAA safety inspector I have been watching this situation for years. The snowball effect in pilot shortage has started with 60-to-65 retirees, new ATP and crew rest requirements, foreign pilot shortages…etc.. The day is coming when pilots will have to be paid more because of the supply and demand effect. We are certificating more Military pilots with the pending military drawdown. As a former Military Pilot, their training system works as it is not profit motivated and the standards usually aren’t compromised. I’d be extremely cautious following the European model for training.

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      The military does produce high quality pilots. For one thing, they get exposed to a range of high performance aircraft and operations. Then there’s the perform-or-perish thing, where trainees either achieve competency within the given time frame or find themselves washed out. That’s a major change from the civilian sector, where students can continue to fly as long as they have money to finance their training. In that respect, the ab initio programs might be a little more like the military, though their programs wouldn’t be nearly as demanding. Nobody’s flying air combat, aerobatics, or night formation in an airliner. I hope. :)

  • Nicole Burke

    Couldn’t disagree more!!!! I currently teach a very well respected ab initio training program in the US and feel very strongly that we are producing very high level pilots. To suggest that building hours by flying a twin otter from the surface to 15000 to drop jumpers, pull the throttles back and glide to a landing is quality time is silly. Knowing that foreign airlines have been doing ab initio training for 40+ years and their safety records are the same or better than american airlines suggests that it is NOT quantity of time rather quality of time that matters. Your article is an outdated mentality of “pilots must earn their stripes anyway possible” which does not lead to safety in our skies.

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      It’s not that pilots must earn their stripes any way possible, but rather that these experiences build a more complete aviator.

      We are in agreement that quality is more important than quantity. Flying jumpers in a Twin Otter requires a little more skill than you indicate. Jump pilots learn to deal with long duty days consisting of high cycles and a lot of max performance hand-flying while juggling weather, customers, and keeping track of aircraft near or transiting the jump zone. Those skills and experiences are worthwhile additions to any pilot’s competency.

      As far as the safety records of foreign airlines are concerned, it varies widely by country and carrier. Some have good records, others do not.

  • Jack Daniels

    Even if they paid for the training, they still would need to throw in a place to live. You certainly can’t afford your own on a Regional pilot wage of 16k per year. Then there is the issue with the Medical certification. I’ve had more trouble with the FAA’s Bravo Sierra because of a stupid mild color vision deficiency than someone with heart problems.

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      Fair enough, although I expect market dynamics will probably force change at the regionals. The majors will suck up all their pilots and nobody will want to replace them at those wages. That’s the meat of the so-called pilot shortage. As it relates to the Boeing program, it seems that’s more geared toward putting pilots directly into major airlines, not the regionals.

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